LAST WILLS AND TESTAMENT: Harvard Fishes for Playoff Bid Against Rival Cornell

There’s nothing quite as humiliating as being pelted with dead fish.

Perhaps you’ve never experienced it, but the Harvard men’s hockey team certainly has. Every time it travels to Ithaca’s Lynah Rink to play ECAC rival Cornell, the Big Red fans offer their welcome in the form of flying seafood during pregame introductions.

But it’s not just the decomposing marine life that’s so demoralizing—it’s what it symbolizes.

Three of the past four times that Cornell has subjected the Crimson to such a pregame greeting, it has followed up by putting its money where its fish is, sending Harvard home with a loss. Last year’s episode was especially painful, as the Big Red scored two quick goals with under five minutes left to play to turn a would-be 2-1 Crimson victory into a 3-2 defeat. By this point, some of the more seasoned Harvard players may have developed a Pavlovian association between the stench of decaying ichthyoid and the sting of losing.

And now, with just one week left to play before the postseason begins, there it is again on the Crimson’s schedule: another visit to Lynah Rink, this time for the last game of the regular season.

There was a time when such a challenging coda to the 2007-08 campaign would have looked like a lost cause. As the Crimson slogged its way through nine straight games without a win in December and early January, there didn’t seem to be all that much hope looking ahead to the second half of the season, and especially not for the date with the Big Red, a team that presents a challenge even during the best of times. At the time, it seemed clear enough: whatever points Harvard needed to position itself for the ECAC playoffs, it would have to secure them before March 1.

But the playoff picture, and the Crimson’s role in it, has changed significantly since those winter doldrums. After a loss to Brown on Feb. 1, Harvard has won six of its last seven contests, and its only loss in that span may have been its best-played game of the entire season, a Beanpot-finale slugfest against Boston College.

Having suffered in the first half of the season from the lack of a single go-to scorer, the Crimson now seems to produce a different one every night, powered by multi-goal performances from co-captain Mike Taylor, senior Jon Pelle, and sophomore Doug Rogers. No Harvard player has scored more than 10 goals on the season, but four players have scored at least eight.

It isn’t just the offense that has seen marked improvement. After coming back to earth following his best-in-the-nation start to the season, sophomore goaltender Kyle Richter has returned to his old, impenetrable form, stopping 53 shots and surrendering just two scores last weekend as he crept back to No. 12 in the country in save percentage. From the net out, the 2007-08 Crimson has never looked better.

Which brings us back to Cornell. Don’t look now, but Harvard has vaulted ahead of the Big Red in the ECAC standings, and is poised to earn a first-round bye if it can simply tread water in the season’s final weekend.

Unfortunately, it may not be quite that easy. Fifth-place Union is in good position to sweep its final contests of the season at Yale and Brown, which would allow it to leapfrog Harvard and Cornell should either team fail to match that pace. And with Cornell (vs. Dartmouth) at Harvard (at Colgate) both favorites to win on Friday, it could mean that the final first-round bye will go to whoever comes away with two points when the two teams meet on Saturday night. After a turbulent and unpredictable season for the Crimson, it could very realistically all come down to this: another showdown in Ithaca, with crucial playoff positioning on the line. But this time, coming into Lynah Rink, Harvard won’t be the underdog.

Dead fish never smelled so sweet.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Rubin-Wills can be reached at