It’s time for the Harvard men’s hockey team to take it to another gear.
The squad is cutting it close, though. With only eight games remaining in its regular season campaign, the Crimson is still in the progress of “clicking.” After last weekend’s back-to-back shutout losses, Harvard risks dropping to .500 if it falls to Ivy League rival Dartmouth this Friday.
The Crimson (9-8-4, 8-5-3 ECAC) has already played two months of its schedule at or below an even record—from Nov. 10 to Jan 6—and will look to avoid returning there as it trips up to Hanover, N.H., to challenge the Big Green (9-11-2, 7-7-1) in its only contest of the pre-Beanpot weekend.
“For us, this game on Friday night is huge,” Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “It’s time that we kind of take it to another gear, and I think this is about the time where we need to find our game.”
While the team cannot ignore its pedestrian 9-8-4 mark this season, it generally feels optimistic about its play.
“I thought early on we lost some games that we could’ve easily been on the other end of,” explained coach Donato when asked whether he thinks his team has outplayed a near-.500 record. “I don’t think we’ve fully hit our stride and been able to consistently come out and play great hockey…. Whether we think our record is worse than it should be, better than it should be, that’s really out of our control right now.”
Even with this optimism, coach Donato’s message of urgency and execution has reverberated within the Bright-Landry Hockey Center early this week. Practice has been focused, and the coaching staff has nitpicked in the spirit of attention to detail.
Frustrated at its scoreless weekend against now-No. 1 Cornell and Colgate, the Crimson has just one game to rekindle the offense before squaring off against the always talented Boston University in the Beanpot on Monday. Dartmouth enters Friday’s tilt in peak form, too, so righting the ship won’t be easy.
“You got to treat them as a different team,” said tri-captain goaltender Merrick Madsen, comparing today’s Big Green to its early-season form. “As much as has happened to us has happened to them as well.”
The Big Green has notched recent wins versus Colgate and at then-No. 2 Clarkson, not to mention a victory at Denver, also the two-seed at the time, back in December. Harvard, on the other hand, has yet to triumph over a ranked opponent all season. That being said, a telling performance against Clarkson back in mid-January remains fresh in the players’ minds—a sort of reassurance that the Crimson can hang with the best.
“At the end of the day, college hockey is wide open this year,” Ryan Donato said. “Teams that are unranked are beating top-10 teams any given night…. Two weekends ago: 6-6 game to Clarkson, which we definitely could have won. It just goes to show that we have that ability to play like that, but we just got to find it.”
On account of last weekend’s run-ins with hot goaltenders, Harvard has dropped to 27th in the Division-I PairWise rankings, the closet predictor of each program’s NCAA Tournament hopes. While not certain, it is likely that the Crimson will need to win the ECAC Tournament in March to gain a bid to the 16-team competition. At this point, Harvard’s at-large chances are slim.
If that’s the focus of coach Donato’s squad, then conference points are of the essence.
“We recognize that having a bye in the first round of the playoffs gives you a better opportunity to advance,” said coach Donato, before hedging his statement. “Ultimately, the game on Friday night isn’t going to determine our season, nor is home-ice going to determine our season.”
Harvard currently sits in fourth in the ECAC, ahead of Colgate and Dartmouth by four points, albeit having played more conference games than both. This positioning would give the Crimson a first-round bye in the ECAC Tournament, which coach Donato alluded to.
In recent seasons, the Harvard icemen have typically handled the Big Green with relative ease—the Cambridge-dwellers have posted a 5-1-1 record against Dartmouth over the past four campaigns. This time around, though, the Big Green are not to be underestimated.
Entering Friday night’s bout, Dartmouth is playing arguably its best hockey of the season. Moreover, last year’s matchup in Hanover remains fresh in the players’ minds: the home team stunned Harvard with an eight-goal performance at Thompson Arena, dealing the Crimson one of its rare losses (six all year) in 2016-2017.
