With top line clicking, Dartmouth finds a foundation in season’s start

Dartmouth’s Tyler Sikura and Harvard’s Seb Lloyd compete for a puck (photo: Melissa Wade).

Dartmouth didn’t burst out of the gate, but the Big Green are definitely clear of the starting gate and picking up speed.

The Big Green opened the season with a 3-3 draw at Harvard two weekends ago, then hit the Capital District for a stunning come-from-behind win at Union and a tight loss to Rensselaer.

Last Friday in Schenectady, Dartmouth took down the defending national champions with three straight goals over the last 21 minutes of game time, including junior Brad Schierhorn’s extra-attacker equalizer with 50 seconds remaining. Classmate Tim O’Brien sent the locals home unsatisfied 3:22 into overtime for Dartmouth’s biggest upset win since late 2012, when No. 10 Dartmouth beat No. 2 New Hampshire in Hanover.

“It’s a tough place to play, and that team is a really good hockey team; they really play the game well,” coach Bob Gaudet said of the Dutchmen. “They’re tough, they’re a really tough team to play against. It was a good win for us. It gives confidence to our guys, who were able to battle hard and find a way.”

The Green have been able to eke out a .500 record so far despite the absence of junior netminder Charles Grant, who is day-to-day with a lingering injury.

“I’d love to have him available for one of those games, but I just don’t know for sure,” Gaudet said. “After exams, though, he’ll be back by then, I’m sure of that.”

Grant started 25 games for last year’s team, going 9-13-3 with a .909 save percentage. In his stead, junior James Kruger has maintained a .918 save percentage through nearly 190 minutes of action. He has played almost half as many minutes this month alone as he did in his first two years at the Granite State Ivy.

“Jim Kruger’s done a good job for us. He had an opportunity, and has done well by it,” said Gaudet, a former Dartmouth goalie himself.

Seven skaters have scored a total of eight goals in support of Kruger thus far, including four strikes from the top line of seniors Eric Robinson and Tyler Sikura and the junior Schierhorn.

“I think that that line, with Schierhorn on the left side, has pretty good size, they see the ice well, they can all shoot it,” Gaudet said. “I think they’re clicking along pretty good. They look like they’ve been playing together for a while, and we just want to keep on capitalizing on that.”

The coach did not have “top” special-teams lines in mind just yet, having played only three games.

“Going into Friday night’s game [at Union], we were [preparing for] our second power play, and I think when Union had their first of that game, it was their 41st power play of the season, so it’s hard to tell at this point,” Gaudet said.

The regular ECAC Hockey grind can be challenging enough, but Dartmouth has ladled the competition on extra thick this year, with current ranked opponents No. 3 Boston University, eighth-ranked Boston College, No. 10 Denver and No. 11 Vermont all hitting Hanover before Martin Luther King Day. (For the record, league foes Colgate, Union and Quinnipiac are each top-20 teams at the moment as well.)

These big-time visitors are scheduled in addition to New Hampshire (on the road) and two home games against Atlantic Hockey members.

“Our schedule is by design: We’re trying to build a championship-caliber team by playing the best,” Gaudet said. “We play in a really tough league and a really good league, but there are a lot of good teams in college hockey and we’re trying to play as many of them as we can within our limited out-of-league scheduling.”

The greatest challenge in setting the schedule, according to Gaudet, isn’t the location but the scarce available dates. Dartmouth plays New Hampshire annually, and nearby Vermont more years than not. BU and BC are regular opponents as well, leaving only three or four other nonconference slots available, and two of those are spoken for by Dartmouth’s annual Ledyard Bank holiday tournament.

“This is an attractive place for people to come,” Gaudet said. “For whatever reason, people like to come here: They like the rink, they like the accommodations, and honestly I think we’ve done a really good job with our tournament because we’ve had these teams coming in and staying on campus — we have a beautiful hotel right in the middle of campus, the Hanover Inn — and they see the campus, they see the rink, and think this is a really good place to play. People really like it, so the reciprocal part for us is not all that difficult: It’s just about finding the appropriate dates. The dates are the sticking point a lot of times.

“Jerry York and BC love to come up here and play; Jack Parker [at BU] loved to come up here and play, so that helps us a lot. When I organized Denver coming out, [former coach] George [Gwozdecky] was coaching, so, you know, there are relationships you have with guys over the course of time, being in the business, that helps with [scheduling].”

Counting the BU’s, BC’s, UNH’s and Vermonts of the nation as frequent guests doesn’t hurt Dartmouth’s reputation as a legitimate host, either.

“[Having big programs visit] doesn’t hurt. Having the North Dakotas, the BC’s and BU’s and Denver and teams like this coming out to play here” builds credibility, Gaudet said.

Setting up a schedule takes years, as many know. What some fans don’t realize is how informal some of the negotiations can be.

