In the Northeast, gardening in January is an unusual activity — unless you are the Harvard men’s hockey team. On Saturday, the No. 18 Crimson will trip to New York for a showdown with storied rival Yale at the famed Madison Square Garden.
Harvard (7-5-2, 6-3-1 ECAC) returns to the world’s most celebrated arena for the fifth time since the 2013-2014 campaign. The “Rivalry on Ice” series pits the Crimson against the Bulldogs (6-8-0, 4-6-0) in Manhattan for the third time during this stretch and the first since 2015.
“I remember watching the game on live stream last year against Cornell,” said Harvard freshman forward John Farinacci. “It’s such a special event. We’re fortunate enough to play in a couple special events, like we were out in California, the Beanpot. I think this one is very special, too, especially being able to play a rival like Yale. This one’s definitely circled on the calendar.”
The tilt will mark the 260th meeting between the Crimson and Yale. Heading into the matchup, Harvard leads the overall series 145-92-22, while the squads are gridlocked at 2-2-1 in their last five affairs.
“Obviously, two pretty storied schools that have been around for a long time,” said Crimson sophomore forward Jack Drury. “I’ve gotten to play already three times against Yale. Every game was a battle. Everybody understands how important it is.”
THE PATH TO NOW
The familiar foes enter Saturday’s bout with contrasting season trajectories. Through the mid-way point of the schedule, however, both groups have experienced major ups and downs.
Harvard opened its slate with six straight victories, pacing the NCAA in per-game scoring and receiving .950-plus goaltending from the duo of senior Cameron Gornet (3-2-1, 3.15 GAA, .909 SV%) and freshman Mitchell Gibson (4-3-1, 2.46 GAA, .925 SV%). The scorching attack and stingy goaltending combined to give the Crimson a league-best per-game goal margin (+3.83).
While the impressive start to the year vaulted coach Ted Donato '91’s squad into the national top 10, several elements of Harvard’s game demanded improvement if the team wished to continue its early success. Through its six-game unbeaten stretch, the Crimson allowed more shots on goal than any team in the country (37.2) — luckily, the net-minding tandem was up to the challenge. Plus, the powerplay, which led Division I for most of last season (28.3%), remained effective at 20.8 percent, but it was clear that the implementation of new personnel would require some time.
After Thanksgiving, a pair of non-conference challenges from Beanpot foes, now-No. 4 Boston College and Boston University, dealt Harvard its first two defeats of the campaign. The Crimson saw its offense revert to a more realistic scoring pace, and crucial in-game lapses cost the team victories.
Looking to return to the win column, Harvard was facing its stiffest competition of the season: storied rival Cornell, ranked No. 2 both then and now. In the first half of the bout, the Big Red dominated as convincingly as one talented team can over another and claimed victory, 3-1.
A disappointing loss to visiting Colgate kicked off a three-week winter break for the Crimson — once 6-0 but heading into the holidays at 6-4 — on a low note.
“It’s clear that it was an up-and-down first half [of the season] with highs and lows,” said Harvard defenseman Reilly Walsh. “We start 6-0, we kind of had something going a little bit, but as [the season] moved forward we started to face some adversity, and the puck bounces kind of came back the other way. Sitting where we’re at, for being a younger team, I think that we’ve learned a lot of lessons.”
In four contests since returning from the hiatus, Harvard has put forth promising spurts of play but has also shown room for improvement, skating to a 1-1-2 record after Christmas.
Whereas more recent play has worn some of the luster off the Crimson’s start, Yale has reinvigorated its season with better results of late. The Bulldogs opened the schedule with a victory over Brown, but this positive start was fleeting. The Elis suffered five straight defeats, all to ECAC opponents.
December, though, began a new chapter in Yale’s season. To start the month, the Bulldogs triumphed over conference foes Rensselaer and Union before taking down Hockey East challenger Maine.
After resuming the schedule in the new year, Yale split decisions with New Hampshire and Vermont. The Bulldogs, winners of four of their last five, enter Saturday’s tilt a different team than the group that Harvard faced in mid-November.
