Despite sturdy substitute performances from junior Cameron Gornet last weekend, Harvard will need a peak-form — and healthy — Michael Lackey in the crease to contend for a national title. Getting to know Lackey’s path to the present adds color to a relatively misunderstood Crimson hockey career, while also suggesting what the future may hold for the net-minder and his team with the postseason rapidly approaching.
FROM THEN TO NOW
While Lackey’s season as a whole has impressed, its start was far less glamorous. Harvard’s proclaimed starter attracted an abundance of critics after a rocky beginning to 2018-2019, allowing seven goals to Dartmouth in the season-opener. After being replaced by Gornet for the Crimson’s next game, he returned to the net against Princeton only to cede costly goals in a disappointing 4-4 tie. Combined with an inconsistent track record in past seasons, Lackey’s early struggles seemed to affirm skeptics’ concerns about his ability to carry his squad back to national relevance.
“The first game obviously didn’t go as planned, the tough game up at Dartmouth,” said volunteer goaltender coach Brian Robinson, who has worked closely with Lackey for several seasons and summers. “Usually, if you give up seven goals, you’re probably not getting the next start. So he knew. He was very accountable.”
Four months since that ill-fated start, the senior net-minder has shaken his doubters. His play is one of the main factors fueling the Crimson’s ascendency following a 2017-2018 campaign that underwhelmed in many ways. Even with his forgettable season debut, Lackey has logged a 14-6-3 record, good for a top-15 win percentage (67.4%) in the NCAA. His 2.23 goals against average and .920 save percentage both rank fifth in the ECAC, where Harvard now sits tied for second.
“Obviously it wasn’t the start that anyone wanted,” Lackey said. “I think mentally, I started to settle in and then just relax more, not get too worked up after giving up a goal and build confidence on top of that, use each game…as learning experiences.”
NEW YORK, NEW GOALIE
Following his first two starts, Lackey used serviceable performances against Yale (3 GA, .914 SV%) and Brown (2 GA, .920 SV%) to put his prior porousness firmly in the rear view. A subsequent up-and-down weekend against Arizona St. saw promising stretches from Lackey (1-1-0, 1.96 GAA, .929 SV%), but the Sun Devils’ overtime winner in game two of the series spoiled the Harvard tender’s night. Nonetheless, Lackey was continuing to hone the mental and physical qualities required of a go-to option in the crease.
“[Lackey is] really trusting his defensemen, he’s not cheating the play, not anticipating the pass and cheating away and giving up short-side goals,” Robinson said. “When you play like that — when you’re not giving up first-shot goals — I think it really helps a goalie just play with more confidence.”
Over Thanksgiving break, the Crimson tripped to Manhattan for a clash with storied rival Cornell under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. There, on American sports’ grandest stage, a new Michael Lackey was born.
This wasn’t obvious from the opening puck drop, though. The Big Red potted an early goal and fed off the roaring Cornell-heavy crowd. In the past, Lackey may have lost confidence and strayed from his game for the remainder of the period, or even the contest. But this time was different. His body language told the whole story.
“I think the game at MSG against Cornell was really kind of his coming-out party,” Robinson remarked. “Up until that point, that was definitely his best game he had played. I know after the ASU weekend…there was an article that absolutely ripped him apart.”
By the time the Crimson’s four-week holiday respite came around, Lackey had fully embraced the challenge of commanding the blue paint for Harvard, posting three solid starts (2-1-0, 1.35 GAA, .950 SV%) in early December.
As the 2019 portion of the schedule began, coach Donato’s group appeared to have answered its biggest remaining question mark. An experienced corps on the back end featuring one of college hockey’s best, junior Adam Fox, had learned to balance its offensive firepower with sound defensive play; a crop of skilled freshmen had helped fill the scoring void — and then some — left by 2018 Hobey Baker Award finalist Ryan Donato. And finally, as the club prepared for a second half containing ranked conference foes, the Beanpot Tournament, and the oft-intense home stretch of the regular season, it had a force between the pipes.
“The goaltending position is so important that if you’re having success or if you’re not having success, it coincides with the performance of the goalie,” coach Ted Donato ’91 said. “I think it took [Lackey] a little bit to get his feet underneath him and get really comfortable, but to me, he’s giving us the goaltending that gives us the chance to have success at the end of the season.”
