April 13, 2012

From NEHJ: Crimson surprise

By Dan Guttenplan

The Harvard men’s hockey team finished in 10th place in ECAC Hockey last season, its lowest finish since the ECAC/Hockey East split in 1984, and the program appeared to be moving in the wrong direction. 

The nation’s top power-play unit celebrates a goal at Bright Center. Patrick McNally (No. 8), Alex Fallstrom (back left), Alex Killorn (back right), Danny Biega (No. 9) and Marshall Everson (No. 21) scored on 27.2 percent of their power-play chances. (Photo by Thom Kendall)

Over a three-year stretch ending last year, the Crimson logged a combined record of 30-58-10 and did not make a single appearance in an ECAC Hockey tournament semifinal.

For a program that made eight ECAC Hockey tournament semifinal appearances in a nine-year stretch from 2000 to 2008, last season marked a low point for the Crimson.

This year’s preseason polls indicated that few people saw Harvard coach Ted Donato (Dedham, Mass.) turning it around. The Crimson were ranked 12th among 12 ECAC teams by the media and ninth by the coaches.

Given those expectations, it seemed incredible that the Crimson held a 1-0, third-period lead in the ECAC Hockey tournament championship game against Union on March 17 in Atlantic City, N.J. How did the Crimson go from the bottom of everyone’s preseason prediction list to 15 minutes away from an NCAA tournament invitation?

Dissecting the season, there appears to be more reasons Harvard should not have been playing eventual ECAC champion Union in the championship game in Atlantic City. Consider this: On the second weekend of the season, Harvard lost two of its best returning players — junior forward Conor Morrison and junior defenseman Brendan Rempel (Willington, Conn.) — to injury for extended stretches. Neither returned before mid-January, and Morrison didn’t make it back until the ECAC Hockey tournament.

Harvard also went 47 days between wins during a midseason stretch, spanning from Dec. 10 to Jan. 27. Finally, the Crimson entered the season without an experienced goaltender as sophomore Raphael Girard and freshman Steven Michalek had combined to make only one career start. Donato didn’t settle on his starter until Feb. 3.

It sounds like a season destined for a 12th-place finish in ECAC Hockey, right?

“We paid no attention to what others predicted for us,” Donato says. “We knew we had to cover ground and improve. We never allowed ourselves to have anything but great expectations for this team.”

Donato optimistically set a preseason goal for his team to earn a top-four seed in the ECAC Hockey tournament. After an 0-2-1 start to the season, the Crimson began to show their resilience by earning at least a point in nine of their next 11 games.

As the season continued, Harvard (13-10-11 overall, 8-5-9 ECAC) made resiliency its most distinguishable trait. The Crimson trailed in 28 of their 34 games, but they rallied to win or tie 19 of those contests.

They also proved to have the nation’s top power-play unit — a collection of one senior, three juniors and a freshman. Senior Alex Killorn (23 goals, 23 assists, 46 points), juniors Danny Biega (10-25-35), Marshall Everson (13-20-33) and Alex Fallstrom (13-12-25), along with freshman Pat McNally (6-22-28), converted on 27.2 percent of their power plays.

Killorn (Deerfield Academy) and Biega (Salisbury School) were named first-team All-ECAC. Michalek (Glastonbury, Conn.) and McNally (Milton Academy) were named to the All-Rookie team, and freshman Colin Blackwell (North Andover, Mass.) earned time on the top forward line with Killorn and Everson on championship weekend when Fallstrom was injured.

“I’m not sure if Coach Donato only recruits in New England, but he obviously likes local kids,” Killorn said. “We typically have a lot more prep-school guys than other teams that tend to get players from juniors. We take pride in a sense that our guys are mature enough to make the jump. Guys like McNally and Blackwell can have key roles on the team right away.”

Harvard’s power-play unit was enough of an equalizer to keep the Crimson in every game. However, the team’s host of injuries and inexperience in goal also kept its opposition in every contest. The result: The Crimson set an NCAA record with 11 ties -— a remarkable stat considering they did it in 29 regular-season games, whereas the previous record-holders all played 34. 

Predicted for last place, Harvard proved prognisticators wrong and was 15 minutes away from winning the ECAC Hockey tournament. (Photo by Gil Talbot)

“I think we took one thing from our ties,” McNally said. “We knew that we could play with anybody. We were playing a lot of freshmen, and a lot of credit goes to the seniors and juniors for being great leaders. We needed time to adjust, and they weren’t hard on us. They encouraged us to play our game, and we got through it and were able to perform better in the tournament.”

The ties didn’t turn out to be a bad thing for Harvard in its pursuit of a top-four seed. Due to the parity in ECAC Hockey this season, Harvard’s 10-8-11 regular-season record earned the No. 3 seed, resulting in a first-round bye and home ice in the quarterfinal round.

By tournament time, Girard earned the nod as the team’s starting goaltender. He was ECAC Hockey Goaltender of the Month in February after logging a 3-0-2 record in seven appearances with a 1.75 goals-against average.

Harvard found itself in familiar territory in a quarterfinal matchup with Yale, playing from behind. The first two games went to overtime, and the Bulldogs took the first, 2-1. Playing for their tournament lives, the Crimson won Game 2, 4-3, in double overtime before finishing off the series with an 8-2 victory in Game 3.

Making its first appearance in the final four of ECAC Hockey since 2008, Harvard proved it had every right to be in Atlantic City. The Crimson knocked off eventual NCAA tournament qualifier Cornell, 6-1, in the semifinals before falling to Union, 3-1, in the final.

“The whole team responded at every turn this season,” Donato said. “We kept getting over minor setbacks. Danny Biega and Alex Killorn gave us time to get over injuries, and their production gave us time for our goaltending to mature. By the end, we had excellent goaltending and special teams, and that made for a great run.”

Harvard will return five of its top six scorers next season along with two suddenly experienced goaltenders. With Killorn representing the team’s only 20-plus point scorer to graduate, perhaps next year’s preseason polls will predict Harvard to make a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.

“Harvard, throughout the years, has always been very competitive,” Killorn said. “It’s one of the best programs in the ECAC. We had a little skid where we didn’t see as much success as we wanted, and that was frustrating. I’m leaving a team that has a winning attitude with a lot of younger guys who want to win. I see the program going great places.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com