From NEHJ: Michalek delivers on great expectations

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

When Loomis-Chaffee goaltender Stephen Michalek played the best hockey of his life last summer, he knew that raising the bar his senior season would be a tough chore.

Yet, raise the bar is precisely what the Glastonbury, Conn., native has done on the heels of a silver medal-winning performance in the annual Ivan Hlinka Under-18 tournament in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, despite playing on a prep team whose inexperience was borne out in Loomis-Chaffee’s 3-18-2 record this season.

His play has spoken for itself, as Michalek (pronounced “MIKE-uh-leck”) recently committed to Harvard among a crowded field of ECAC teams who made him offers. He will join the Crimson next season.

As a senior captain and the team’s best player, much was expected of Michalek this season, and the 6-foot-3, 185-pound netminder delivered, giving his team a chance to win games in which it was overmatched.

“I hate losing,” Michalek told the New England Hockey Journal after his season concluded. “It doesn’t get any easier, even when you play well. It’s tough to find a positive in losing, but as the season went on we got better.  We were playing teams more talented than we were, but we were at least able to compete.”

That competitiveness and spirit endeared Michalek to his teammates and earned him the distinction as his squad’s most valuable player.

 “We’re a young team and not very deep, but we’ve been in every game,” said Loomis-Chafee coach Bob Howe (Windsor, Conn.). “It’s no secret that it’s been due to Steve.”

Given how difficult the wins came by for Howe and his Pelicans this season, it’s not a surprise that he is left to marvel at a player who stopped nearly 92 percent of the shots he faced despite being on the short end of so many final scores.

“If you look at the shots, so many of them were real scoring opportunities,” Howe said. “When we played Westminster, he made 50 saves (3-2 overtime loss in January); about 30 of them were quality scoring opportunities. That’s the kind of situation that Steve has routinely faced this season, but he finds a way to keep the pucks out of the net.”

In Loomis-Chafee’s rematch with Westminster last month, Michalek faced 66 shots, allowing just four past him in a 4-0 loss. That kind of Herculean effort was commonplace for Michalek this season, going back to the Under-18 tourney in August.

In the championship game against Canada, he allowed a shot to top NHL draft prospect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, whose wicked wrister would have beaten just about any NHL goaltender, but then stood tall against Canada’s furious assault, giving up just the one goal in a 1-0 defeat.

 “That did a lot for my confidence,” Michalek said of the chance to play with and against some of the best draft-eligible players in the world. “I had a lot of real high expectations for myself going into it, so I was glad that I could keep playing well and give the team a chance to win. We came up short, but it was a great experience.”

Looking at Michalek’s best attributes, Howe cited his superb athleticism to go with his size (a two-sport star in hockey and baseball), crediting his goalie and captain with being the best on the team when it came to the off-ice foot speed and ladder work. Beyond the impressive physical gifts, however, Howe continually cites Michalek’s concentration and intestinal fortitude.

“He has incredible mental toughness, one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Howe said. “Nothing gets to him, and when you combine his composure with how large he is in the net and how little he gives players to shoot at, he’s very tough to beat.”

Although Michalek said that most of his teammates and friends in the area are Boston Bruins fans, he grew up rooting for the Buffalo Sabres because they are his father’s team. His goalie idols are Martin Biron and Ryan Miller, and admitted that being drafted in June would be a dream come true — especially if the Sabres were to call his name.

As the sixth-ranked North American goaltender on the NHL Central Scouting Service’s midseason list, Michalek has a chance to get invited to the NHL’s Scouting Combine in late May. Given his impressive showing at the Select-17 in Rochester last July and then his international performance, and the fact that he stopped 108 of 116 shots in his final two starts (both losses to Westminster and Northfield-Mount Hermon) of the season, he just might get the nod.

“I hope I get invited to the combine,” Michalek said. “I want to prove to NHL teams that I’m more than a guy who just sits in the net and stops pucks. I want to show them that I have the work ethic and am a good athlete. I want to be able to tell them how hard I’m going to dedicate myself to being a player.”

Michalek already has let his play do much of the talking, even if the season didn’t bear fruit in the form of team success.

If many coaches expect their goalies to make the first save and see stops on the second or third shots as a bonus, then Michalek has gone above and beyond the call of duty.

“We’ve actually expected the second and third saves from Steve and got them,” Howe said with a slight smirk. “Be sure you write that down.”

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.