We all know deep down what that dirty secret is. Cornell, in recent memory, has not quite dominated its historic foil the way that it once did under Coach Schafer. Harvard's Ted "I played in the NHL" Donato has many shortcomings. He gave the Crimson five seasons under 0.500 and looks to be gifting them a sixth in the near future. Already, Donato has given Harvard 18% of the losing seasons that it has endured in its 116-year history in a mere nine seasons.
How does this relate to our collective, communal secret? Much has been made about the fact that Cornell has not defeated the Crimson since November 2011. It is true that Cornell is 2-3-1 against its archnemesis since Schafer and the 2009-10 team complied the most dominating trouncing that either participant of this rivalry has ever wrought with a 4-0-0 season record. What's alarming is how Donato has fared against the carnelian and white.
Harvard's current bench boss has held Cornell to an 11-11-2. A coach that languishes below 0.500 on a regular basis has managed to equal Cornell's record in contests that he coached against the Big Red. That span includes two Whitelaw Cup teams and four teams that narrowly missed the Frozen Four. Clearly, or Cleary if you prefer a misspelled pun, Donato has the ability to motivate his team against its rival, the fearsome Big Red hockey machine.
Let's put an end to this.
This series is the one for which the common, impassioned tropes are needed least, but come most readily. In light of the last few seasons in Cambridge, the philosophical distinction between these two athletic programs scarcely could be starker. That adds yet another wrinkle to this already rich rivalry. It is sufficient to say that the usual barbs that the Lynah Faithful level at Harvard have gained particular acuity, in many cases replacing the satire of bygone eras.
More than a Diversion
Perhaps the hardest part of Harvard Week on the road is the need to play Dartmouth. The emotional build-up or hangover, depending upon the sequence of the contests, many times proves fatal for Cornell teams. Cornell will need to avoid too great a catharsis, no matter the result against Harvard. Assistant Coach Scott stated that Dartmouth, despite its misleading record, is playing sound hockey. Usually, a member of the Faithful would consider that mere class and respect for one's opponent, but after last season, the Lynah Faithful have an appreciation for how true that can be.
Half of Dartmouth's losses have been within one goal. Among those one-goal losses are impressive performances against Providence and Union, two teams that execute at a very high level. The Big Green recently defend ECAC Hockey's honor in tackling Boston University. Yes, a win against Boston University is not worth what it once was this season, but it is a feat that Cornell could not achieve. Furthermore, in a clear battle of defenses, Dartmouth forced Northeastern to accept an 8-8 tie. Not impressed? Northeastern is nestled solidly in the prospective NCAA Tournament field presently.
Dartmouth's offense has been unable to compensate for its shortcomings behind the blue line. The Big Green scores nearly three goals per game, but surrenders on average one more goal per contest. Dartmouth's defense is ranked in the bottom five of the nation. Three goaltenders have seen action for the New Hampshire Ivy. None of them have produced a save percentage above 0.900. Charles Grant is closest at 0.895. Grant has seen all of Dartmouth's start since the middle of November. He is the netminder whom Cornell will oppose.
Depth seems to be escaping Dartmouth's offensive front. Eric Neiley has been producing a respectable season, but the attention paid to Dartmouth's less-than-stellar record has directed attention away from it. More than one-fifth of the times that the Big Green has bested an opposing netminder, it was Neiley who did it. His goal total more than and point total nearly doubles the pace of Brad Schierhorn, his nearest competitor on Dartmouth's roster.
If Cornell can shut down Neiley, then the task of defeating Dartmouth becomes much easier. Dartmouth is a team that will find a rhythm at some point this season. Cornell's greatest task will be to ensure that it does not occur at its expense. An emotional hangover after a game against Harvard and a Dartmouth team's anticipating getting hot could spell disaster for an undisciplined Cornell effort. However, this Cornell team in particular has shown that it can demonstrate keen mental and emotional discipline.
The Task at Hand
Beat Harvard. Is that not enough? A cursory glance through the annals of Cornell hockey indicates how the Cornell-Harvard series of a season sets the pace for that season. There is neither a definite nor predictable way that it does, but its influence is undeniable. These two games are the biggest of the regular season.
Harvard is mere seasons removed from owning the best power-play unit in the nation. This season, that honor nearly rests on East Hill where Cornell's power-play unit is ranked second nationally in terms of power-play conversion. Harvard has been relegated to the bottom 15 in the nation on the power play. However, Raphael Girard and the penalty killing in Cambridge have the Crimson among the nation's elite in reducing opponents's conversions rate.
Yeah, Raphael Girard. He is the near-bane of Cornell's existence in recent memory. He manages to produce stellar performances against Cornell no matter his general statistics over the season. He had a veritable implosion at Madison Square Garden last weekend. If he gets the nod, the goaltender who owns a 0.931 save percentage and 2.38 goals-against average, he will be ready to outperform both against the Big Red.
The difficulty that Harvard poses is very unlike that which Dartmouth poses. When Dartmouth begins to win, it will do so as a result of playing as a more cohesive unit in sounder systems. The opposite will be true of Harvard. Harvard will tack together a series of wins when it begins embracing its overwhelming talent and ignoring the rudiments imposed upon it. Harvard's greatest chance for success is to give into the temptations of its raw talent and play like a traditional all-star team.
Any team, like a Cornell or Union, that harnesses the skills of individual players but puts them to use for a collective, team good through sacrifice and selflessness will make quick work of an all-star approach. But, succumbing to the latter is Harvard's best chance. Harvard is awash in talent. That is its greatest threat to Cornell.
Cornell is talented. The Big Red have employed a creative and efficient power play throughout the season. The penalty kill seems poised to join its man-advantage counterparts in the second half of the season. Since Fall final exams ended, Cornell has killed every power-play opportunity that it has relinquished to opponents. That includes two stifling efforts against special teams ranked in the top 20 in the nation. Look for this trend to continue.
All hands will need to be on deck for generating Cornell's offense. The midseason exhibition contest against the Russian Red Stars indicated the promise and depth of this squad. The second half of conference play has arrived. Now is the time to realize potential. Cornell's top producers will need to continue to produce. And, it is time for more freshmen to step up.
No freshman, including Mitch Gillam, who has played in more than one contest has not tallied a point. If the freshman talent on Cornell's squad has seasoned over this brief hiatus, Cornell will have an untapped arsenal with which to challenge its historic foe. Contributions from freshmen, especially considering past results, should become an expectation rather than a surprise.
The reason that Cornell's offense will need to be spectacular is the same reason why Andy Iles will need to maintain his outstanding form from Florida. Iles has never surrendered more than two goals at Lynah East. He stood many times as the difference in Cambridge. He will have one last time to do that. If he delivers a flawless performance, he would enter another elite of Cornell netminders.
It Is Time
Cornell has the skills to make a run. What better place than here? What better time than now? Schafer and this team can put Donato back in the losing column and give Cornell its first victory over the Crimson in far too long. A suspect call on an obvious Ferlin goal erased the tally that would have stood as the game-winning marker at Lynah East. Cornell has been on the cusp of another breakout in its series with its loathsome opponent. It can begin tonight.
Here's hoping we see the carnelian and white strike the match for a red-hot run.