“They’re 4-1 in their last five,” Drury said. “They’re hot right now. They have good forwards, good D, and solid goalies, so it’s going to be a good test for us. But we’re really looking forward to it, and we’re ready for the challenge.”
While the teams may be on divergent win-loss trajectories of late, the holistic picture generally favors the Crimson. Mid-way through the season, Harvard ranks fourth nationwide in per-game scoring (3.79), 39 spots ahead of Yale (2.36) among 60 Division-I programs. On the other side of the ice, the Crimson sits at 34th in the country in goals allowed per game (2.86); the Bulldogs are tied for 49th (3.29).
Special teams also tell different stories of these two teams. Even with the departure of powerplay wizard Adam Fox — who, incidentally, now plays his home games at Madison Square Garden as a New York Ranger — Harvard boasts a top-10 powerplay (26.0%), while Yale dwells in the bottom 10 (13.2%). On the kill, the Crimson is middle-of-the-road among Division-I teams (80.9%), but the Elis are once again bottom-10 (75.0%)
Regardless of the teams’ incumbent play, matchups between the Ivy League rivals tend to be hard-fought. This is the expectation ahead of the battle at Madison Square Garden.
“Only being around [the Harvard-Yale rivalry] a year, I’ve still gotten a pretty good taste,” said Harvard sophomore forward Casey Dornbach. “Obviously, you hear about the football, but I feel like every time we go their barn or they’re in our barn, it’s sold out and always rowdy — a very intense game. I don’t expect anything different this weekend.”
NOVEMBER’S WHALE OF A WIN
Saturday’s clash marks a third meeting between Harvard and Yale this season, in addition to the two regularly scheduled ECAC contests. The programs have already met once as part of the conference docket, a 6-1 Crimson victory in mid-November.
The wide final margin is somewhat deceptive: the game was not a lopsided affair for 60 minutes. In fact, despite the Crimson’s two-goal lead, the Bulldogs led in shots, 28-15, through two periods. Gornet’s 41-save performance (1 GA, .976 SV%) staved off the looming Yale attack and carried Harvard to victory.
“It was a closer game at the beginning,” Dornbach said. “We kind of ran away with it at the end. But that should not give us any false confidence. They’re a completely different team now, we’re a completely different team…. We can’t expect that it’s going to be the same kind of game.”
The Crimson’s four-goal third frame, featuring a man-up tally and shorthanded strike, extended the lead into blowout territory.
Since that meeting at Yale’s Ingalls Rink — nicknamed “The Whale” on account of its design — the Bulldogs have if anything picked up momentum and honed their game, rendering them a formidable opponent for Harvard.
“They’re physical and they’re big,” said Drury of Yale. “We know they’re going to come out hitting and playing strong in the corners. They have good speed, too, some high-end talent. So we’re going to have to play good D in the zone and capitalize on our chances when we get them.”
Both teams bring impact players into Saturday night’s head-to-head. The Crimson will ice a young lineup that plays a quick, skilled game.
The Harvard roster features a top forward trio on which each skater is currently scoring at better than a point-per-game pace: sophomores Dornbach (8–11—19) and Drury (4–8—12) and freshman Nick Abruzzese (6–10—16).
Dornbach is eighth in the country in points per game (1.36) and ranks top-20 in both goals per game and assists per game. Drury recently returned from the Czech Republic, where over the holiday season he represented the United States at the IIHF World Junior Championship for the second straight year.
Abruzzese, meanwhile, is the highest per-game scorer among all Division-I rookies (1.14). Fellow first-year Farinacci (6–7—13) is close behind Abruzzese on the list, ranking sixth in points per game among freshmen (0.93).
Joining the first forward line on the team’s top powerplay unit are two major contributors from the blue line, Walsh (4–9—13) and sophomore Jack Rathbone (4–9—13). Both defensemen are excellent puck-movers who generate a sizable portion of their squad’s offense on the back end.
Captain Nathan Krusko (1–2—3) and juniors Jack Badini (4–5—9) and Henry Bowlby (4–5—9) provide forward depth and timely contributions along with their veteran presences. On the other end of the experience spectrum, freshman Henry Thrun (2–7—9) has stepped up to fill key top-four minutes on the blue line, while chipping in offensively as well.
