UPDATED: February 1, 2016, at 12:00 a.m.
Steve Michalek reluctantly dropped his gloves as his teammates waved him on.
The former Harvard men’s hockey goaltender did not plan on resorting to pugilism in his first career American Hockey League start Saturday, but he had little choice after Charlotte Checkers goaltender Daniel Altshuller skated the length of the ice following the Iowa Wild’s fifth goal of the Des Moines matinee.
The goalies stared each other down before Michalek collared Altshuller with his left hand. Altshuller proceeded to pull Michalek’s jersey over his head, but Michalek knocked Altshuller off balance.
As the pair tumbled slowly to the ice, Michalek landed two high jabs before tackling his aggressor to the delight of the home crowd. Michalek finished his afternoon with 32 saves in the Wild’s 5-1 win and was named the game’s first star.
“It was great getting the first win out of the way, the first game out of the way,” Michalek said Sunday. “Definitely not how I imagined it happening, but it was fun.”
A year ago, Michalek grabbed hockey headlines for a more bittersweet accomplishment.
Before a TD Garden crowd that braved the icy conditions of a freshly-fallen blizzard, the senior goaltender fought off cramps to make 63 saves—a single-game record for the 64-year-old midseason classic that brings together Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, and Northeastern—but a costly turnover allowed BU to prevail two minutes into double overtime, 4-3, to deny the Crimson’s first berth in the tournament final since 2008.
“It was tough,” Michalek said. “I grew up wanting to play in a Beanpot school and win a Beanpot, and unfortunately it never happened…. That loss has really stung just as bad as any loss I can remember.”
Today, Michalek will follow the score from his home in Illinois as the No. 7/7 Crimson (12-4-3, 8-3-3 ECAC) open the 64th edition of the Beanpot against the No. 5/5 Boston College Eagles (17-4-4, 10-1-4 HE) 5 p.m. tonight at TD Garden.
While last year’s finalists, No. 9/10 BU and Northeastern, earned the primetime nightcap, the opener has the makings of a de facto championship game. After a 6-1 loss to Clarkson two weeks ago, Harvard has won three straight and sits fifth in the PairWise Rankings, one spot ahead of BC.
Co-captains Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo pace the team with 16 and 14 goals, respectively, while four deep lines have helped the Crimson average an ECAC-best 3.84 goals per game.
Harvard’s last Beanpot title came in 1993, three months before Vesey was born.
“It’s just kind of been too long that we haven’t gotten one,” Vesey said after the Crimson’s 4-1 win over Princeton Friday. “We put it on our goals at the beginning of the year, and we’re going to go after it.”
For BC, Beanpot droughts are measured in months, not decades. The Eagles have won five of the last six tournaments and entered October as the national preseason No. 1 thanks to the nation’s top recruiting class. After three straight losses to end December, the Eagles went undefeated in January and recently celebrated coach Jerry York’s 1000th career win.
In goal, BC junior Thatcher Demko leads the NCAA with eight shutouts this year and backstopped BC’s last Beanpot title with a tournament-best .966 save percentage in 2013-2014. On the other side, Harvard’s Merrick Madsen has yet to play in a Beanpot after Michalek started every game for Harvard last season, but the sophomore has grown into the Crimson’s top option with a .936 save percentage, impressing his former teammate along the way.
“I remember talking with our goalie coach [Brian] Eklund about how good [Madsen] could really be if he put it all together this year,” Michalek said. “I’ve watched a lot of highlights and it looks like he’s really more than put it together, and it’s great to see. I know it was tough for him last year, but he was an unbelievable teammate, unbelievably supportive, and he worked hard all year to get better, and it’s really paying off.”
Michalek has yet to watch a full Harvard game this year, but he plans to look for a stream of today’s game.
“I believe in these guys,” Michalek said. “I’ll be definitely eager to see how they do.”
—Staff writer Michael D. Ledecky can be reached at email@example.com.