“Sometimes [scheduling] is done over a pizza in Naples, Fla.; y’know, sometimes you just happen into guys [at the annual coaches’ meetings]. Sometimes it’s done over a phone call, a conversation. After being in the business a while, you get to know people. I laugh because sometimes I’m doing it by the seat of my pants. I’m just trying to get good guys and good teams to come here, and have our guys be able to measure themselves against them.”

Get out an extra yardstick or two, because there is going to be a lot of measuring going on at Thompson Arena this winter.

Patrick McNally (8) congratulates Alexander Kerfoot on his first of three goals in Harvard’s win over Boston College on Tuesday (photo: Melissa Wade).

Crimson come out ahead in early road test

It’s been seven years, but Harvard finally found a W in Troy.

The Crimson shut out the Engineers 4-0 last Friday night for the program’s first win at the Houston Field House since the early days of 2007. The squad followed up the victory with an oh-so-close 2-2 tie at Union on Saturday, a game in which the Crimson led for 56 minutes but couldn’t close the deal.

“It was a good weekend overall. We would’ve loved to get the two points on Saturday night, but I thought the compete level was there, so all in all, there is a lot to build on,” said coach Ted Donato of the program’s first three-point Capital District weekend in four years.

The Crimson followed that up with a 6-3 win over Boston College on Tuesday, sparked by Alexander Kerfoot’s hat trick and five points.

One of the brightest stars in Harvard’s early successes has been senior goaltender Steve Michalek, who has saved 93.1 percent of incoming salvos. As far as Donato is concerned, the No. 1 spot is Michalek’s to lose.

“I think that’s safe to say. Steve came in with the most experience, he got the first crack at it and has played very well so far,” Donato said. “He’s worked very hard at his craft. I think he’s maturing both physically and mentally, and I also think we’ve played better defense in front of him in the first few games. We’ve gotten him some goals to work with.

“Last year, his numbers … were competitive, and we want to score some more goals for him. I know he’s worked real hard over the summer and in the fall here to make sure he’s at his best.”

Overall, Donato likes what he sees in front of his goalie, as well.

“We’ve really tried to push the pace and be more dangerous offensively, possess the puck, and put more pucks to the net,” he said. “I think our team speed and team strength has improved since last year. That’s certainly been a key point out of the gate, and something we hope to improve upon.”

The line of juniors Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo with sophomore Kerfoot has been particularly strong, combining for nine of Harvard’s 15 goals and 20 of the team’s 37 points.

“They’ve played well each and every night,” Donato said. “They all bring their own certain skills that help the line. They’ve been very good for us, and we’re excited to see them play together.”

On opening night, senior defenseman and Vancouver Canucks prospect Pat McNally returned to the Harvard lineup after sitting out a year following the controversial 2012 Harvard cheating scandal. He promptly scored two goals to guide his team to a 3-3 tie against Dartmouth. He has four points and a plus-4 rating.

“As a coaching staff, we had confidence that Pat would come in and be a go-to guy, have a real solid year, be a leader for us, and be a big part of what we are trying to do,” Donato said. “I think … he’s looked great so far this year both offensively and defensively and we expect him to be one of the best players on the ice every night.”

Donato and Harvard are hoping that McNally is indeed only one of the best sporting the Veritas crest each night as the Crimson look to build on an optimistic opening.

League issues two suspensions

ECAC Hockey dropped the hammer on a couple of egregious offenses this weekend, one on the ice, one off.

Brown sniper Nick Lappin earned a two-game suspension for a hit from behind against Clarkson’s Kevin Tansey on Saturday, although it is worth noting that the five-and-game assessed by the officials for that hit on Saturday came just 24 hours after another five-and-game pair of penalties levied on Lappin for a contact-to-the-head incident in Friday’s game against St. Lawrence. So that may have been a contributing factor, eh?

Brown certainly will miss last season’s second-leading scorer in this weekend’s games at Harvard and Dartmouth. Ironically, Lappin took just a single minor penalty through 30 games last season; he has four penalties for 30 minutes in three games in 2014-15.

The other suspension made significantly larger waves in the greater college hockey community as longtime Cornell coach Mike Schafer was banished for the Big Red’s next game, which happens to be at home Friday against Clarkson.

As has been widely reported, Schafer issued a profanity-laced attack against Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold following Saturday’s game, which itself ended with fisticuffs in the handshake line.

Not that anyone asked, but here’s my take: It is naïve to think that everyone in the game — coach, player, trainer, athletic director or otherwise — should get along all the time. Coaching is a high-stress, high-stakes career for many people, and there is exponentially more friction between individuals at every level of the game than ever reaches the light of day.

That said, the league’s reputation takes a hit when one of its higher-profile members pops off on the record, and thus this discipline is in no way surprising.

So come on, fellas. On the ice, keep it clean … and in the halls, well, try to keep it clean there, too.