ITHACA, N.Y. — Last season, an admittedly intimidated, up-and-coming Harvard team came into Lynah Rink and got swept out of the building by a team that had already arrived, getting it much worse than the 6-3 score would indicate.
The No. 15 Crimson have come a long way since then — defeating Cornell in last season’s ECAC championship game, and doing a good job throughout Friday night’s game of standing up to the No. 8 Big Red. Ultimately, however, Harvard dropped a 5-2 decision, this time in a game closer than that score would indicate.
“Physically, you see the difference between our kids now and three years ago, because you’ve got to be in the weight room hard,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni, now in his fourth season at the helm. “And now we can physically play. We’ve tried to develop size and skill. And I like our team — and I’m sure he [Cornell coach Mike Schafer] likes his team. That’s one of the good things about the rivalry — for a long time it’s going to be a 50-50 every night.”
It was an intense battle for more than two periods, and was a one-goal game until late in the second, when Cornell (5-1, 4-1 ECAC) did again what it did so effectively throughout the night; get good, hard, low point shots on net. This time, Shane Palahicky re-directed a shot from Charlie Cook, and the Big Red took a 4-2 lead.
Riding the momentum of that goal, Harvard had one of its few breakdowns of the evening about 30 seconds later, when Stephen Baby muscled his way to the front of the net, and found Cam Abbott all alone at the top of the crease for a 5-2 Cornell lead.
The shots were 12-5 in favor of Harvard in the second period, but when it was over, Cornell had the big lead.
“They were really surprised coming in here last year,” said Cornell goalie Dave LeNeveu. “They didn’t expect the excitement, because they don’t consider us as big a rival as we consider them. The older guys stepped up and told the younger guys what to be ready for, and they were mentally ready for what was coming. But we just came out and played our game and took control.”
With a power play to start the third, Harvard came out attacking and had some chances to get back in it, but the Big Red defense blocked some key shots — part of 21 blocked shots on the night — and then rolled to a solid win from there with no further scoring.
“They’re good at that. That negates a lot of ability going through,” Mazzoleni said.
“What I liked about our team in the third period, we kept coming at them. I knew they would sit back, but even when they sat back, we were able to advance the puck up and chip it, move it to areas, and attacks off speed and gain their zone and try to play down low. It shows we’re physically coming of age.”
Despite the loss, Harvard had no reason to hang its heads. The Crimson will get other chances at the Big Red this season, as the two teams have emerged as the powers of the ECAC.
“It’s a great rivalry battle. It’s one the ECAC needs,” said Mazzoleni. “It needs nationally-ranked teams butting heads more. That’s only going to help both teams. Both teams can take an awful lot of go forward, and see what was good and where they have to improve.”
The traditional Cornell-Harvard fish toss went off without a hitch this season — no Harvard players got pelted in the mask with a late throw, and no knucklehead fans sent anything flying after the referee’s penalty warning.
Thus, with the crowd charged up for the meeting of the ECAC’s two top teams and the renewal of a storied rivalry, the Big Red took advantage early with a low shot by Mark McRae through a screen that found its way in at 1:24. It sent the crowd into a frenzy, and the decibals rarely lowered the rest of the night.
However, unlike some past seasons, Harvard did not wilt, and throughout the first period pressured Cornell’s defense. The Crimson did not dominate at any point, but the pressure was consistent and strong.
The Crimson tied the game right away, when Dom Moore scored a power-play goal. But the Big Red took a lead into intermission thanks to Doug Murray’s point shot through a screen.
“They got the puck through from the point, and against us, they do a real good job boxing out in front,” said Mazzoleni, noting the ultimate difference in the game. “Our ability to get to the net. They did a real good job boxing out, and blocking shots, and also on second-chance opportunities.”
The first part of the second period saw Harvard get a number of good chances, but Cornell withstood it and took a 3-1 lead when Crimson defenseman Noah Welch fell down at his own blue line. That allowed Mike Iggulden to step up and feed Greg Hornby all alone in front for an easy goal.
Again Harvard responded to the adversity, getting another power-play goal just over a minute later on a deflection by Tyler Kolarik. But the Crimson were unable to capitalize on their good chances in the remainder of the period, and eventually the Big Red scored two opportunistic goals to put the game away.
“I was lucky that our guys were able to clear a path,” said LeNeveu. “Pucks are tipped and I was able to see it. It’s still not easy, but it’s still easier when I can see it.”
With a 26-24 shot edge, Harvard was the first team to get more than 16 shots in a league game against Cornell this season.
“It’s nice to stay busy in a game,” said LeNeveu. “When you only get 10-15 shots a game, it’s really hard to stay in the game. Your body gets cold and you’re not into it as much. But when you’re getting shots constantly, you’re right in the game with everybody else.”
Harvard also won the special teams battle, 2-0. The two power-play goals were the first allowed by Cornell in a league game this season. Meanwhile, the Big Red were 0-for-4 with the man advantage.
“They move the puck well on the power play and we do,” said Mazzoleni. “Both teams should have good special teams, we’re good teams. Our penalty kill is getting better.”
Harvard looks to bounce back against Colgate on Saturday, while Cornell faces Brown at Lynah Rink with another goaltending dual set between LeNeveu and the Bears’ Yann Danis; Danis, LeNeveu and Grumet-Morris have all played every minute of their team’s games this season.
“I feel great, conditioning-wise, with our conditioning program, we’re prepared for this,” said LeNeveu.
“I know I have to be on top of my game [against Brown]. It’s going to be a tight game. … They lost tonight and they’ll be hungry for us.”