On account of these potent offensive pieces and puck-moving defensemen, the Crimson has the potential to light the lamp four, five, or even six times, as it did in mid-November at the Bulldogs’ expense.
Yale has weapons of its own, of course. Sophomore forward Curtis Hall (8–1—9) leads all players involved in Saturday’s contest in goals per game (0.80). Hall’s classmate Justin Pearson (3–6—9) shares the team lead in points on a relatively low-scoring squad. Additionally, junior forward Kevin O’Neil (1–5—6) has been a prominent member of the group’s top six forwards for several years.
On the back end, senior Billy Sweezey (0–6—6) contributes in both zones, as does sophomore Jack St. Ivany (0–8—8), team-leader in assists and former World Juniors teammate of Harvard’s Drury. Junior defenseman Phil Kemp (1–3—4) was also a member of the 2019 United States team that featured St. Ivany and Drury.
Between the pipes, the Elis are searching for a consistent answer in senior Corbin Kaczperski (5-6-0, 2.95 GAA, .896 SV%), who has seen double-digit starts for the past two seasons. While Kaczperski’s start to the season was shaky, he has shone in Yale’s recent stretch of solid play (4-1-0, 1.39 GAA, .953 SV%). Against Harvard, the senior backstop is 1-1-1 for his career, having faced the Crimson once in each of the past three seasons.
“There’s never going to be one of these [Harvard-Yale] games where one of the teams doesn’t give it their all,” Farinacci said. “It’s a rivalry game. Everybody looks forward to a Harvard-Yale game. The emotions are going to be high, and the seniors and the older guys have definitely harped on that, too…. Being able to stay even and stay neutral-minded is going to be huge.”
CULTIVATING THE GARDEN
Saturday’s installment of the Rivalry on Ice series, Harvard’s fifth game at the Garden since 2014, provides a chance for the Crimson to continue its winning ways at the renowned arena. In three appearances in consecutive campaigns, Harvard fell to Yale (twice, in 2014 and 2015) and Quinnipiac (2016). Last season, however, it reversed its fate at Madison Square Garden with a convincing 4-1 victory over rival Cornell.
“Everyone knows the job they have to do,” said Drury when asked of the grand stage on Saturday night. “If you’re not worried about the outcome, and everyone’s dialed into the present moment, then the stage and the implications kind of lose their weight, and you’re able to focus on doing your job.”
Last year’s win against the Big Red was, both in retrospect and at the time, a turning point for the Crimson’s season. Coach Donato’s group brought a lackluster 2-3-2 record into the game, and it was not yet clear that the team could rely on unproven goaltending and the young talent brought in to replace the departed scoring prowess of Olympian and now-National Hockey League player Ryan Donato.
A statement performance (1 GA, .968 SV%) from net-minder Michael Lackey, currently serving out his final year of collegiate eligibility as the starter for No. 12 Providence, fueled a motivated effort from the rest of the squad. The victory restored Harvard’s record to .500, a mark which the team would blow past in the ensuing months of inspired hockey en route to an NCAA Tournament berth.
Saturday night, the Crimson is facing perhaps another turning-point game — an opportunity to right the ship in a high-profile setting after recent inconsistency has muddied an impressive start to the season.
“That was a big moment in our season last year, beating a team like Cornell,” Drury said. “I think we came in prepared, we executed our gameplan, and that kind of set the standard for us for what we knew we needed to do in big games. We’ve won a couple big ones this year, but I think if we can come out and play our best, we can use that as kind of a measure for the rest of the season.”
While no ECAC points are at stake on Saturday — Harvard sits tied for third in the conference standings, while Yale is tied for eighth — the result at Madison Square Garden has meaningful consequences for the Pairwise rankings, the decider of NCAA Tournament hopes. Especially since the Crimson lost critical non-conference matchups against the Eagles and the Terriers in December, marquee wins outside of league play are of the essence. Saturday provides one such opportunity.
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.