Cornell men’s hockey knew the challenge that lay in store. With two North County foes — both ahead in the standings — making the trip south to Lynah, this weekend was pivotal in leapfrogging up the ECAC rankings
In the games against Clarkson (11-10-4, 6-5-2 ECAC) and No. 16 St. Lawrence (13-7-6, 9-2-3), the No. 14/15 Red (12-4-2, 7-2-2) walked away with three points. Cornell tied 3-3 against the Golden Knights on Friday and beat the Saints in a 3-2 win the next night.
It was an up and down weekend in the eyes of head coach Mike Schafer ’86. Coming back home for the weekend’s first game against Clarkson — only the team’s fifth game in front of the Lynah Faithful — he said he expected his squad to come out energetic, full guns blazing.
That was not the case.
“We didn’t come with the focus and intensity that you need to be a great team,” he said following the tie with Clarkson. “I thought we were just an average team tonight.”
To account for that lack of pizzazz, Schafer alluded to the scarcity of Cornell students in attendance as a detriment to the team’s performance from the get-go.
“I think our crowd — our students — have to show up,” he said. “We were excited but I saw our players looking up in the crowd and going, ‘Where the hell are the fans? … I know not everybody is back but this has been continuing on here … To skate out and hear the roar of your student body, there’s no better feeling than it … If we’re going to carry our title as the best fans in college hockey, we have to be the best fans in college hockey.”
Despite a depleted crowd, the 3-3 tie was not short of excitement. The first period wrapped up with things at a standstill — sophomore forward Anthony Angello and Clarkson’s Jordan Boucher left the game knotted up at one apiece at the first break.
Clarkson struck twice in the second period — Boucher again, then Brett Gervais on the power play — to put the Red in a 3-1 hole. Just when things looked bleak, junior forward Trevor Yates poked one through the legs of Clarkson goalie Jake Kielly to cut the deficit to one heading into second intermission.
When the puck dropped in the third period, Yates needed only 49 seconds to bring the game even on a power play goal.
His two goals and a primary assist on the Angello goal give Yates 13 points on the season, equal to his point total in 2015-16 with plenty more hockey left to play. Of his 13 points, eight are goals, already outpacing his goal total from last season by two.
“I think it helps a lot dropping 10-15 pounds and getting quicker,” Yates said trying to explain his newfound scoring capabilities. “But I think the big thing is going to the net and being ready to score.”
Though the Red managed a point-salvaging tie after trailing by two for much of the second period — including holding the Golden Knights to just four shots in the third and overtime periods — the demeanor in the postgame press room more resembled that of a convincing loss.
“We showed stretches where we showed our best hockey working hard and playing our game,” Yates said. “But overall we’re not happy with the effort. We’re a lot better team than we showed tonight.”
“I told [the team] I’m really disappointed we didn’t go after it,” Schafer added. “We want to be a great team, we don’t want to be a good team.”
The very next night, the team had the chance for redemption against the league’s first place St. Lawrence, which was missing its leading point getter and goal scorer to injury.
The Red managed to keep pace with the league’s best, and sophomore defenseman Brendan Smith’s first career goal in the waning minutes of the second propelled the Red to win the clash of nationally-ranked teams.
St. Lawrence appeared to have stricken first just 1:41 into the game, but a goalie interference call erased the goal and kept the game scoreless. That changed when junior forward Jared Fiegl beat St. Lawrence’s Kyle Hayton stick side for his second goal on the season.
Senior defenseman Patrick McCarron added a goal of his own about 10 minutes after Fiegl, taking on the role of a forward and leading the rush in transition and tucking one past Hayton with a wrister.
The Red knew that Hayton — one of the country’s premier netminders — would present a sizeable challenge to manage a win, but forcing the junior to face 30 shots got the job done.
“I was much happier tonight how we came out at the start of the game in the sense of playing with the kind of intensity that we played with on the road,” Schafer said in contrast to Friday.
The Saints scored twice in the second to knot up the game, but it was Smith’s goal with 2:42 left in the period that ended the scoring and made the difference for Cornell.
Though there were no goals scored in the third period, it was not short of excitement. Shot after shot rang off the posts and plenty of post-whistle scrums ensued to the pleasure of Lynah Rink.
The trio of goals and senior goalie Mitch Gillam’s 22 saves were enough to push the surging Red over an essential team to beat with playoff implications in the back of the team’s mind.
“We’re looking at the past two or three years now we’ve just barely missed the tournament and we’re using that to motivate us,” Yates said after the Clarkson game. “We know every team can win in our league, so we’ve got to be motivated to play hard every night.”
The Red is 10-0-1 in Gillam’s last 11 starts, and will put that unbeaten streak on the line next weekend with a highly-anticipated two-game slate against Harvard and Dartmouth.
“We’ve just gotta play every game like it’s our last and like we’re playing the number one team in the country,” Yates added.