As playoffs dawn, Harvard may be finally finding its stride

Psst … it’s time. Wake up, grab some coffee and find your sweater: It’s the postseason, and everybody is back to square one.

Crimson climbing fast

Who’s the hottest team in the league entering the playoffs?

Eric Kroshus (Harvard - 10) plays the puck along the boards away from Derrick Pallis (Princeton - 5). (Shelley M. Szwast)
Eric Kroshus and Harvard climbed from last place to the 10th spot in the playoff bracket by playing some of their best hockey of the season down the stretch (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

If you said Union, you’re totally right. On a 10-0-1 run, the Dutchmen are just stupid-good right now. But if you said Harvard, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. (Or you peeked at the section’s headline. Clever you.)

The Crimson is 5-1-1 in its last seven games, and only Union and Yale (6-1-1) enter the postseason on bigger rolls. Dead last only two weeks ago, Harvard is optimistic that the proper pieces have finally — if belatedly — fallen into place.

“There was a time when we just had to take responsibility for our record, but really say, ‘Hey, let’s try to regroup here, get ourselves playing the best hockey we can possibly play heading into the playoffs,'” said coach Ted Donato. “I think that’s what we did. The guys have responded. We’ve played good hockey for almost a month and a half now.”

The coach indicated an unlikely turning point for his team: a road sweep in the Capital District six weeks ago in which the Crimson scored only three goals.

“I think it was the weekend that we played at RPI and Union,” he said of the season’s pivotal weekend. “We actually lost both games — we lost at RPI 3-2 but outshot them 18-3 in the third period, and I think the shots were like 38-16 — and I think that even in a losing effort, we felt like maybe we had discovered something about how we needed to play. Then we came out the next night and played a very tough game against Union, and we had the lead until they tied it with about 10 minutes to go and then they won it with about a minute and a half to go, something like that.

“Those were two teams that were playing very well, they were two of the best teams in the country at home, and we went up there and played very well and we felt that we were getting the shots and getting the chances, and the puck just wasn’t going in the net. We had to find a way to create some more goals, some more offense. We were able to get our power play going, and it’s helped.”

Since that point, the Cambridge club is 6-4-1 and scored 30 goals despite being shut out at Yale and against Northeastern in the Beanpot opener.

“We’ve really battled to the front of the net, got some traffic there, got some pucks there, and maybe got away from trying to pass the puck into the net, so to speak,” Donato said. “We’re really trying to get to the dirty areas, to get more opportunities — to get pucks there, but also to get people there for rebounds. I think our power play has certainly been a big part of that as well.”

That power play is 11 for its last 35, scoring in five of Harvard’s last seven games, including 3-for-5 at Princeton and 3-for-4 at Cornell — both wins.

Team captains Michael Del Mauro and Chris Huxley and alternate Kyle Richter have been strong enough to keep the team steadily working in the face of massive disappointment.

“They did a great job in the face of adversity,” Donato said. “They kept the guys focused, they kept the attitude and the atmosphere in the locker room positive, and I think ultimately they created an environment that allowed us to have a little surge here at the end.”

The coach, captains and the rest of the team know that it’s in a funny place right now: A bottom-four team on a notable hot streak, traveling to one of the most remote venues in the league to play a Clarkson team it just beat seven days prior for a best-of-three, standings-out-the-window second season.

“It’s a brand new season,” Donato said. “We don’t have to lament on the fact that our regular season wasn’t where we wanted it to be. On the other side of it, it’s a whole new start for everybody. We’re playing on the road against a team that’s good at home, and it’s a long road to get to where we want to get to, but our guys are excited about the opportunity.”

One Crimson player who hasn’t been hungry for points is junior Alex Killorn, though I’m sure he’d love a few more, now and in the near future. With six goals in seven games and a league-high 4.62 shots per game this year, Killorn is a guy you just can’t keep off the puck.

“Alex continues to take his game higher and higher,” Donato said. “He’s a guy that we know every night’s going to be a concern for the other team. He’s got some physical tools, in his strength and size, but really his work ethic at both ends of the rink is something to me that has improved since the day he arrived, and even since the beginning of the season.

“I give him a lot of credit; I think he has been a big part of our surge at the end here. Every night, Alex is one of the best players in the game.”

One of Killorn’s greatest assets isn’t even part of his skill set — it’s sophomore teammate Danny Biega, a young blueliner with an eye for the flashing red light. A front-runner for ECAC Hockey’s defenseman of the year award (even if they call it the “defensive” defenseman of the year), Donato has even higher hopes for the third Biega through his system.

