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The Harvard men's hockey team and Cornell, two sworn enemies, split the regular season series, each taking a game in the other's building.
But rivalries aren't meant to finish in draws and fittingly these two squads will meet this weekend in a best-of-three series in the Quarterfinals of the ECAC Championships in Ithaca, N.Y. The winner earns bragging rights, but more importantly a trip to Lake Placid for the ECAC Final Five.
Harvard (11-15-2, 9-10-2 ECAC) failed to advance to Lake Placid last year, falling at RPI in three games. The last two times the Crimson and Big Red met in the playoffs, Cornell (13-12-2, 10-9-1) has ended Harvard's season, including a 2-1 win at the ECAC Finals in 1996. The Crimson had been making a Cinderella-run through the postseason, but could not get the final victory needed for the NCAA berth.
"I think we're playing our best hockey at the right time of year," junior defenseman Tim Stay said. "We're sticking to the system."
Harvard faces a tall order to avoid extending the Big Red's playoff streak to three. Of all the teams in the ECAC, the Big Red presents the Crimson with one of its worst match-ups.
Despite splitting the season series, Cornell has had a clear edge in both games the teams have played. In Harvard's 2-1 victory on Nov. 13, the Crimson was outshot 34-14, most of which were high-quality. Senior goaltender J.R. Prestifilippo was unable to pull off similar heroics in a 6-2 defeat on Feb.4 at Bright. In the second period of that drubbing, Cornell outshot Harvard 19-4.
The Big Red has been able to dominate the shot chart because of its four-man forecheck. Running an aggressive version of the Detroit Red Wings' left-wing lock, the system denies the defenseman a breakout pass up the sides, forcing him to go up the middle.
This bodes particularly poorly for Harvard because its defensemen are not as adept carrying the puck up ice and making quick decisions, then actually guarding the blueline. Poor decisions in the breakout often result in turnovers, which would allow Cornell to utilize its primary advantage, size.
Harvard has had difficulty over the course of the season with bigger opponents.
In response, the Crimson will play a run-and-chip style game, alternating between skating up the middle and shooting the puck hard up the boards and fighting for it in the neutral zone. Because the Big Red's system presses four players forward, should the Crimson solve it, it will result in numerous odd-man rushes.
"If we can get into a transition game, we can be successful," Harvard Coach Mark Mazzoleni said. "But we're not going to be overly creative in breaking the puck out of the zone."
Even if the Big Red forecheck proves effective, it should find goals much harder to come by than it did at Bright. Despite scoring the third most goals in the ECAC, Cornell has one of the lowest shooting percentages in the conference. Moreover, Prestifilippo has been playing some of the best hockey of his career down the stretch, giving up just seven goals in Harvard's last four games. He will probably have to steal at least one game for the Crimson to advance.
Cornell will look to a trio of seniors to actually convert on whatever chances it receives. Mike Rutter, Doug Stienstra, and Ryan Moynihan lead the Big Red in scoring with 27, 26 and 24 points, respectively.
For the Crimson, the offense is led by its top line of junior center Steve Moore, senior winger Scott Turco and junior winger Harry Schwefel. Moore--who led the Crimson in scoring during the regular season for the third straight year--has found his offensive game down the stretch. He will have to be a menacing force, especially because he absorbs body checks better than any player on the team.
Harvard, though, will need contributions from its other lines as well. Junior winger Chris Bala and freshman winger Brett Nowak have each showed signs of bursting out of their January and February slumps over the past four games. Nowak scored his first goal since Nov. 27 last Friday against Union.
"We are not scoring goals, but we are getting chances," Mazzoleni said. "I always look at our chance-differential to determine just how struggling the offense is."
Mazzoleni likes to roll four lines, which would distribute the physical effects of the larger Big Red more evenly across the team--reducing fatigue in a three-game series.
Ultimately, the series could be decided on special teams. Harvard's power play has just been in a tailspin, going 4 for its last 44. Out of desperation, Mazzoleni has turned the man-advantage over to his assistants, which has produced better puck movement but still no tangible production. Harvard looks to return to basics this weekend.
"We've changed the power play to just get the puck on the net more," Stay said. "We need to get more shots on goal. That will create better chances to score."
Of course, no evaluation of the series would be complete without mentioning the crowd at Lynah Rink. One of the most boisterous in college hockey (see related story below), it will certainly have a fish-filled welcome for the hated Crimson. Of all the teams in the ECAC, Cornell has perhaps one of the biggest home ice advantages.
"I told the team that it's just noise," Mazzoleni said. "The crowd is only a factor when Cornell starts getting some momentum. You can take them out of the game."
Overall, Harvard--winners of three of its last four--is playing its best hockey of the season. Given the success of the Big Red against the Crimson this year, and the atmosphere at Lynah, it is hard to imagine a Harvard sweep. However, Mazzoleni has drawn up a sound game plan. If Prestifilippo has a little magic left and gets some offensive support then Harvard can move on to Lake Placid in three.
One final thing about rivalries--they're unpredictable. Expect to see another exciting chapter written in the Harvard-Cornell feud. No draws allowed.
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