Shades of Red: Cornell-Harvard Battle Again at ECACs
Crimson and Big Red Renew Rivalry on Grand Stage
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Here they go again.
For the 11th time since 1996, Cornell and Harvard face each other in an ECAC postseason game. The archrivals — who squared off in the championship games in 1996, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006 — will battle against one another in primetime in Friday's ECAC semifinal at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y.
And leading the way for their respective alma maters are coaches Mike Schafer for Cornell and Ted Donato for Harvard.
Schafer boasts a 7-2-1 career record against the Crimson in the playoffs, but Donato, who won a national championship as a junior in 1989, has led Harvard to three consecutive wins against Cornell, including each of the last three ECAC regular season finales.
Another recent and memorable win over Cornell was the aforementioned 2006 ECAC championship game in which an opportunistic Crimson offense picked apart a traditionally stingy Big Red defense to win 6-2.
Indeed, it's been Harvard that's had Cornell's number of late.
Said Schafer of Friday night's showdown, "It'll be a fun game. They have a lot of experience with five senior forwards, guys who've been there. The last couple of games have been very, very close."
The most recent example was March 1 at Cornell's Lynah Rink, just less than three weeks ago. Tied 1-1 in the third period, Harvard scored the go-ahead and eventual game-winning goal with less than seven minutes remaining in regulation.
"We were able to win at Lynah, but it was a tight game," recalled Donato. "2-1 with an empty-netter that made it 3-1. They're a very good team, and in general, they present a lot of challenges in the sense that, with special teams, they're always superb. Their goaltending and defense are among the tops in the league. So we expect this to be a hard-fought battle. To me, both us and Cornell are two teams that have really made great strides throughout the season."
The strides to which Donato alludes have certainly been the most dramatic for the Crimson. Harvard — which, like Cornell, did not advance to the ECAC final four last season — struggled through a 10-game winless streak earlier this year.
Now, more recently, it's lost only once in its last nine games.
Said Donato, "We have a group of seniors that had been [to the ECAC final four] their first two years. We graduated a group of seniors the year before that had been there four straight years. Last year was a tough pill to swallow for our team, and I think it really put an emphasis on having a better finish this season and trying to get home ice and make it into Albany. We have put ourselves in a position where we have the opportunity to compete for the ECAC championship.
"Our senior leadership has really stepped up in the last second half of the season for us. It's been pleasant from the coaching staff's eyes to see them kind of take over the room and take over our preparation for games."
And in true form for this experienced Harvard team, all three goal-scorers in the regular season finale at Cornell, which clinched a first-round bye for the Crimson, were seniors: Mike Taylor, Paul Dufault, and Tyler Magura.
Meanwhile, a much younger Cornell team had to play a first-round series after losing that finale to Harvard. The Big Red won its first game against Dartmouth, lost the second, and dominated the Big Green 6-0 in the third and decisive game.
That third game, said Schafer, may have helped the Red finally turn the corner after what had been an inconsistent season to that point.
"We definitely cleared a mental hurdle beating Dartmouth in game three, in the sense that it was a big game," said Schafer. "I think we came out and played really hard and very consistently. In other games, we haven't played with poise or haven't remained focused throughout the course of the game. And in that game, we did. I think it was just a relief for the young guys to know they can do it."
That momentum clearly followed Schafer's squad to Union this past weekend, when the Big Red upset the Dutchmen with a two-game sweep at Messa Rink. In each of the two games, Cornell was given a power play opportunity late in the third period. And in each situation, Schafer called a timeout just seconds before the Big Red scored the go-ahead goal.
Cornell was the only team in the ECAC to sweep its quarterfinal series last weekend.
Said Schafer, "In both games, we gave up the lead in the third, and we got the power play [opportunities] at such critical times in the games. You just want to make sure that everybody's on the same page. We don't really need a time out for any other situation. We just made sure that our guys were in their position and focused to execute."
While Cornell was finishing off Union in two games, the Crimson was involved in a perplexing series of its own in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard embarrassed Quinnipiac in game 1 of the series, winning 11-0, but fell 7-4 the following night.
Donato's group then rebounded to close out the series with a solid 3-1 win on Sunday.
"It was a little bit of an aberration," said Donato of Harvard's 11-0 win on Friday. "It was one of those strange situations that happens sometimes in playoff hockey where the ball gets rolling in the wrong direction for a team, and they can't stop the bleeding. Saturday night, we fell into the trap of going back to some of the poor habits that we picked up late in the game on Friday. Quinnipiac did a good job, and we had a tough time shutting down their power play and staying out of the box.
"Sunday, I thought was really more indicative of the type of series we thought we were going to have going in, where it was a very tightly contested game that could have gone either way. We were able to make some plays. I thought the style and tempo of the plays were more indicative of our play over our last six weeks."
Now, Harvard will try and win its fourth ECAC championship this decade, winning in the last three even-numbered years (2002, 2004, 2006). Going through Cornell — ECAC champions in 2003 and 2005 — will be a tough task considering it's never easy for a team to beat another three times in one season.
But the Crimson seniors are battle-tested.
Said Donato, "You start with our captain, Dave Macdonald, who was and has been excellent for us coming down the stretch and really has stepped as a leader both on and off the ice. Mike Taylor has been getting better and better and has really elevated his leadership and his play on the ice to a great level ever since our exam break. Alex Meintel is a guy who came in after having missed over a month and comes back and has five points [against Quinnipiac]. Over the weekend, in a do or die playoff series, Dave Watters steps up and has eight points on the weekend, matching his goal total for the whole season. I thought Tyler Magura maybe had his best game of the season on Sunday.
"That class has really stepped up."
The key players for Cornell, on the other hand, have been sophomore Colin Greening and freshman Riley Nash. The duo ranks first and second on the Big Red in scoring. But this is the playoffs, and for Cornell, the M.O. rests, as always, on goaltending. Sophomore Ben Scrivens had 41 saves in the game 2 win against Union on Saturday and his goals-against average (2.01) and save percentage (.931) both rank in the top ten in the country.
Said Schafer, "[Against Union], a lot of shots came from the outside and from the perimeter. Ben did a tremendous job, for the most part, with controlling rebounds and putting pucks in places where they couldn't generate offense. In a lot of cases, shots can be a misleading statistic compared to scoring chances. He did a good job of not letting the shots they took turn into scoring chances."
Now, on Friday night, Scrivens will backstop the Big Red in yet another postseason game against the Crimson.
And in the end, only one shade of red will advance to Saturday's championship game, with the league title and an NCAA berth on the line.