This time last year they were 11-3-2 overall, comfortably leading the ECAC, and riding the high of a six-game unbeaten streak into midterm exams.
The Harvard men's hockey team doesn't occupy that catbird seat at this year's break; though only one point behind league-leaders Brown in the standings, the league collectively has multiple games in hand on the Crimson, so coach Ronn Tomassoni's troops must come out quickly on February 3 against a resurgent Princeton squad.
The crucial numbers read 10-6-1 on the season, 8-4-1 in the ECAC, and three W's in a row on the schedule. That means spirits are high and the outlook promising, but given the inherent streakiness of the Crimson to date, one never knows. As we hand out Midterm grades, we understand that there is a lot of hockey left to be played--and for the first time in a while, Harvard must make up ground in February and March:
Offense: B. Harvard went into the break only sixth in ECAC goal-scoring, averaging 3.80 per game. Save for a seven-goal third period in the second game against Alaska-Fairbanks, the Crimson forwards have shown only fits and starts of the explosiveness inherent in so many teams of Harvard's recent past.
Last year's squad had four 20-goal scorers at season's end; only Steve Martins and Kirk Nielsen have as many as eight at the break. Juniors Brad Konik and Jason Karmanos have recently shown signs that they can create and take chances, but the Martins/Cory Gustafson/Joe Craigen line must snap to attention at even strength if Harvard is to overpower opponents as it so often has.
Defense: A-. On the other hand, the Crimson is in familiar territory in the ECAC defensive listings, leading the lead in stinginess to the tune of allowing but 2.82 gpg. This in spite of senior leader Bryan Lonsinger's nagging shoulder problems and the early-season absence of freshman Geordie Hyland to pneumonia.
Sophomore Ashlin Halfnight has finally learned the art of discipline in his second season; the ex-forward's naming to the U.S. Junior team is certainly justified. And what a pleasant surprise Peter McLaughlin has been in his final year for the Crimson--there isn't much to choose between Harvard's top six blue-liners, though injuries could prove telling down the stretch. As long as it stays mostly healthy, the defense could carry the Crimson far into the postseason.
Goaltending: B+. Many expected junior Tripp Tracy to shine after the premature departure of Aaron Israel to the Philadelphia Flyers' ranks. He's done well, but only in the Bright Center against Brown (28 brilliant saves in a 4-1 win) has he sparkled as per his freshman year in Crimson colors.
Playing more conservatively and less spectacularly this season, Tracy has helped the consistency of Harvard's play in its own half of the ice, but he no longer really singlehandedly wins games for Harvard. Part of this is due to the Crimson's defensive improvements, but Tracy can do better. Senior Steve Hermsdorf has also proved himself to be a very competent backup--important as the season rolls on toward March.
Power Play: B-. Nothing seems to work--and Tomassoni has tried just about everything. Harvard hasn't even sniffed the excellence of last year's wonder-unit; its 17.5 percent success rate is barely half that of its predecessor, and given the amount of skilled talent still present to fill the slots on the five-on-four, that fact is most irksome.
The Crimson has always passed the puck a lot on the power play, perhaps more than it should; that seems to be another flaw of this year's unit, although not particularly any more than usual. And Harvard still manages to find a way to light the lamp an average of once a night on the man-advantage...but somehow, we expect more. Here, more than anywhere, there are gaping holes to fill.
Penalty Kill: B-. Karmanos and Martins each scored shorthanded goals during one Marco Ferrari penalty back against Union on November 26...need we really say more? One would be hard-pressed to find two better forecheckers in college hockey than Martins and junior Tommy Holmes--they keep opposing units as off-balance outside the Harvard zone as the Crimson blue-liners do inside.
Harvard has let in ten man-down goals in ECAC play and tallied six goals besides, a world-class ratio which puts the Crimson special teams at a net plus-eight on the season, tops along with Vermont. Wonderful stuff, the kind of performance that can brighten the light at the end of the mid-season tunnel almost immeasurably.
Discipline: B+. Harvard's 0-2 start could largely be traced to the familiar disease of stupid penalty-taking, but since that blight receded the Crimson have stayed for the most part out of the penalty box except when necessary...the one exception to that being the unconscionable stick-foul on Martins at Colgate, resulting in a game-misconduct and a one-match suspension.
But his penalty cost the Crimson no wins, and Harvard should pat itself on the back for its relative calmness this season. Of course, if you subscribe to the view that maybe the kind of fire that brings with it 20 penalty minutes a night also brings six or seven goals to the table, maybe that's a bad thing, and certainly in light of the November/December mediocrity we saw in Harvard's seven-game homestand, that's definitely a possible interpretation.
Coaching: A-. The aforementioned tortoise-like start had Tomassoni pulling as many levers as he could find to stop the slide, especially as noted above on the power play. Now that Harvard seems to have shifted into high gear, he looks pretty good, although he'll tell you that he's more concerned with how this team is playing in March than how it looks at the break.
And this critic has mentioned before that perhaps Harvard should aim more toward the postseason than another ECAC regular-season title. How giddy would Tomassoni be entitled to feel if pre-Christmas criticism led to March madness and April jubilation?
Overall: B+. Well, there it is. Harvard knows what it has to improve upon starting February 3, and if it can, you'd still have to relish a bet on the Crimson to wreak some havoc in Lake Placid and beyond come the stretch run. A slow start can be all but forgotten as the games pile up--and the Crimson can't wait for those games to come.