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Look for the faces of the three most important players at this weekend’s ECAC men’s hockey championship, and you won’t see them.
They’ll all be wearing masks.
“This is a very exciting weekend,” said Harvard sophomore goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris. “Goaltenders have so much to do with a team’s success during the playoffs.”
It is particularly true in the ECAC.
“This league has a lot of strong goaltending,” Grumet-Morris said.
That is a bit of an understatement.
The top three save percentages in the country all belong to ECAC goaltenders, so it is no surprise that all three have advanced to Friday’s semifinals at the Pepsi Arena in Albany, N.Y.
Cornell sophomore David LeNeveu leads the pack with a .943 save percentage, while Grumet-Morris and Brown junior Yann Danis are second and third with .930 and .929 percentages.
After splitting time in goal last season, LeNeveu has emerged as the top goaltender in the country this year. His 1.14 goals against average is a full goal per game better than his nearest competitor, while his eight shutouts broke the single-season record at Cornell previously held by Montreal Canadiens legend Ken Dryden.
In 27 games this season, LeNeveu has posted a 24-2-1 record and surrendered three or more goals on only two occasions—Nov. 16 to Dartmouth and Feb. 15 to No. 12 Harvard.
“Cornell is almost in a world of its own,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “But we’ve been able to generate offense against BU, Maine and BC—and those teams all play good defense.”
Although LeNeveu is the focal point, the No. 2 Big Red is known for its team defense.
“We are a good defensive team, but we are not Cornell,” Mazzoleni said. “We don’t play that game. We play a much more offensive style.”
Given the Crimson’s reputation for putting the puck in the back of the net, it is somewhat of a shock to learn that Harvard has the nation’s second-ranked team defense, led by Grumet-Morris’ 2.19 GAA.
Both LeNeveu and Danis have received more attention than Grumet-Morris, but Harvard’s top goaltender has quietly built himself a reputation for consistency and playoff performance, at least among his coaches and teammates.
Any of these three players has the chance to steal the ECAC title for his team, and it is more than likely that the school with the top goaltender will also be the team with the most to cheer about when all is said and done.
The Brett Pack
After playing alongside captain Dominic Moore for most of the season, junior winger Dennis Packard found himself on a line paired with senior center Brett Nowak and junior winger Tyler Kolarik after Harvard’s 2-1 Beanpot loss to BU.
The switch is starting to pay dividends. Packard had five points in his last three games, including a hat trick in the Crimson’s 4-2 victory over Vermont last Friday.
“He missed a lot of games, but he’s finally getting his rhythm,” Mazzoleni said. “Getting back with Brett is great for him. They’ve always played really well together.”
After Kolarik was injured and forced to leave the game last Friday, Packard was promoted to the top power-play unit. He responded immediately, converting a Nowak pass to give the Crimson a 2-0 lead.
“This team has one of the better power plays in the country,” Packard said. “Those other four guys have practiced and played together all year. I just wanted to fit in and try to get free. I was wide open in front of the net and Nowak found me.”
With Kolarik out, sophomore winger Rob Flynn played with Nowak and Packard on the top line Saturday, but that combination may not last for long. Mazzoleni indicated that Kolarik may be back in the lineup in time for Harvard’s semifinal match with Dartmouth on Friday.
“If there’s a chance, Kolarik will be back on that line,” Mazzoleni said.
Dartmouth relies heavily on its top line of sophomore Lee Stempniak and freshmen Hugh Jessiman and Mike Ouellette.
The trio has accounted for almost half of the Big Green’s offensive production, but Mazzoleni isn’t planning to focus on the line.
“I’ve never been one to play differently against a team’s top line,” Mazzoleni said. “I don’t shadow people or focus on just one player. It’s more a general awareness because we respect their offensive ability.”
Packard added that Harvard’s balance gives Mazzoleni more options defensively.
“It varies from game to game,” Packard said. “Coach Mazzoleni sometimes gets a feeling early on in a game, and then he might decide to make a certain matchup with a team’s top line, but it’s always different. Our depth means any of our lines is capable of filling that role.”
The Crimson’s balanced scoring will also prevent Dartmouth from focusing on just one line.
“We have four very effective lines,” Mazzoleni said. “The fourth line plays its role, and we have three lines that can score against anyone.”
Asked whether he kept track of Harvard’s chances for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, Moore replied that he did not.
“No, I really don’t follow that,” Moore said. “All we control is our next game, and that’s where we are focused, but I’m sure it’s something the coaches keep a very close eye on and are aware of.”
If Mazzoleni is thinking about his team’s chances for an at-large bid, however, it is not something he’s going to admit.
“To be honest, I haven’t talked about the NCAA tournament once,” Mazzoleni said.
His focus is elsewhere right now.
“We are the defending ECAC champions,” Mazzoleni said. “We’re going in to defend our championship. We aren’t digging our heels in. We’re going in to win.”
After losing to Cornell twice during the regular season and seeing the Big Red climb to second in the national rankings, Mazzoleni understands Harvard is an underdog.
“I know there aren’t many people who are giving us any chance of winning this,” Mazzoleni said. “But they forget that we won the championship last year.”
They may also forget that the Crimson won the ECAC title after Brown was favored to sweep Harvard out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals a year ago.
Past upsets should give confidence to both Dartmouth and Brown in the tournament, but don’t expect the Crimson to underestimate the Big Green in semifinal matchup after sweeping the season series with 5-2 and 4-1 wins.
“Dartmouth is a very, very good hockey team,” Mazzoleni said. “One reason we played well against them was the tremendous amount of respect we have for them. If we don’t play our best, they are capable of beating us. The coaches prepare the same way for every game, but it maybe catches the attention of the players, and they are more intense because we respect our opponent.”
Flying Below The Radar
After going the first 23 games of the season without a point in back-to-back games, freshman winger Charlie Johnson is hitting his stride at the most important time of the season.
Johnson is on a four-game scoring streak and has five assists and a goal over that span, including a three-point effort in Harvard’s regular-season finale against St. Lawrence.
“At the beginning of the year, I had to adjust to the size of the guys,” said the 5’11, 180-pound Johnson. “The Christmas tournament in Wisconsin was really a turning point for me. I’m finally comfortable with the puck and contributing like I always knew I could.”
Johnson has also been a spark plug to his linemates, Moore and junior winger Kenny Turano.
Since Mazzoleni put Johnson on Moore’s wing, the captain has 25 points in 10 games.
“They complement each other well,” Mazzoleni said. “It’s different than our other lines. It’s our speed line. All three can skate very well and are very skilled. It’s the balance and chemistry which makes this line great.”
Johnson is also excited about his role on the Crimson’s second power-play unit, something that doesn’t get much attention and is often overshadowed by the top five of Moore, Kolarik, Nowak, junior winger Tim Pettit and sophomore defenseman Noah Welch.
“Coach has changed up the unit a lot,” Johnson said. “The recent addition of [junior defensemen Kenny] Smith and [Dave] McCulloch has added a veteran presence on the blue line.
“We run a different setup than the first power-play,” Johnson added. “They rely a lot more on finesse, whereas we’re trying to set it up and get in the right positions. Kenny and I work real well together on the power play. He’s great at digging for the puck, and I just have to be in the right place.”
If anyone might be in the right place at the right time, it could easily be Johnson.
Playing with Moore and Turano, he’s one player—a lot like Packard—who slips under some teams’ radars when they think of Harvard.
He may not go unnoticed for much longer, especially if you hear his name being called by the public address announcer after scoring an overtime winner in the playoffs.
—Staff writer Timothy Jackson can be reached at email@example.com. Staff writers Eli Alper and Jon Morosi contributed to this report.
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