Cornell men’s hockey senior forward Eric Freschi knows all about the rivalry between Cornell and Harvard. Two years ago this week, Freschi took a drop pass from Cole Bardreau ’15 and unleashed a shot between the Harvard goalie Steve Michalek’s blocker and pads. That goal broke a 2-2 tie with 39.1 seconds left in the third period, and Cornell claimed a 3-2 win at Lynah Rink.
That win remains Cornell’s most recent victory against the hated Crimson. In the four meetings since, Cornell has tied Harvard twice and lost twice, including a 4-3 loss at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Hockey Center earlier this season. Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86 knows that wins over Harvard are needed to satiate the Lynah Faithful. He will rightly see this Friday’s game as a chance to end the four-game winless slide versus the Crimson, as well as a potential difference-maker in the ECAC and national standings.
The Cornell-Harvard game in Lynah Rink each year has consistently the best atmosphere of any Cornell hockey game. From the perennial tossing of the fish to the ice when Harvard skates out, to the special chants directed at the Crimson, the game is like no other on the calendar.
Beyond those major distinctions, however, the Cornell hockey fanatic will notice other differences. For example, the pep band plays the theme from the 1970 movie Love Story when Harvard takes the ice. To the average fan, it might seem a strange juxtaposition of a romantic, mellifluous movie theme and a rough-and-tumble ice hockey game, but it’s appropriate because the movie’s main character plays hockey for Harvard and the Crimson loses a tough game to Cornell.
Inside jokes aside, Friday’s game will be pivotal in ECAC Hockey. With the importance of this clash in mind, let’s break down the matchup and predict the winner.
Cornell has shown improvement on offense this season. The high-scoring JAM line from last season is a force yet again, and juniors Trevor Yates and Alex Rauter have stepped up as major contributors. Harvard, though, is a different proposition entirely. The Crimson’s top line — Ryan Donato, Lewis Zerter-Gossage and Alexander Kerfoot — tends to play a large portion of the minutes, eschewing a typical “roll four lines” strategy like the one Cornell employs. Those three have evolved into a dynamic scoring trio, and Zerter-Gossage scored three times last meeting against Cornell to sink the Red’s comeback bid. Harvard’s lower lines are not as much of a threat, but the sheer talent of their top forwards gives the Crimson the edge here.
Cornell’s blue line has been much more consistent this year than in years past. Senior Patrick McCarron has been a regular contributor on offense as well, scoring against Saint Lawrence this weekend. Alec McCrea, Matt Nuttle, Brendan Smith, Holden Anderson, McCarron and Yanni Kaldis have been the six defensemen Schafer has put on the ice for most Cornell games. Kaldis has shined as a freshman this season, and he had three assists the last time the Red faced Harvard. Harvard’s defensemen are not relied upon as much as they are in the Cornell system. While Adam Fox — a freshman — and John Marino are making a name for themselves, Harvard lacks upperclassmen leaders on defense, which has hurt them at times this season.
Cornell’s Mitch Gillam is in his third season as the starting goalie and is one of the best goalies in the ECAC. He has plenty experience in the rivalry, and perhaps his best asset is how calm he is under pressure. He is the perfect type of goalie for a major rivalry game. Harvard’s Merrick Madsen is also a solid netminder, but he has not reached Gillam’s level quite yet. Madsen has also struggled recently; two weeks ago, Madsen was pulled against Union and last-place RPI after giving up several goals in each contest.
The big battle here is when Harvard has a power play. The Crimson’s excellent power play is at 28.6 percent for the season, while Cornell kills penalties at a rate of 88.5 percent. Neither Cornell’s power play nor Harvard’s penalty kill are near the league leaders. However, do not ignore Cornell’s power play capabilities despite what the numbers may show. When the Red has an extra man, the team will need to capitalize on their chances.
Cornell is coming off a three-point weekend at home versus North Country foes Clarkson and Saint Lawrence, while Harvard did the same against Yale and Brown at home. However, prior to this weekend, Harvard went through a tough stretch where they lost 8-4 to Dartmouth and also fell on the road to Union and RPI. Cornell has not lost in 2017 and is the hottest team in the conference.
Schafer is in his 23rd season coaching at his alma mater. He is one of the most respected coaches in college hockey and will have his team ready for the Harvard game. Crimson coach Ted Donato — father of Harvard’s star forward Ryan — is also a smart hockey mind who knows how to beat Cornell. Schafer and Donato have matched up for years, with many victories for each, but Cornell does have a slight edge behind the bench.
Cornell will have the raucous Lynah Faithful crowd behind them for this clash, which will benefit the Red. Having had the fewest home games in the country to this point, Cornell enjoys seven of its last eleven games in the cozy confines of Lynah Rink.
I compared the teams at seven different elements of a hockey team, and Cornell has the edge in five out of seven, but they all should not be weighted evenly. Harvard’s excellent forward lines and power play have the ability to give the Red fits all night. In the end, I predict a narrow win for Cornell, by the same 3-2 score as the January 2015 game when Freschi scored the winner.