Under normal circumstances, a rivalry game between Cornell men’s hockey and Harvard would draw about 3,000 or 4,200 fans — as many as can fit in Bright-Landry Hockey Center and Lynah Rink, respectively. But this week, as the bitter enemies are set to throw down at Madison Square Garden, there are likely to be well over three times as many pairs of eyes bearing down.
The Frozen Apple — Cornell’s biennial matchup at The Garden against a team that isn’t Boston University — will take place this Saturday in Manhattan. But the stakes are higher than ever, as the Red (5-3, 3-1 ECAC) will transition from playing unfamiliar opponents, such as New Hampshire and Penn State, to playing its biggest rival on hockey’s biggest stage in America.
“You have the duel, on an NHL rink, in New York City,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “This is a fantastic venue for our guys to play in. Top that with the excitement of playing your rival.”
For the players, the setup makes for an ultimate experience. The chance to play against Harvard (2-3-2, 1-2-2) on such a big stage is an opportunity the team has been excited about from the plan’s inception last season.
“When we first heard the rumor of [playing Harvard at MSG], the guys were like, ‘We need to make this happen,’” said senior defenseman and alternate captain Alec McCrea, who was originally committed to play for Harvard before ultimately deciding on Cornell. “All the guys are so stoked especially because of the tradition that we have with them, and now it’s on a bigger stage with more people and that rivalry we have is going to be second to none.”
The historic neutral-ice matchup between the bitter ECAC rivals will not technically count towards conference play, but that has not changed the level of intensity for anyone.
“This game is just as big as any other game for us,” said sophomore forward Morgan Barron. “I’m sure there will be no love lost.”
Barron, a New York Rangers draft pick, is getting his second crack at playing on what one day he hopes will be his home ice full-time. In his young collegiate career, the Halifax, Nova Scotia native has already made an impression, having led his class in points last season and already matching his goal total from a season ago with five tallies — most on the team so far.
“I try to just stay focused on the present moment and keep myself contained within the game right now,” Barron said. “Certainly I hope things work out on that front, and I do get to play there more often someday.”
Cornell won both matchups against the Crimson last season, including a thrilling affair at Lynah in which McCrea scored the winning goal in the game’s final seconds. Later, the Red would dominate Harvard in Cambridge, 3-0, behind a memorable 35-save shutout by then-freshman goaltender Matt Galajda. The Red currently leads the all-time series 76-65-11.
“Games with Harvard are always fun games to play in,” Barron said. “But we know it’s going to be a battle so just mentally preparing for that this week.”
Cornell enters the contest having won five of its last six, with the lone loss in that time span coming courtesy of a fluke goal by Quinnipiac defenseman Chase Priskie last Friday. The Red bounced back the following night against Princeton, 5-1, avenging the ECAC semifinal upset at Lake Placid a season ago.
Harvard sports one of the nation’s highest-scoring offenses at 3.86 goals per game. Defenseman Adam Fox, a preseason All-ECAC pick, leads the nation in points per game and has cemented himself as one of the premiere playmakers in the country.
“The biggest thing for us is knowing who’s on the ice for them and the situation,” McCrea said. “As a defensive side, knowing the situation within the game and playing to our strengths. And our strengths are sticking to our system and focusing on the fundamentals and the details.”
Puck drops in the 153rd chapter of the historic Ancient Eight rivalry at 8 p.m. on Saturday in New York City.