Before the 2011-12 campaign kicked off, many outside the Harvard men’s hockey program had modest expectations - or worse.
The Crimson were seventh in the ECAC preseason coaches poll, and 12th (also known as last) in the media poll.
But coach Ted Donato said at the time he believed in his team’s talent and leadership.
Turned out, he knew a lot more than anyone else. Given the injuries the team has struggled to overcome, the fact the Crimson finished third in the regular season and earned a bye in the opening round of the ECAC playoffs this weekend is quite an achievement.
Depending on how the first round goes, Harvard’s likely opponent will be either Yale or Clarkson.
“We certainly didn’t plan to have as many injuries as we’ve had,’’ said Donato. “That made it challenging but it did allow for some other guys to have opportunities to step up. Obviously, we knew going in that our goaltending was a bit of an unknown from an experience standpoint, but as a team and as a coaching staff, we believed we could compete at a much higher level than maybe where we were picked to start the season.’’
The Crimson finished the regular season 10-8-11, setting a Division 1 record for ties.
“It’s definitely odd by the numbers and at the very least, entertaining,’’ said Donato. “To have 12 overtime games certainly made for a lot of tense moments and exciting hockey. I thought our guys really rallied together at the end of the season and we were able to take care of business on home ice. [Eight] of our road games ended in ties. We only lost three times on the road all season long and that’s really a tremendous accomplishment.
“Certainly, we would’ve liked to have gotten more wins, but looking back on it, with a chance to take a deep breath, the majority of those were well earned and ended up being big points when they added them up at the end of the season. I think our resilience as a group was really tested and I liked the results of how we came through.’’
One of the highlights for the Crimson is the fact they’ve managed to earn points against every team in the league this season.
“In finishing third, no one that finished below us won the season series against us,’’ said Donato. “To me, to play in a 12-team league and have nine teams finish below you and have none of them win the league series against you, that was one of the reasons going into the last weekend of the season, we knew if we won our two games, we were in good shape with the tiebreakers.’’
Like Boston College, which took a while for the goaltending situation to work itself out, Harvard has relied on sophomore Raphael Girard down the stretch, and he is the likely choice to carry the load in the postseason. SteveMichalek finished the year with a 3.19 goals-against average and .894 save percentage. Girard finished at 2.39 and .922.
“We had one guy [Michalek] who played a lot of games in a row,’’ said Donato. “He played in 12 overtime games and in 11 of them, he didn’t give up a goal for us to lose. That’s a pretty impressive stat.
“Raphael Girard came in toward the end of the season and saw the majority of time so I think the future in that position could be bright. We’re really excited about what the future holds.’’
Crimson pair All-Ivy
Two Harvard players earned first team All-Ivy honors - leading scorer Alex Killorn, a senior forward with 36 points, and junior defenseman Danny Biega, who is second with 30 points. Both have played all 29 games . . . It’s a pivotal weekend in Hockey East as the regular season concludes. There are still more questions than answers and they won’t be resolved until tomorrow night. BC, which is in first place, will square off for two with Vermont at Conte Forum; Boston University, which is in second, faces Northeastern in a home-and-home series. Providence has two against UMass-Lowell, and Merrimack and UMass see each other twice. The only league teams with a single game are New Hampshire and Maine, which meet tomorrow afternoon in Orono.