Harvard and Cornell: One of the Best Rivalries in College Hockey

There are things you just know will happen Saturday night when Cornell hosts Harvard at Lynah Rink: Fish will fly as the Crimson takes the ice, halibut entrails will make a few more red lines on the ice, and, without a doubt, Fair Harvard will be called a safety school.

But beside the creative chants, pep band tunes and unbridled puck mania that will surely envelop the sellout crowd—-announced at 3,836, though it will feel like twice that—there will be one element conspicuously absent.

A first-place team.

This marks the first time in nine meetings—dating back to a 1-1 tie at Lynah on Nov. 17, 2000—that neither the Big Red nor the Crimson is the ECAC’s first-place team. Entering the weekend, they’re tied for third place with Clarkson, five points behind league-leading Brown and two back of Dartmouth, and neither of them is ranked in the national polls.

Will that sap the enthusiasm out of the rivalry? Oh, please.

“The records go out the window,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer, “the polls, too.”

Yeah! That’s the idea. Toss ’em right out…Actually, no. Wait a minute. Hold those records and polls right there.

They might make Saturday night even more intense than usual.

The Crimson, as you know, hasn’t yet lived up to pre-season hype. Returning all but three regulars from a 22-win team, Harvard’s icemen stand 4-3-1 on the year, 3-3-1 in the ECAC. Their high point thus far was a convincing 5-2 defeat of Boston University, which helped them build a three-game win streak.

Then they were shut out at home by Clarkson for the first time ever.

Going into the season, the Crimson was the prohibitive ECAC favorite and one of the country’s top ten teams. Now, it’s in need of a few big weekends if it hopes to be a major contender for the Cleary Cup and an at-large NCAA tournament berth.

“This is probably our biggest road trip of the year, and now with the position our team is in, it’s kind of even bigger,” said junior defenseman Noah Welch. “We haven’t beaten Cornell since I’ve been here at their place. If we can do that, this could be a weekend that turns the page for us.”

Meanwhile, the Big Red began with high expectations of its own, following last year’s ECAC regular-season and tournament championships and Frozen Four appearance. But after losing a remarkable senior class, along with a Hobey Baker finalist goaltender, Cornell is off to a ho-hum 3-2-4 start.

Most puzzling, the Big Red 0-2-3 at Lynah, where it had been unbeaten in 25 straight when the season began. The last time the Lynah Faithful hadn’t seen a win through this many games was 1993.

A win during Rivalry Weekend, then, might be bigger than usual. “I know the fans want that a lot,” Schafer said.

Harvard-Cornell hockey is still bigger news on the Cayuga than the Charles, but epic ECAC championship bouts between the schools the last two years have resuscitated the rivalry in these parts.

Everyone wants to play in this one—Crimson players included.

Let’s face it: Bright Hockey Center should be renamed Bright Reading Center. It’s as quiet as a library on Friday and Saturday nights.

On the other hand, what’s not to love about Lynah’s electric atmosphere. Even people who’ve never been there before are looking forward to it.

“I’ve never been there or played there, but it’s all I hear about,” said Harvard freshman Dylan Reese. “I hear it’s one of the best places in college hockey to play, and in the world, frankly. I’m excited.”

So, forget the records and polls. Or, put them front and center on the bulletin board, if you’d like.

Either way, the game’s the thing.

Who will be the Son of Sam?

In as balanced a rivalry as this has been—four overtime games among the last nine—both teams have heroes. And in the most recent renewals of this one, Sam Paolini has been it for Cornell, and Tyler Kolarik for Harvard.

Paolini, who scored eight of 37 career goals against the Crimson, had the overtime game-winner in last year’s ECAC championship game. A feel-good story, Paolini earned the Hockey Humanitarian Award at the end of the season.

Paolini’s graduation has left Kolarik as the player with the most impressive history in the rivalry. Kolarik had a fairly important overtime goal of his own, in the 2002 ECAC championship game, and has more points against the Big Red (eight, on four goals and four assists) than any other Harvard player. Kolarik also leads the Crimson in scoring this year, with three goals and eight assists.

“Tyler Kolarik is a guy who, from a coach’s perspective, you can depend on every night, no matter if the score is close, or one-sided, or if it’s home versus the road,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “He brings the same focus, level of energy, and intensity to the rink every night.

“Those are the type of guys you win with. You don’t have to pump air up their ass to play. You know what you’re going to get.”

In Kolarik’s case, that means big goals. After all, were it not for Mark McRae’s goal late in last year’s title game, Kolarik’s third-period marker would have decided that championship, as well.

Traveling for the holidays?

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Harvard’s slow start was the fact that it came during what was, collectively, the easiest eight-game block of the season. Six home games were included in that span, but the Crimson went only 3-3, and its three ECAC losses are one shy of the number it had all of last season (17-4-1).

The flip side of Harvard’s home-heavy start is that eight of its next nine games are on the road, beginning Friday at Colgate.

“I think it’ll be good for us to get on the road, because I think the road-style game is going to benefit us now,” Kolarik said. “Play tight D, limit our mistakes, and win those one- or two-goal games. That’s the kind of game we’re going to have to play, night in and night out, whether we’re at home or on the road … It’s going to be that kind of a season, and the sooner we can realize that, the sooner we’ll be a successful team.”

The competition isn’t getting easier, either. At one point, the Crimson will play three ranked teams in a row—Boston College, Massachusetts and St. Cloud State.

And in its bid to make up for a sluggish start, Harvard has a big ally: Brown.

Because of the league’s geographical distribution, the ECAC has long structured its schedule around a travel partner system that pairs up the 12 schools with a nearby school. Each weekend, three sets of teams go on the road to play the other three pairs, visiting one school Friday and the other Saturday.

The Crimson’s travel partner is Brown. Given the Bears’ early-season success (6-1-1, 6-1-0 ECAC) and contrasting style, Harvard holds a tactical advantage in its Saturday night games, since most coaches focus preparation on the Friday opponent.

“It helps us, it helps Brown,” Mazzoleni said. “When we play the team that they played the night before, we know the other team had to play hard. I hope they feel the same way about us.

“Prior to about probably two years ago, that was probably the easiest trip anyone had. Now it’s completely changed.”

Clarkson coach George Roll, whose team lost in Providence but shut out the Crimson on the road last weekend, thinks the Harvard-Brown combo is the toughest in the ECAC.

He said both teams are different than he remembers from his time as a Clarkson assistant (1988-1996). Harvard won a national championship during that stretch, and was known for Billy Cleary hockey: Lots of tough, little forwards skating you dizzy, with a couple gritty guys on the back line to keep you honest.

Now, Roll said, “Harvard is a lot bigger, a lot more physical, a lot stronger.”

The Crimson used to be regarded as the tougher game of the two. Now it’s tough to call. The Bears are the 12th-ranked team in the country and have the nation’s best power play and its second-best penalty kill. Goalie Yann Danis is a bona fide Hobey Baker candidate.

“I haven’t seen everybody in the league yet, but with that goaltending, they could be the team,” Roll said. “That’s a very good hockey club with a real good goaltender.”

Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reached at morosi@fas.harvard.edu.