Calling tonight's Harvard men's hockey game at Cornell big would be an understatement.
Since the game marks the beginning of the stretch run for the Crimson (11-8-1 overall, 9-5-1 ECAC), it is huge. If Harvard wants to have any shot of winning its fourth consecutive ECAC regular season championship, it pretty much has to win at least six of its final seven league games over the next four weekends.
Harvard enters tonight's game in an unusual position for this time of the season--second place. And the seeding might go down a notch or two even if the team wins tonight, since every other ECAC squad except Colgate will have a chance to make up ground on the Crimson, which plays only one game this weekend.
Harvard is currently tied with Brown at 19 points, two points behind league-leading Clarkson, while RPI is right on both teams tails with 17 points.
"Right now we're going game by game," junior Kirk Nielsen said. "We split up our season into three distinct periods, and we're 0-1 in the third [portion]."
Period number three started with Monday night's 7-6 loss to Boston College in the Beanpot opener.
Harvard fell behind 4-0 after 20 minutes and seemed like it would get blown out. However, the team came back with a lot of heart and almost tied the game, but ran out of time.
"Most teams would not have the character to fight for those last 40 minutes," captain Ben Coughlin said. "That the team didn't give up is just as important as winning."
Big Bad Red
Cornell (7-9-3, 5-6-3) plays a very physical brand of hockey, as does Boston College and Princeton--the two foes that defeated Harvard this past week.
The Big Red enters tonight's 7:30 p.m. match-up at Lynah Rink on a four-game unbeaten streak (3-0-1), winning by one goal at both Vermont and Dartmouth this past weekend.
"We've played good hockey the past two weeks, and we're starting to grow," Cornell coach Brian McCutcheon said.
Freshman center Ryan Smart has been one of the bright spots for McCutcheon's relatively young squad. Smart recorded a hat trick at Dartmouth and has racked up 13 points (9 goals, 4 assists) over his last four games.
Sophomore defenseman Steve Wilson leads the Big Red With 21 points (6 goals, 21 assists), while senior center Jake Karam follows close behind with 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists).
In the teams' first meeting this season, in the Crimson's home opener back on November 18, Harvard topped the Big Red, 4-2.
The Crimson jumped out to a 3-0 lead, surrendered a pair of goals in the second period and held on for the win.
A fast start again is crucial for the Crimson, especially after the disastrous opening 20 minutes on Monday. Furthermore, falling behind early could put the team in another very tough situation because Lynah Rink has some of the noisiest and meanest fans in the country.
"They have one of the toughest places to play to play in," Neilsen said. "We want to try to neutralize the crowd right away with a couple of quick goals."