“To be honest with you, who knows how it’ll play out, but … you could make a case that [Biega] is the player of the year. If you look at the conference stats — which is really the only measuring stick, since we play less games than Union or RPI — first of all, I’m not sure when the last time was that a defenseman led his team in scoring. He was one of the league leaders in game-winning goals … he was probably [involved in] about 45 percent of our team scoring this season.

“From a points-per-game [standpoint], the percentage of the team’s offense, leading the team in scoring, the number of goals, the number of points, the number of game-winning goals, you can make a case that he could be player of the year. I understand that when your team finishes lower, you definitely get the short end of the stick, but to me, he absolutely should be the defenseman of the year. I don’t want to slight anybody else by that, but we certainly feel that way.”

As far as last weekend’s gut-check victory over the Golden Knights in Boston, Donato doesn’t see much point in reading between the lines.

“It gives us something to utilize, as far as a measuring stick, but we also recognize that it’s completely different,” he said. “We start from scratch. Clarkson gets to play from home. We won 3-1 with an empty-netter, and those kinds of games can go either way.

“But we’re excited about how we’re playing, and really our focus from here forward is to go out and play our game and dictate the way we want to play, and we have confidence that if we play that way, we’ll be able to find success. We have a great deal of respect for Clarkson, and the game we played this weekend — while it’s great to our confidence — it really has no bearing on the upcoming series.”

First-round ruminations

I’d make predictions, but where’s the fun in that? Gotta be patient and wait for my Friday picks!

No. 12 Colgate at No. 5 Rensselaer

The teams split 2-1 decisions, each losing at home. Colgate finished the season 4-2-1; RPI, 1-4-1 … not at all what we would’ve imagined a month ago. The Engineers had 18 goal-scorers in conference play this season, but would you believe that the Raiders had 17 of their own? While the ‘Tute is clearly the favorite in this matchup, it’s worth noting that the ‘Gate’s team defense has been better than its season average in five of its last seven games, while the Engineers offense has failed to meet its season average in 10 of its last 14 contests.

No. 11 St. Lawrence at No. 6 Princeton

The Tigers struck up a little mid-season sizzle with a 14-3-1 run between November and January, and it pretty much carried them into a home series despite a 4-6-1 ECAC record at Baker Rink. The run included 5-1 and 5-3 wins over SLU, as the Saints had pretty much nothing resembling any kind of streak whatsoever — SLU won consecutive league games only once, in a weekend home sweep of Cornell and Colgate in the first week of November. It may come down to a battle between rookies: The Saints’ Greg Carey against Princeton’s Andrew Calof and Sean Bonar. All three have been standouts this year.

No. 10 Harvard at No. 7 Clarkson

Nothing more to say about Harvard, except to mention that — to no one’s surprise, I’d imagine — senior Ryan Carroll is Donato’s default starting netminder, having won five straight starts with 12 goals against and a .933 save percentage during the streak. Clarkson looked like a serious contender until the holiday break threw ‘Tech off track: Once winners of six of seven, the Golden Knights lost 12 of 17 second-half tilts, allowing four goals or more 11 times, but scoring twice or less 10 times. Not good for the ol’ win-loss ratio.

No. 9 Brown at No. 8 Quinnipiac

Like so many of Quinnipiac’s opponents this season, Brown enjoyed a tie against the Bobcats. Twice, in fact. QU wrapped up the scheduled season 0-0-3, but looking farther back, you could say they were 0-3-5 before the closing bell … or, for that matter, 3-3-6, or 6-4-7, with nine overtime contests out of their last 15. In other words, they tied a lot. I suppose it’s a testament to their maturing defense and goaltending that the Q-Cats managed three points out of their last six games, seeing as they failed to score three goals in any of them, but goaltending — specifically sophomore Eric Hartzell — has been a pretty consistent strength for the Q all season long. Bruno was the league’s darling little rugrat at Thanksgiving, starting the campaign 3-2-3 and having just tied New Hampshire and Boston University on the road, but ended the season on a 7-12-2 slide. With top scorer Jack Maclellan out, that puts a lot of pressure on the much-discussed Harry Zolnierczyk to score more than he slashes (or trips, or charges, or cross-checks, or hooks …) in the postseason.

Player of the year

Thank you for your patience … so who will it be? Our devoted pack of amateur voters clearly favors Polacek, but do the numbers back that up?

RPI’s superstar actually finished tied with Yale’s Andrew Miller atop the league scoring ladder with 27 points in 22 games apiece, but beat the younger Miller in goals with 11. Miller blew Polacek out of the water with a plus-12 league plus/minus rating to Polacek’s meager plus-4, and spent less time in the sin bin (20 minutes for Polacek, 12 for Miller).

