This Week in the ECAC: Nov. 21, 2002

Two full weekends of ECAC play have gone by and not much has really been figured out. The only thing we know is that anything can happen in the wild and wacky ECAC. Speaking of wild and wacky…

Smell The Roses

If you pay any attention to ECAC hockey, you surely know that the big Harvard at Cornell matchup will take place Friday night at Lynah Rink. We’ve talked at nauseam about the fish, and everyone knows that Big Red fans hate Harvard.

The fact that the Cornell student newspaper ran a story on Thursday entitled “Harvard — You Still Suck” and then the following day provided a how-to guide for students planning to smuggle fish into the rink speaks clearly to that point.

Then there are the rampant and always entertaining Message Board posts about the rivalry. If you believe everything that is typed, you now know that Sam Paolini’s mother won the 50-50 raffle at last February’s game, you think that the Harvard coaching staff has been trying desperately to move the game to a neutral site and that the movie Love Story was a work of “Satan or his closest corporeal counterpart.”

The first statement may well be true, the second is all false and the third is a matter of opinion. What is without question is the fact that the Harvard and Cornell matchup will be entertaining for no other reason than that you have two of the best teams in the league facing off.

That — and not the number of fish thrown on the ice or mystifying stories made up — is what creates a true rivalry between two schools.

“When you play certain teams in big games, there’s a natural competitive rivalry,” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni, whose team is coming off a weekend sweep of Clarkson and St. Lawrence. “You create a hostility that is good and healthy; you saw it with Clarkson [last weekend].”

Mazzoleni has to feel good about this weekend after his team did something that it hasn’t done in eight years — sweep the North Country road trip. The last time it achieved that feat was back in January 1993. In doing so, the Crimson also received some pretty high praise from opposing coaches.

“They’re the best team in the league — maybe overall, but certainly the best team in the league with the puck,” said St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh, following a game in which his team was routed, 6-1.

Leading the charge last weekend was Tim Pettit, who scored three goals (two shorthanded) and two assists to earn ECAC Player of the Week honors. Harvard has now won four straight games, which marks the longest regular-season win streak in Mazzoleni’s career there. And right behind Pettit in the scoring column for Harvard is Dom Moore, who will be skating in his 100th career game on Friday night against Cornell.

The Big Red had a season-opening four-game winning streak, but that came to a halt against Dartmouth last Saturday. After Friday’s clobbering of Vermont, the Big Red had reached “juggernaut” status, but the Big Green brought them down to earth.

“We played very uninspired hockey for the first two periods,” Cornell head coach Mike Schafer said. “Our guys have to take a look at themselves and ask why they didn’t bring that intensity and focus.”

But if there’s any doubt that that both the intensity and the focus will be there on Friday, look no further than the fish the Cornell students will be trying to smuggle into Lynah. It should not take long for the Big Red to get right back on the wagon.

So when the excitement over the rivalry finally calms and the teams continue on their way through the season, the game will be remembered for what it is — a showcase of some of the best, budding talent in the ECAC.

Asked about his team’s rise to the top, Mazzoleni emphasized the point that a strong league invariably helps propel individual teams into the national spotlight.

“The ECAC needs Harvard and it needs teams like Vermont to get back up there,” Mazzoleni said. “The league hasn’t had the number of top teams that it had in the past. St. Lawrence, Clarkson and Cornell have pretty much done their yeoman’s share of staying at the top, but we need the Harvards of the world to be there.”

Seeing Blue

Yale coach Tim Taylor was asked: if told three months ago that he would have a 3-1 league record at this stage of the season, would he be happy?

The veteran coach cautiously answered in the affirmative.

“I guess if you had asked me if I would be satisfied with a 3-1 record at this point, the answer would have been yes,” said Taylor, whose team is coming off a weekend sweep of RPI and Union. “I always expect that we’ll do well and win. I never know in what fashion, but I guess that I am one of those optimistic guys who think that we’ll win every game we play.”