ONCE STABLE, QUITE ABLE
A central theme, instability, defined Lackey’s path to becoming Harvard’s starting backstop. It was a chronic lack of routine — of the crucial ability for a goaltender to establish a rhythm — that resulted in so many misperceptions of Lackey ahead of, and in the early portion of, his senior season.
As Madsen distanced himself on the depth chart and the team reached new heights in the Ted Donato era, all Lackey could do was watch.
“Your entire life, you’ve been a hockey player,” Lackey began. “You’ve been around the rink skating. It’s a battle looking for an identity at that point when you’re not practicing with the guys, you’re not going on the road with the guys. You’re just sitting in the training room during practice. So it sucked physically, but I think the hardest part was mentally.”
With Lackey back in full health the following season, competition with Madsen for the starting role would continue the motif of instability. After eight Madsen starts to kick off the campaign, Lackey was able to earn several of his own. Both net-minders displayed encouraging stretches, but at times both left something to be desired. So, the back-and-forth continued throughout the regular season, preventing Lackey from achieving any real constancy in net until this year.
“[Madsen’s] senior year, when I started playing, I was getting fired up,” Lackey recalled. “Especially the season before, where I had been watching the games and I had been seeing how well he was doing, I think it gave me confidence going in…that I’m competing with this guy who’s had one of the best careers a goalie has had at Harvard.”
It is truly no wonder that Lackey struggled in his first few appearances of 2018-2019. Until then, it had been five years, dating back to his U17 season with the U.S. National Team Development Program, since he was a team’s undisputed starter. After all, finding a groove — and one’s confidence — takes time.
NOT WHAT HE “KNEEDED”
Riding its goaltender, Harvard surged back into the national conversation, regaining its ranked status on Jan. 28 for the first time since dropping out of the USCHO top 20 in November of 2017. With a reliable net-minding situation, the Crimson continued to inch up the Pairwise big board — the indicator of a team’s at-large NCAA Tournament prospects — and looked like a squad that could threaten for conference and league titles in early spring. Then, the only force that appeared capable of slowing Lackey’s three-month-long roll entered the picture.
In the second period of Feb. 16’s battle with ranked ECAC foe Clarkson, Golden Knights forward Nico Sturm went bowling into Lackey’s legs after being hooked by a defending Fox. Sturm was slow to get up from the high-impact collision, and Lackey required an early exit from the game with an apparent lower-body injury.
The shock and uncertainty surrounding Lackey’s health severed any momentum gained from co-captain Michael Floodstrand’s game-tying goal seconds before the senior net-minder left the ice. Harvard would go on to lose, 5-3, but it was unclear whether a much greater loss than two conference points was looming.
Without public transparency regarding the severity of Lackey’s ailment, the Crimson’s ability to maintain its winning ways had suddenly become relatively vague. One thing was certain, however: the timing of the injury hardly could have been worse.
For those in and around the Harvard program, the ostensible knee injury against Clarkson especially raised concern, as they knew, unlike many, that Lackey underwent a knee procedure toward the end of this past offseason.
“I ended up having to get surgery late in the summer on a torn meniscus,” revealed Lackey. “So, for the last month of summer and for the first couple weeks of school, I was rehabbing that…. Looking back on it, I’m thankful that it happened during summer rather than during the season.”
Lackey’s optimistic words, uttered just days before his recent injury, were eerily ironic.
With its starting backstop out of commission, the Crimson turned to its backup against Brown and Yale last weekend. Ahead of the significant ECAC homestand, Gornet was a relatively unknown quantity — the downside of Madsen’s and Lackey’s respective tears as the team’s number-ones. Gornet saw a single game’s worth of minutes in each of his first two seasons and ceded five goals in just his second career start back in early November’s trouncing by Quinnipiac.
“We have confidence in those guys,” said coach Donato of Lackey’s backups, Gornet and freshman Derek Schaedig. “But the truth of it is, they just haven’t had a lot of opportunity, probably somewhat similar to the same way [Lackey] didn’t have a lot of opportunity when Merrick was here.”
While the program has not divulged Lackey’s status for the remainder of the season, a return at some point should not be ruled out. If Harvard clinches a top-four seed in the ECAC this weekend, it would earn a bye in the first round of the conference tournament, providing Lackey with an extra week to heal, if needed.
Assuming the Crimson’s season lasts long enough for Lackey to make his return, he will find himself in an all-too-familiar situation: needing to find consistency amid instability. If the emergence of Michael Lackey has proven anything this year, it’s that the senior will rise to the challenge.
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.