The Harvard men’s hockey team is once again not living up to expectations. Eight of its 28 players have been drafted by NHL franchises, so it is clearly not due to a lack of talent. Yet the team still toils in the bottom half of the ECAC standings. Barring a significant turnaround, the Crimson (4-6-8, 3-4-6 ECAC) will yet again finish with a losing record, extending a winning drought that has lasted since a 17-13-4 campaign in 2007-08.
This is the eighth season for Harvard coach Ted Donato ’91, who played on the 1989 national championship team and had a coaching record of 73-52-11 (0.536) through his first four seasons at the helm of his alma mater. But since then, Donato’s teams have gone just 34-64-18 (0.293), seemingly crumbling under expectations.
It is widely understood that the most important person on the ice at any one time is the goalkeeper. Not only does the keeper generally stay on the ice for all three periods, but also one need only look at last year’s NHL Stanley Cup between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks to see the effect of a goalie on a game: The Bruins’ Tim Thomas caught fire, led his team to a championship, and was named MVP of the playoffs. His counterpart, the Canucks’ Roberto Luongo, gave up 23 goals in seven games and was lambasted by the media.
Donato’s first few seasons as coach were presided over in goal first by All-American Dov Grumet-Morris ’05, who holds nine program records including save percentage, and then by John Daigneau ’06, third all-time in save percentage. Kyle Richter ’11 graduated last year after a long career in goal but was only once in his four seasons as a starter able to play in more than 75 percent of the team’s minutes. That was the aforementioned 2007-08 campaign.
If the Crimson is going to find sustained success, it will need to find stability at goalie. Enter freshman Steve Michalek.
Richter and classmate Ryan Carroll ’11 roughly split the minutes between the pipes last season, with Carroll ending the campaign in the starting role. With the pair’s graduation, Harvard entered the season with no clear-cut heir apparent in goal.
Sophomore Raphael Girard had seen limited time on the ice, and classmate Connor Riley was trying to follow in the footsteps of his brother, John Riley ’10. Then there was highly-touted incoming freshman Michalek, from Glastonbury, Conn.
Despite bringing with him an impressive list of accomplishments—including playing for the U.S. National Under-18 team and being drafted by the Minnesota Wild—the transition to college hockey is never an easy one, and not much was expected of Michalek, at least not so soon.
But now, 18 games into another disappointing Crimson campaign, the New England native has emerged as a potentially long-term solution in goal, starting all but three games and staying on the ice for 90 percent of Harvard’s minutes.
His 3.05 goals against per game and .895 save percentage certainly leave room for improvement, but if nothing else, Michalek gives Donato and this program a stable and consistent play for the foreseeable future, a prospect it hasn’t had since Richter played in 18 games as a freshman.
Add to the equation the play of fellow freshmen Patrick McNally and Colin Blackwell, who are currently third and sixth, respectively, on the team in points, and there is reason for optimism amongst the Harvard faithful going forward.
With eleven regular season games left, including the Beanpot, Michalek will have ample opportunity to cement his position as the starter going into next year. At a program that boasts 21 Ivy League Championships and 12 Frozen Four appearances, individual and team performances are measured against a high standard.
This season is certainly not unsalvageable, but the team’s progress, particularly that of Michalek, in these coming weeks may well determine the immediate future of the program. A strong finish could put Michalek on track to become one of the Crimson’s all-time greats and allow this team to finally live up to its potential. A weak one, coupled with a return to the between-the-pipes instability of the past, could put Harvard back at square one, which would put increased pressure on Donato and the athletic department to reinvigorate a once-proud program.
—Staff writer Alexander Koenig be reached at email@example.com.