It’s hard not to be optimistic if you’re a Yale fan, after the team’s explosion out of the gates this season. Pundits expected the Bulldogs to be better, but few anticipated the team stealing some of the spotlight away from top contenders such as Harvard and Cornell. Through four league games, Yale has scored 20 goals, and over the past three contests has posted an average winning margin of four goals.

“We’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of success and I think that we’ve got an exciting offensive team,” explains Taylor. “We are pretty opportunistic and creative in the offensive zone.”

When you talk about offense, the immediate focus is on last year’s ECAC Rookie of the Year Chris Higgins, who has been thus far debunking the infamous sophomore jinx. Higgins has scored a point in every game and enters this weekend’s series with seven total points, including one shorthanded tally. However, lurking in the shadows of Higgins is a well-balanced offense that hasn’t really been present at Yale in quite some time and is probably the underlying reason why the team has been so successful this year.

“What’s nice about the current situation is that we find ourselves in a situation where there is more to worry about than just Chris Higgins,” said Taylor. “He’s our go-to guy, and he’s a comparable offensive threat to a guy like Jeff Hamilton, but he’s a different player than Jeff. There were times in Jeff Hamilton’s days when if they shut down the top line, they made it difficult for us to score.”

To Taylor’s point, the team’s leading scorer is not Higgins, but junior Ryan Steeves (2-6–8), and it is Christian Jensen who tops the team in game-winning goals with two. Those two players have teamed up with senior Evan Wax to become the most productive line for the team.

“It’s harder for teams to concentrate on just one line,” said Taylor. “Look at the Union game — it was a terrific game and one where Chris was kept off the goal-scoring sheet. We’ve got a situation in that the goal-scoring threat is spread throughout our lineup, so that creates problems for our opponents.”

The Bulldogs will face another tough challenge this week when they hit the road for a series against Dartmouth and Vermont — both unpredictable teams. The Big Green showed signs of offensive life last week by knocking off the Big Red, while the Catamounts continued their up-and-down struggle (especially in net) by splitting their series against Cornell and Colgate.

Although offensively Yale is clicking, the team has yet to prove itself defensively and between the pipes. Scoring droughts happen, so Yale’s true character test will come when it faces that obstacle.

Says Taylor, “As a coach that places a high priority on defense, I think that we have a long way to go before we’re the hockey team that I think we should be.”

Don’t Forget

While the focus this weekend is on the big Harvard-Cornell matchup and Yale’s start, the others involved in ECAC matchups may have some momentum going as well.

The Big Green swept last weekend after opening the season with two losses on the road. Vermont picked up a win on Saturday night against Colgate after a disastrous loss the night before to Cornell to gain momentum coming into the weekend. And Princeton picked up its first win of the season over Rensselaer on Saturday, holding off the Engineers late. Brown bounced back from a loss to Clarkson to down St. Lawrence on Saturday.

We’ll see who can keep it up, and who can rebound.

Outside the Box

The four teams not in ECAC competition this weekend have to wait to get back in. It wasn’t a great Saturday for any of these four teams, as all suffered a loss the last time out. Going out of the conference gives these teams another chance to tune up, with ECAC games in hand when they come around.

It’s Over

Well, it’s officially over at Clarkson: the Mark Morris era.

For those of us who are ECAC fans, it can’t be denied that the Morris era was a successful one at Clarkson.

Three ECAC titles, multiple 20-win seasons, NCAA appearances.

It still unclear what exactly happened on that Saturday afternoon, not to mention what happened in the ensuing 10 days, but one thing is certain: we’re glad it’s over.

There are still questions to be answered, especially after the comments by Morris last Friday evening — a lot that hasn’t come out. Who knows when it will or if it ever will.

Either way, we wish Mark the best. He’s always been professional and courteous in our dealings with him and though there were a few tense moments, we have nothing but the utmost respect for him. We hope you land somewhere, doing what you love, soon.