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Big Red Obstacle Blocks Icemen's Path

Harvard Opens ECAC Quarterfinals Toinght Against Cornell

By Michael R. Grunwald

In tonight's ECAC first-round playoff battle in Ithaca, N.Y., the Cornell men's hockey team will be fighting to get the monkey off its back.

And Harvard will be fighting to get everyone off its back.

For the third-place Big Red (14-9-3 overall, 12-7-3 ECAC), this weekend's two-game miniseries represents a chance to end a five-year jinx. The Crimson (13-12-1, 12-9-1) has handled Cornell the last 11 times the squads have faced off, including two impressive victories this season.

"I'm not sure Harvard's history will give it a psychological edge," Big Red forward Ryan Hughes said. "It's 0-0 right now, and we'll have our fans behind us 100 percent."

Harvard Coach Bill Cleary is concerned about more recent history. His squad has struggled of late, dropping five of its last six regular-season games. Harvard's new athletic director would rather not end his coaching career in faraway Lynah Rink.

"I don't like to think about the negative things," Cleary said. "I don't do that stuff. I've had a great 22 years here. I just want the kids to win it for themselves."

Harvard has taken a lot of flak from a lot of detractors this season, thanks to lofty expectations and some disappointing results. Needing at least one victory to secure a .500 season, the Crimson has something to prove. And Cleary still believes his skaters are among the nation's best.

"If we skate and forecheck and really play our game, we can beat any team," Cleary said.

4 is Better Than 3

The first two times the teams squared off, Harvard's four lines were able to wear down the Big Red's three. But the Crimson enters this weekend with a lot of aches and pains, and without injured forward Ted Drury.

Depth could again be a factor, placing some pressure on Harvard's third and fourth lines to reverse their recent slump. Cleary isn't expecting the green and yellow lines to produce multiple-goal nights. But he does expect them to forecheck, play tenacious defense and keep the opposition off the scoreboard.

"We have to do a lot of things off the scoreboard, the forechecking, the hustle work, like we were doing in January," fourth-line wing Scott Barringer said. "Lately, we haven't been finishing off our checks, so we're not keeping the other team bogged down in their own end."

Cleary will rely on first-line forwards Mike Vukonich and C.J. Young, the second- and third-rated scorers in the league, to supply some offensive punch.

As usual, Cleary isn't worrying about who Cornell Coach Brian McCutcheon sends onto the ice. But he can expect to see a lot of Joe Dragon and Ross Lemon, the Big Red's leading scorers, as well as blue-liners Dan Ratushny and Tim Vanini, who comprise the best defensive pairing in the ECAC.

No Expectations

And he can keep in mind that the Crimson isn't the only squad that has failed to live up to its preseason billing.

"I'd say we haven't won a big game all year," Cornell freshman phenom Kent Manderville said. "We have a lot to prove. These guys took it to us here on our own rink."

Seniors' Farewell

Harvard seniors C.J. Young, John Murphy, Tod Hartje, Brian Popiel and Scott McCormack are hoping the Crimson can win this miniseries to extend their collegiate careers.

"I think we're going to win," said Popiel. "When we play with emotion, we can beat anybody. For a while, we had injuries, and then a lack of intensity, and lately, we've had no team defense. But we're definitely a talented team."

The Crimson has played uninspired hockey during its recent slump. But a playoff game in front of 4000 Lynah Rink crazies with Cleary's coaching career on the brink should provide a strong incentive for the emotion Harvard needs.

"If we can't get up for this game," forward John Weisbrod said, "we'll never get up."

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