With its season winding down to a critical stretch, the men’s hockey team has little room for mistakes.

This weekend, the Bulldogs (10-11-2, 7-8-1 ECAC) will take on conference rivals Colgate (15-10-3, 9-6-1) and No. 13 Cornell (11-6-6, 8-3-5) in hope of improving their conference standings before the ECAC hockey playoffs. But the Elis, who have struggled during the earlier periods of their past few games, can ill-afford a slow start against the Big Red and the Raiders, ranked second and third in the ECAC, respectively.

Against Colgate, the Blue and White has one simple mission: stop Austin Smith. The senior winger is the nation’s most prolific goal scorer with 30 tallies in 28 games, and the only player in Division I hockey to average more than one goal a game.

“With any good player, you want to take away space,” captain Brian O’Neill ’12 said. “[Smith] is having a good year so if we can take away space and time from him and be physical on him, we can have success against him. You can’t guarantee success against a player like him, but that’s the best approach.”

Drafted by the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars, Smith is a favorite to win the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the nation’s best collegiate hockey player. O’Neill, who leads the team with 15 goals and 28 points, has also been nominated for the prestigious award.

Even if the Bulldogs manage to slow down Smith, they still face daunting offensive threats from Colgate forwards Robbie Bourdon and Chris Wagner, who have 11 and 10 goals respectively for the season.

“[Colgate is] a hard working team,” forward Charles Brockett ’12 said. “They have one or two lines that are deadly offensively so we’ll try to neutralize them and take advantage of our chances. They’re well coached, and they do the little things that need to be done to win. We’ll try to do the same thing.”

The last time the Elis took on the Raiders, in November, goalie Jeff Malcolm ’13 orchestrated a defensive masterpiece, saving all 39 shots he faced en route to a 2-0 win. That game marked the beginning of a three-game shutout streak for Malcolm.

But since then, the Bulldogs have surrendered an average of 3.41 goals a game. Neither Malcolm nor Nick Maricic ’13 could solidify their status as the starting netminder, forcing head coach Keith Allain ’80 to rotate between the two based on their game time performance.

Malcolm’s strong showing against Clarkson last weekend likely earned him another start on Friday.

“We’re going to two hostile environments against two of the best teams,” Brockett said. “You know they’ll get their chances, so getting good goaltending and having Malcolm make all the saves he’s supposed to make and even a couple he’s not supposed to make will be huge in determining the outcome of the game.”

To make matters worse for the Elis’ defense, stalwart Kevin Peel ’12 will miss this weekend’s action due to a concussion sustained in the loss to St. Lawrence last Friday. The senior also missed two games at the beginning of the season with a broken leg.

While Cornell does not have a forward of Smith’s caliber, the Big Red has thrived this season by spreading the scoring burden among its top lines. Nine different Cornell players have reached double-digits in scoring so far this season.

The most menacing aspect of the Big Red, however, is its scoring defense, which ranks eighth in the country with just 2.30 goals allowed per game. Goaltender Andy Iles has notched five shutouts this year, putting him third among all collegiate goalies.

In November, Cornell handed Yale its worst loss of the year at Ingalls Rink, shell shocking the Bulldogs with a 6-2 victory.

“They always play very controlled, they slow the pace down, and we’ll see more of that,” O’Neill said. “We try to count on our speed. Hopefully, we won’t let them slow it down too much, and hopefully we’ll force the tempo. That will be the key to our game.”

A pair of victories this weekend would likely boost the Bulldogs into the top of ECAC rankings, giving them the chance to secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The puck drops at Colgate at 7 p.m. on Friday. The Elis face off against Cornell at 7 p.m. the following day in Ithaca, N.Y.