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Game to watch: Harvard vs. Cornell

Harvard vs. Cornell hockey Cornell forward Joel Lowry is an LA Kings draft pick; Harvard blueliner Danny Biega was taken by the Carolina Hurricanes. (Rich Barnes/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

If you miss watching live NHL games, the entertaining CHL-Russia Super Series has been a good televised substitute and now we'll start getting a bit more college hockey on U.S. TV. Friday night brings a good match-up to NBC Sports Net: the Harvard-Cornell game, two long-time ECAC arch-rivals that are ranked in the Division 1 Top 20 by USCHO.com.

With no NHL to broadcast, NBCSN is giving this game the full treatment with Mike Emrick and Pierre McGuire calling the action. The game was on the network's schedule from Day 1, so it's not replacement programming, which speaks to how much they think of it, one of the biggest showdowns in college hockey.

Both Cornell and Harvard have sagged in recent weeks and hope to turn things around at Cornell's sold out and always lively Lynah Rink, where hostility toward the visiting team is legendary.

“It’s huge,” senior Harvard forward Alex Fallstrom told The Harvard Crimson while speaking of the rivalry. “It’s going to be a packed barn, loud, probably not a single Harvard fan in the stands. It’s going to be fun though.”

“We are all excited, trying to give the freshmen a little preview of what it’s going to be like,” fellow Harvard senior Luke Greiner added. “The atmosphere is pretty incredible.”

This will be the 140th meeting between the two schools, with Cornell holding a 71-60-8 series lead. Their series was split 1-1-1 last season, but Harvard knocked Cornell out of the ECAC Tournament in the semifinals last March. The home team has a 34-21-6 edge in games played at Lynah.

With most of last season's team returning, Cornell (4-2-1) was highly touted going into the season, thanks to lots of size and experience plus a surly attitude. Six Big Red skaters have been drafted by NHL clubs: Forwards Joel Lowry (Kings) and Brian Ferlin (Bruins) plus defensemen Nick D’Agostino (Penguins), Kirill Gotovets (Lightning), Reece Willcox (Flyers) and Braden Birch (Blackhawks).

Lowry, a sophomore, is tied with seniors Greg Miller (a strong two-way forward who has been Cornell's top scorer in each of the last two seasons) and John Esposito (the brother of former Penguins first round pick Angelo Esposito) with three goals and an assist apiece. But the top scorer for Big Red is sophomore defenseman Joakim Ryan, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound Jersey Shore kid who has six assists. Ryan set a Cornell record for goals by a freshman blueliner (7) last season, so he's more than a set-up guy.

The Big Red's best start in four years included a pair of victories over Colorado College, so it was no surprise that Cornell was ranked first in the ECAC...until it dropped both of its games last weekend: a 5-3 loss at Princeton and a 4-1 loss at Quinnipiac. But even before those defeats, Big Red coach Mike Schafer had concerns. The previous week, in a home-and-home against Colgate, his team was badly outshot in a win (junior goalie Andy Iles made 24 saves in the first period alone) and had to rally from 0-2 for a tie in the other game. Cornell has been prone to taking penalties at bad times and having to defend three-against-five too often.

Against Princeton last weekend, the Big Red again rallied from 2-1 down to take a late 3-2 lead in the third period, but couldn't hold it, surrendering two late goals in two minutes, plus an empty netter. Cornell's penalty-killers gave up three in five attempts and were two men down twice. Then against Quinnipiac, the Big Red came out strong but ran into a hot Bobcats goalie before once again putting two in the box and surrendering a power play goal on the back end of the 5-on-5. For the third straight game, Cornell fell behind 0-2 and this time couldn't pull out of it. That made them winless in their last three games.

As always, Cornell is a defensively oriented squad that's been getting very good goaltending from  Iles (.937 save percentage, 2.14 GAA). A local kid from Ithaca, NY, he has started 42 consecutive games (including every game last season) and has seven career shutouts. He wasn't drafted by an NHL team (although he attended the Carolina Hurricanes' conditioning camp last summer) and you can assume that scouts are watching him this season to see if he'll be worth pursuing.

But coach Schafer has been concerned that the team in front of Iles has been unable to put a full 60 minute effort together in recent weeks. It's been outshot by an average of 30-23 in its first six games, scoring as many goals as it has given up (14) and seven power play tallies in 31 shorthanded situations (22.6 percent). Those stats are not good enough for this team.

You can expect Harvard to try to penetrate Cornell's defense and get bodies and pucks to the net. “We are going to look to put a lot of shots on (Iles), get some traffic,” Greiner said. “Definitely take away his eyes. He makes the first save pretty well, so we are going to have to get some rebounds, passing plays and stuff like that.”

Coached by former Boston Bruin Ted Donato, Harvard began the campaign by defeating Bentley and Brown, then lost to Yale and Union. The Crimson rebounded with a 4-0 shutout of RPI last Saturday.

Harvard also has some NHL draftees on its roster: Senior forward Alex Fallstrom (Bruins, acquired from the Wild), sophomore forward Colin Blackwell (Sharks), senior All-American defenseman and team captain Danny Biega (Hurricanes), sophomore goalie Steve Michalek (Wild), and freshman Jimmy Vesey (Predators).

Fallstrom, a natural leader who was a captain for Djurgarden's youth team in his native Sweden and later at Shattuck-St.Mary's prep school in Minnesota (where Sidney Crosby played for a year), has four points as does sophomore Tommy O'Regan (a Needham, MA, kid whose father Tom had a long career playing in Europe and minor pro plus a season with the Penguins).

But Vesey (profiled here) has made even more noise for the Crimson in the early going with seven points, including five goals. At 6-1 and 195 pounds, he scored two goals and had an assist in his first college game and kept it up. He was named ECAC Rookie of the Week last Tuesday and could skate for Team USA in the World Junior Championships in December. Vesey's father Jim also had a brief NHL career with the Blues and Bruins and played seven years as a minor pro.

But not enough Crimson skaters have been productive. They've gotten only 15 goals in five games and Vesey has scored a third of them. Donato is hoping his club can find some offensive consistency.

The rest of us are just hoping to see more good hockey games. It's something we've been missing this fall.

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