Cornell junior forward Alex Rauter skated in on UNH goalie Danny Tirone at breakneck speed. As Rauter prepared to propel the puck, a Wildcat stick hooked him and sent him flailing into Tirone’s left post. The referee instantly pointed for a penalty shot, and Rauter delivered, burying a shot between Tirone’s blocker and glove. Remarkably, Rauter’s penalty shot was Cornell’s first successful penalty shot in 29 years. It also sealed the deal on Cornell’s 3-1 win over Hockey East opponent New Hampshire on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
Cornell will take on Colgate on Tuesday, and the clash with the Raiders will be a good chance to earn a road conference win. The game is also notable because it will be Cornell’s first in the newly constructed Class of 1965 Arena in Hamilton. Win or lose, it will mark Cornell’s last ECAC game of the 2016 calendar year, even though the Red has four games in December.
So who are the Big Red’s opponents in the last four contests of 2016? Cornell will face Miami (OH) for a two-game set at Lynah Rink this weekend. The Red will then make its traditional trip to Florida a few days after Christmas for the Florida College Hockey Classic. The Red’s opponents this year in Florida are Northern Michigan and either Colorado College or Merrimack. The Red’s first game of 2017 is a road game at Merrimack on Jan. 7, so this will be a five-game stretch of exclusively non-conference contests before a return to ECAC play.
Non-conference contests may seem less important than ECAC games at first glance. After all, these opponents are not traditional Cornell rivals and they do not count for points in the all-important ECAC standings. However, they are crucial, just for different reasons. First, as an Ivy, Cornell plays around seven fewer games per year than all the non-Ivy teams. This means that Cornell plays seven non-conference games per season instead of the usual 14 or so for most schools. When the NCAA rankings committee has to judge Cornell against other schools, they only have seven games where Cornell has played opposition from around the country. This stretch of five non-conference games is the rest of Cornell’s non-conference slate, as two non-conference games so far have been split, with a win and a loss. Simply put, Cornell cannot afford to lose several of the next five games.
The NCAA rankings committee becomes important in the spring, at NCAA tournament time. This past season, Cornell fell one spot short of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Perhaps one more out-of-conference win could have propelled Cornell to a slot, particularly if the Red could have held onto a two-goal lead and beaten BU at last year’s Red Hot Hockey in Madison Square Garden. Cornell will want to win the majority of its non-conference slate this year in order to impress the committee in March.
Success is critical in non-conference games because Cornell has just seven of these games and needs to impress the NCAA committee. Yet, Cornell hockey fans should have reason for optimism. The remaining opponents, from Northern Michigan to Merrimack and Miami, are all ranked below Cornell in the national rankings and are thus winnable games. After Colgate, these next five contests might not count in the ECAC standings, but they will still play an important role in Cornell’s season.