With under a month remaining in the season, the Cornell men’s hockey team is red-hot.
Having won 10 of the last 12 games — and just one loss since Thanksgiving — the team is playing the best hockey of its season and arguably in the program’s last few years. As archrival and nationally ranked No. 9 Harvard — along with Ivy-foe Dartmouth — come into town for a pair at Lynah, Cornell has a chance for yet another statement weekend and an opportunity to move up in the ECAC standings.
Last weekend, the Red came back from a two-goal deficit to salvage a tie against a gritty Clarkson team on Friday and knocked off league-leading St. Lawrence the following night. The two games — both in front of the Lynah Faithful – were just the fifth and sixth home games of the season and are part of Cornell’s home-heavy final stretch with nine of 13 in its own building.
Now, the Red turns its attention to Harvard — its biggest rival — and Dartmouth, making it the perfect weekend for a well-rested student body to return to.
“I can only imagine what it’ll be like out there,” sophomore defenseman Brendan Smith said in anticipation of Friday’s matchup against the Crimson. Smith — who had the game winner against St. Lawrence — and several other members of the Red will get their first taste of the exciting rivalry in its 149th installment.
“It doesn’t matter what the records are or anything about the teams really. This game always lives up to the hype,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86, who has decades of experience playing and coaching against Harvard.
That said, the two squads happen to be one and two in the Ivy League and are both ranked in the top 15 nationally. Cornell sits at fifth in the ECAC, while Harvard is just two points ahead of the Red in third. Harvard won the first matchup of the season in Cambridge back in early November.
Unlike the Red, though, the Crimson has been enduring a recent losing skid. Just two weeks ago, Harvard was ranked number two in the country, but suffered a shocking, crushing 4-0 defeat at the hands of a last-place RPI team. The next night, Harvard lost to Union, and a few days later, the team gave up eight goals in a loss to Dartmouth.
Still, Harvard’s roster is full of talent, especially offensive talent. The Crimson average nearly four goals per game — third-best in the country — and are led by senior center Alex Kerfoot with 26 points thus far. Much of that production has come on the power play, which converts 28.6 percent of the time and tops in the country.
Cornell, on the other hand, sits at third in the country in terms of penalty kill. Schafer echoed the integral function of special teams whenever Harvard comes to town.
“Special teams will play a huge role,” Schafer said. “Power plays have always been a big part of their program. They’ve got some great veterans and some really good new players like [defenseman] Adam Fox who has really added a little more to the power play.”
In order to slow down the overwhelming Crimson offense, Cornell’s defense will need to limit shots like it has repeatedly this season. Senior goaltender Mitch Gillam — who is riding an 11-game unbeaten streak since mid november — feels he is playing some quality hockey in line with the defense’s capabilities.
“I’ve been talking to coach about keeping my game a little simpler — not getting out there and being too aggressive with the puck,” he said. “I feel like I’m tracking the puck pretty well in front of me in games.”
Against a team like Harvard in a cacophonous environment, Gillam knows he will need to stay focused.
“We can’t let our emotions get too high … the building is going to be rocking, but we’ve just got to play our game and keep it simple,” he said.
Cornell will need a quick turnaround no matter the result against Harvard, as it faces Dartmouth in another important ECAC and Ivy League matchup on Saturday. The two teams skated to a tie earlier in the season up in Hanover, but each team has gone on to have very different seasons since. Dartmouth is 7-10-3 overall, but to its credit, the Green ran Harvard out of town by defeating them 8-4 a week ago — by far its best showing of the season.
Dartmouth’s defense is porous, and it has yielded four or more goals in nearly half of its games this season. Junior goalie Devin Buffalo has started 18 of 20, but is giving up just under three goals per game. Forward Tony Crema leads the team in scoring with 12 goals and seven assists.
While the Dartmouth game will not receive the kind of attention the game against Harvard will, the Red expressed that it is crucial not to overlook it. Schafer knows the importance of playing any Ivy League team, no matter its record.
“We’ve got that Ivy League subset in the ECAC, and when you have success in those games, it’ll really help you achieve your goals in the ECAC,” he said.
Saturday’s game will be Schafer’s 50th against Dartmouth. He leads the series 23-20, along with six ties.
Saturday night is also special because members of Cornell’s 1967 NCAA Champion team — including hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden — will be back for their 50th anniversary. The players will attend a reception from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and will then be honored on ice during the first intermission.
Schafer and his team are not letting the additional hype and attention change their goal as a unit, though.
“The guys obviously want to win, but we’ve gotta just stay focused on getting better each day,” he said. “The great teams always do that.”