This post has been updated.
NEW YORK — After nearly seven months of hype leading up to a big-time rivalry showdown at the world’s most famous arena, Cornell men’s hockey failed to meet expectations on Saturday as it fell at the hands of its archrival Harvard, 4-1.
From start to finish, Cornell was lacking the usual energy and physicality that is typical of games against its fiercest foe, and the overall low-energy effort was clearly reflected in the game’s final score.
“Disappointing. Really disappointing, how we played tonight,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “That’s the least physical I’ve ever seen a Cornell team play in a game against Harvard.
“No life on the bench. … How could you be lifeless in this type of game?” Schafer said of his team in front of 14,132 at Madison Square Garden.
The first period of the non-conference contest was relatively even, and Cornell was able to break into a lead courtesy of freshman forward Liam Motley’s first career goal. But the Red proceeded to cough up its lead early in the second period and never regained it, in part due to the inability to capitalize on offense.
“We’ve got to bear down,” said senior forward and captain Mitch Vanderlaan, who had a game-high seven shots on net. “I must have had three or four grade-A chances myself, and I didn’t bury on a single one.”
All told, Cornell’s offensive production was poor overall, Harvard’s dismal defensive numbers notwithstanding. Cornell repeatedly rattled shots directly into the chest or pads of Harvard goaltender Michael Lackey and often sent pucks out of the Harvard zone because no teammates were there to receive them.
“I think [Lackey] played well,” Vanderlaan said of the Harvard netminder, who sported a meager 3.23 goals against average entering Saturday. “I think we could’ve done some things differently. We didn’t necessarily have the best traffic all night. … We didn’t bear on our chances.”
Motley’s goal was perhaps the lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable performance by Cornell. The rookie from Calgary chose quite a stage for his first collegiate goal, opening the scoring in a rivalry game at The Garden.
“Really special moment to get it here, especially, at Madison Square Garden,” Motley said. “Obviously it was unfortunate we didn’t really play our best game, but yeah, it felt really good.”
Saturday’s game was another in which the Red was without four of its key skaters: sophomore forward Brenden Locke, junior forward Jeff Malott, sophomore defenseman Alex Green and senior defenseman Brendan Smith. Those four players have all been starters and represent crucial pieces of Cornell’s offensive and defensive systems.
“Injuries are catching up to us,” Schafer said. “You have to face the facts here, too. We played three lines in the third period. Brenden Locke, Jeff Malott, Brendan Smith and Alex Green — they are a huge part of our team, but that doesn’t excuse the way we played. We have to go back to the drawing board. It was really disappointing to play that way in front of the crowd.”
The Red’s defensive effort fell victim to a couple of costly mistakes that eventually led to goals. In the second period, the Red was slow to get back on defense, which caused a 2-on-1 for Harvard and ultimately led to an easy pass-and-tap goal for Henry Bowlby that gave the Crimson its first lead, one from which it never looked back thanks to a second goal by Bowlby and empty-netter by Adam Fox.
“Our strength of our team is traveling in packs, … three guys around the puck,” Schafer said. “Especially when the puck was turned over tonight; I think [Harvard] had maybe three 2-on-1s a few 3-on-2s in the game. And that’s just lack of backside pressure from our forwards, just kind of standing up and watching what’s going on rather than moving their feet.”
The loss is Cornell’s first ever in the four installments of The Frozen Apple, the biennial event at The Garden where Cornell plays a team that isn’t Boston University. It also ends a streak of four consecutive unbeaten games at the arena overall; Cornell last lost at MSG to B.U. in 2013.
Asked whether he could take any positives out of the loss, Schafer wasted no time or breath in sharing his feelings.
“No,” he said.
The rivalry game between the Red and Crimson will not have to wait long for a rematch, as the Red will travel to Cambridge next Saturday after facing Dartmouth in Hanover on Friday.
“We have two games before break that can’t come fast enough,” Schafer said of the Green and Harvard next on the docket.