What of Brian O’Neill and Daniel Carr? Well, O’Neill finished third in the scoring hunt to the aforementioned duo with 12 goals and 25 points, sported a plus-11 rating and scored more power-play goals (six) than either Polacek (five) or Miller (four). Rookie Carr finished the regular season with 11 league goals, 16 points and six power-play goals as well, but managed only a plus-1 plus/minus in ECAC action.

Should we really knock out either Miller or O’Neill just because they’re teammates? Can the second-best player on one team actually be the second-best player in the league? Of course he can. So who should go? I’d say Carr is the obvious first cut, despite his outstanding season: His plus/minus just doesn’t indicate that he is an elite two-way player on a dominant team.

So how do we decide between Polacek and the Yalies? Well, we’ll have to flesh it out. Polacek accounted for about 15 percent of RPI’s points this season, both in and out of conference. Miller and O’Neill each made up a little more than a tenth of the Bulldogs’ production — between 11 and 12 percent, to be more specific. Polacek’s goals also comprised a larger percentage of his team’s total than Miller’s or O’Neill’s.

I will choose this point in the debate to say that I’d love to throw out all second assists and judge players by their true goal-scoring and play-making abilities, but I’m afraid that would just take way too long, so we’ll go with what we’ve got.

What we’ve got in the end is two players who may very well diminish each other’s achievements simply by playing together, though they combine to strengthen an indisputably intimidating team, and one player who doesn’t look as worthy head-to-head, but has meant significantly more to his team than either of the other two.

So my vote for player of the year — both here and to ECAC Hockey — goes to Chase Polacek of Rensselaer. The sincerest good luck to him and all other ECACers in the month ahead: May you bring back an award far more precious than anything I could come up with for a weekly column.


  1. Yale fan with a point that I’d like to make about Union. For those of us who’ve seen moaning about the EZAC from fans of other teams, I think Union’s incredible streak and the result that the ECAC has two of the top four teams at season’s end is fantastic and I cannot wait to see one of those out of conference overconfident teams face Union. Union’s been on a dominating roll and they are going to upset someone like Denver, North Dakota, etc. and that will be awesome!

  2. How much space has been wasted this season talking about a 10th place team that was never expected to compete for a title. This is literally their third feature or so. Honestly were sick of SUCKS getting headlines. Talk about the top 6 for once. I haven’t seen one Big Red column all year and there defintely haven’t been enough coverage of Dartmouth either. Even Colgate is more worthy of this space than Haaaaaahvahd because you could write a what happened column. Haaahvahd was supposed to suck and they do suck. We don’t need to be reminded on a weekly basis.

    • Please find the last interview I conducted with Donato, aside from a game recap. I think you’ll be surprised.

      • You wrote about their annual Beanpot failure just weeks ago. Are you telling me there wasn’t a more compelling Dartmouth or title race, or bye race storyline that week? I’m not saying that you’re doing too many interviews with Donato, I’m just saying that this is hardly one of the more compelling stories in the ECAC heading into the playoffs. I for one would love to know what the heck happened to Colgate.

        • I absolutely understand your argument, but it’s not always as easy as thinking of an angle and following up on it. Some coaches (not going to name names right here) are infamously difficult to get a hold of, and when you factor in that USCHO is regrettably not a full-time job for any of its employees, it can lead to long stretches between contacts with certain teams/coaches. That’s not a perfect excuse, of course, but composing compelling and accurate stories without the benefit of insider dialogue can be quite difficult. Stay tuned, though – I have some good material from Schafer leading into Round 2.

  3. So Harvard’s turaround came in two losses to the Capital District teams and you write about it? How about ‘Gate tieing Yale at the Whale 1-1, the only OT game the Eli played and only tie on their record. The fact that a 12th place team turned it on down the stretch just as much as Haavad, doesn’t seem to interest you? I guess when you inhabit a backwater like Hamilton, NY you are forgotten about. So sad that you have to write again about a Boston team, instead of telling the more “interesting” story of Colgate’s early season failures followed by success.

  4. Harvard downs Clarkson. Justifies omniscient column for a night. Could draw rematch in Schenectady with team who they played tough twice.

  5. So the Capital District sweep was a turning point for Harvard. They outshot RPI 18-3 in the 3rd period because they had at least 4 pp’s on some brutally bad calls if I remember correctly. As for the tough 2-1 loss at Union, that game was nowhere near as close as the score indicates. Union dominated the game.


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