Harvard will think twice before writing off Dartmouth, even if the Crimson has already toppled the Big Green, 5-0, this season.
“These games, ones that we usually handle, have been an issue for us,” junior forward Ryan Donato said. “Dartmouth is a great team this year and has some huge wins…. Obviously we’re a little sour about the way things went last year.”
Expect Dartmouth’s attacking effort to take a team-oriented approach, as no individual accounts for more than 11 percent of the team’s point total on the season. Senior Corey Kalk leads the way with 15 points (5–10—15) but also owns a team-worst minus-13 rating. The alternate captain has just two points (1–1—2) in six career appearances versus Harvard.
“Dartmouth is a team that kind of scores by committee,” coach Donato said. “Their goaltenders have been somewhat up and down but are certainly capable of having some great games…. They’ve always played us tough.”
“Get as many pucks on net as we can,” suggested Ryan Donato, when asked about the team’s approach to Dartmouth. “We got to score one, and the floodgates will open.”
Last weekend was the first and only time this season that Donato was held without a point in consecutive games. The Boston Bruins prospect shoulders much of the team’s offensive burden—his 29 points (20–9—29) pace the squad—and feels the extra onus to solve its scoring woes. Linemate and fellow junior Lewis Zerter-Gossage (7–12—19), who trails Donato by 10 points for the team lead, feels it too.
“I think, as someone who gets a decent amount of ice time, you kind of have to feel the burden when the team doesn’t score at all in a weekend,” Zerter-Gossage said. “When you’re getting more chances on the power play, things like that, and you realize that it’s your job to get shots and challenge the goalie…it is kind of disappointing. But I think guys like me or Ryan or [sophomore blue-liner Adam Fox] aren’t really too worried.”
Between the pipes, Friday’s opponents are both in search of more consistency. At points in the season, Madsen (6-6-4, 2.28 GAA, .920 SV%) has played to his fullest abilities, logging three shutouts and an additional three stingy performances that saw his save percentage eclipse .960.
The senior backstop, however, has struggled to maintain the consistency that he enjoyed in last year’s record-setting campaign, forcing coach Donato to replace Madsen with junior backup Michael Lackey (3-2-1, 2.56 GAA, .907 SV%) periodically. Watching games from the bench had become a foreign feeling to Madsen, who started all 36 tilts for the Crimson last season, so the emerging battle in the blue paint has required a bit of an adjustment from him.
“Last year, it was a bit of an anomaly, starting every game,” Madsen said. “If anything, this is pushing [Lackey and me] both harder, and the fact that either one of us can start pushes us both more in practice. Guys know they can win with either of us at this point. It’s a good situation.”
Ahead of the Big Green matchup, Harvard’s situation in net is still up in the air. Last weekend, Lackey started the “bigger” game against Cornell, and Madsen started the following night. Presumably, coach Donato is still searching for the hot hand, and since both net-minders ceded two goals without receiving any run support, last weekend provided little clarity.
For the green and white, net play has also been inconsistent. Through 17 games, Dartmouth’s normal starter, senior Devin Buffalo, has posted uninspiring numbers (8-8-1, 2.90 GAA, .905 SV%).
Granted, some of Buffalo’s sturdier performances have gone unrewarded, such as a 0-1 loss to reigning NCAA champion Denver. Nevertheless, the Big Green’s average of 3.18 goals allowed per game is good for ninth in the 12-team ECAC. In short, neither goaltending nor defense is the team’s strong suit.
Instead, Dartmouth is an opportunistic team, eking out one-goal wins against some premiere competition this season. Harvard’s main goal on Friday will be breaking out of its recent offensive funk, and the Big Green’s vulnerabilities, despite its opportunism, should provide an outlet to do so.
Whether the Crimson ultimately do take it to another gear, or whether they regress to .500 once again, a loaded BU team will be waiting for the squad just three days later in the Boston hockey classic.
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.