Things look different this season for resilient Harvard

No one will ever say that Harvard kids have it tough, but it’s hard to deny that the last half-decade has been a pretty lean time for Crimson hockey.

Three straight sub-.400 seasons, one winning campaign in the last five and no NCAA appearances since spring 2006 marks a stunning departure from the program’s halcyon days under short-lived head coach Mark Mazzoleni in the early 2000s.

Recent seasons have been marked and marred by ruinous losing streaks and protracted slumps, but this year’s Crimson might just be a beast of a different color.

“We’re different in a few ways,” eighth-year coach and Harvard alumnus Ted Donato said. “We’re certainly different in that we’ve been scoring a lot more goals, period. For a lot of the year we’ve been in the top 10 in the country in goals per game. Our power play has been excellent. We were able to get more offense going than we’ve been able to in the past few years, and that’s certainly a positive sign.

“We have a few more ties than are probably normal for this time of year, but I think we’ve also done a very good job of staying with games. We’ve come back more times than I can remember in recent years.”

Harvard’s resilience and comeback ability owe a great debt to the Crimson power play, which is simply chain-sawing through opponents at an unreal 35 percent clip.

“I think our power play has done a really good job of not locking into one or two options,” Donato said. “I think our guys have really shared the puck. We’ve been very flexible night in and night out with what we’re trying to accomplish, and I think realistically, players have just done a really good job with communicating with each other, out-working the penalty kill, and we’ve scored in a bunch of different ways in some key times. I think it’s about very good hockey players being unselfish and working hard.”

The coach’s assessment holds water, in that eight different Crimson players have shared the team’s 22 power-play goals through 14 games.

Apart from the power play — which has accounted for nearly half of the squad’s 47 total goals — the Crimson are enjoying scoring depth unlike anything they’ve been able to feature in a number of years. Fourteen players have found the net already, and only two skaters — senior grinder Colin Moore and rarely seen sophomore John Caldwell — are without a positive digit in the scoring column.

Rookie and No. 1 goalkeeper Steve Michalek is having a rookie kind of season, with big ups and big downs and fairly unremarkable numbers at the moment. That hasn’t bothered Donato, who said Michalek is exactly where he expected him to be at this juncture.

“His compete level has been strong. After the Christmas break he looks more confident, more comfortable,” said Donato. “As with any freshman goalie, there will be some bumps in the road, but so far his responses to both good and bad have been excellent. I think as a team, we kind of mirror his situation. We’ve done some good things, we’ve made some strides forward, but there’s a long way to go and we’re nowhere near where we need to be in order to consistently be successful. With Stephen, I think as he becomes more and more comfortable, hopefully the wins will start to add up for us.”

One of Michalek’s — and the team’s — greatest learning experiences so far has been the double-dip at North Dakota two weeks ago. The Crimson escaped Grand Forks with a tie, which was more than was expected of them by many observers, and Donato believes that it was a positive step for his young and potent charges.

“It’s always a great test when you go out to a place like North Dakota,” he said. “Great history, great level of talent, great tradition. For us, we don’t play a lot of games outside our region, so to be able to go out and build a certain amount of bonding, getting in that environment with [11,000] people, we played in the last game of the Fighting Sioux nickname, it was a good environment and a good test for us and we feel it will benefit us once we get … into games that have that kind of emotion, that kind of intensity.”

Senior pivot and team scoring leader Alex Killorn agreed with his coach’s perspective on the trip.

“For a lot of guys, I think, it was a different atmosphere, and something new,” Killorn said. “There were a lot of guys who … didn’t know what to expect going out there, and I think most of the guys handled it very well and gained a lot of experience from that weekend. Overall, I think it was very beneficial for our team.”

Killorn is hoping for great things and some life-long memories after electing to postpone his professional career, and one such event is already in the bag: Friday’s Fenway Park tilt against super-powered Union.

“We only recently found out that we were going to play at Fenway,” Killorn said. “I know there was some rumor about it at the beginning of the year, but we only really found out about it in the last few weeks. It’s something we’re definitely excited about. We’re looking to go out there and have a good game, and most importantly get two points, but it’s definitely going to be a memorable game.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity for Harvard and Union to play in a great environment, at Fenway Park, and to have this kind of life experience is something that our players will remember for the rest of their lives,” Donato said. “Not only are we playing at Fenway Park, but we’re playing a very good Union team, so it should be a real enjoyable experience.”

Dangling on the diamond is all well and good for some, but Killorn and the Crimson have bigger things in mind this year. And finally, they just might have the team to pull it off.

Around the league

Colgate’s Austin Smith is making a strong case to be ECAC Hockey’s fourth Hobey Baker Award winner (and first to declare anything but Veritas), leading the nation in scoring (33 points, tied with Maine’s Spencer Abbott and Minnesota-Duluth’s Jack Connolly), goals (20) and goals per game (1.00). Just to show off, he’s also tops in the country in short-handed goals (five) and game-winning goals (five, tied with four others, including Cornell’s Nick D’Agostino). All that noise about the unreasonable degree to which the Raiders rely on him gets softer with every snipe.

The ECAC boasts three of Division I’s top five power-play units, in Harvard, Yale and Union. The Crimson’s PP numbers have already been noted, while the Bulldogs (28.8 percent) and Dutchmen (26.9) are also humming at extraordinary rates.

Yale’s penalty kill is equally tenacious, throttling nearly 92 percent of opponents’ advantages, good for the second-best kill in the land. In taking only 10.3 penalty minutes per game (third-least in the country), the Bulldogs have been exceedingly determined in making foes earn every chance they get.

Union is the only team in the country with a goals-against average below 2.00. At 1.95 goals-against per game, the Dutchmen are barely beating league rival Cornell (2.00) and December victim Merrimack (2.00) for the national lead.

While Yale, Union, Harvard and Colgate each rank among the top 15 offenses in Division I, poor Rensselaer is spared the basement floor by the bare 1.12 goals-per-game doormat that is Alabama-Huntsville.

Cornell’s Andy Iles and Clarkson’s Paul Karpowich are tied for second in the country in shutouts with five each. (Minnesota’s Kent Patterson has six clean sheets.)

Life’s not fair: Karpowich has the best save percentage in the country (.937), but only the 42nd-best win percentage (.524). One shudders to think where Clarkson would be this year without him.

Life is fair: Troy Grosenick at Union, on the other hand, has the third-highest save percentage (.932) and eighth-best winning percentage (.700).

As a final note on goalies, ECAC Hockey boasts four of the nation’s top individual goals-against averages (Grosenick, Iles, Karpowich, and Quinnipiac’s Eric Hartzell, respectively), and five of the top dozen (QU’s Dan Clarke). Each is at or below 2.05 (Clarke), with Grosenick (1.74) leading the field.

On to the rookies. Harvard defenseman Patrick McNally leads the country in frosh points per game (1.07), and Cornell’s Brian Ferlin ranks fourth (1.00). Each of their names has come up in past blogs and columns, but here’s a new one to note: Brown rookie Ryan Jacobson’s 0.93 points a game puts him eighth on the national list.

St. Lawrence star Kyle Flanagan is tops in the country in power-play goals per game (0.54), followed ever so closely by Yale’s Brian O’Neill (0.53).