Through 40 minutes of hockey in both of last weekend’s games against Harvard and Dartmouth, the Cornell men’s hockey team looked like the superior group. The Red had outscored, outworked and outshot both opponents after the second period, and in Friday’s case, was primed for its biggest win of the season.
But after being outscored by a combined 7-0 across the weekend’s third periods, the Red (12-6-2, 7-4-2 ECAC) walked away with a zero-point weekend and must now regroup before heading off to face No. 4/5 Union (18-6-2, 11-2-1) and RPI (5-22-1, 3-12).
“We actually thought we played pretty well throughout — just as well as we had in any of the other games,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “There were some unfortunate events that took place in the third period of both games, and the other teams got some good bounces, but you just hope those things even out as the season goes on.”
“Sometimes things like that happen in hockey, but it’s not about looking back, it’s about looking forward,” added senior defenseman and alternate captain Patrick McCarron.
No. 16 Cornell dropped just two spots in the USCHO poll this week, but fell nine points in the standings behind ECAC-leading St. Lawrence and seven behind Union after the winless weekend. The Red’s first opportunity to bridge that gap comes Friday night in Schenectady, New York against one of the season’s biggest surprises: Union.
The Dutchmen have been dominating opponents — especially ECAC rivals — all year long. Its powerhouse group of forwards has led the team to first in the nation in goals scored, as well as third in goals per game. Its goal differential of plus-29 is tied for fourth.
The Dutchmen were picked to finish the season seventh and eighth in the ECAC via the preseason coaches and media poll, respectively. Now, the small liberal arts college of under 3,000 students is a top-five ranked team nationally, earning votes for first team overall in the USCHO poll.
“Union’s a great team,” Schafer said. “There’s nothing too quirky about them, they’re just a well-coached, good hockey team.”
That dominant forward core consists of the nation’s top two scorers, both playing on the same line. Senior center Mike Vecchione — a strong contender for the Hobey Baker award — is first in the country with 44 points. His junior linemate Spencer Foo is next with a single point less. Sebastian Vidmar completes the league’s most dangerous top line with 28 points to his name as well.
McCarron knows that shutting them down will have to be a group effort.
“Obviously they’ve got a couple of guys who are tops in nation in scoring, but it’s not going to be individual guys shutting them down,” he said. “It’s just playing good team defense, blocking shots and doing all the little things. If you don’t do that against good players, they’ll make you pay for it.”
On the back end of Union’s lineup is goaltender Alex Sakellaropoulos, who is 17-4-1 with a .921 save percentage on the season.
The Dutchmen have been rolling for a while — at one point sitting atop the ECAC — but were knocked off this past weekend by St. Lawrence, who regained sole possession of first place in the conference.
RPI has had a markedly different season. Last in the ECAC, the Engineers have one of the worst goal differentials in the nation at -47. They are also among the league’s worst defensively, giving up nearly four goals per game.
However, the past few games tell a different story for the team. RPI shocked the nation by blanking then-No. 2 Harvard, 4-0, back in mid-February and defeated Clarkson this past Saturday. The Engineers also lost by just one goal to St. Lawrence and forced Union into overtime. While its record may not show it, the Engineers are an improving team, and the Red knows it cannot take them lightly.
“It’s been a close game against RPI every time we’ve played them since I’ve been here, and I know no one in the dressing room is overlooking them,” McCarron said. “In the ECAC, any team can beat anyone on any given night.”
Junior forward Dwyer Tschantz felt a similar way.
“Everyone in the locker room knows that each game we play is going to be tough,” he added. “We lost to Dartmouth, and they were also toward the bottom of the league.”
RPI has struggled most of the year offensively, though. Senior winger Riley Bourbonnais leads the team in goals with 12 and sophomore center Evan Tironese is first on the team in scoring, but the team as a whole averages just two goals per game. Sophomore Chase Perry has played better as of late in net, giving up just 10 goals in the last five games.
Schafer gave credit to RPI’s solid forecheck and has preached patience to his team in preparation for Saturday’s game.
“RPI is doing a great job of forechecking and cluttering up the neutral zone,” he said. “They play physical in their own zone too. You’ve got to have a patient game plan against them and not get frustrated playing that kind of hockey … and you’ve got to capitalize on your scoring chances.”
While neither Union nor RPI will be easy to beat, Cornell knows it must get back in the win column, especially during the ECAC-portion of its schedule. Before this past weekend, the Red had lost just one of its last 12 contests.
Still, the team is far from panicking.
“We talked about last weekend as a group, and we know that we’re okay and that there’s no reason to hit the panic button at this point,” Tschantz said.
“It’s more about playing well,” Schafer added. “Of course our team wants to get four points every weekend, but they know we’re going into two very difficult rinks to play at, and we have to just play well and play our game. If you just hang your hat on winning the next game or else the sky’s going to fall, you will play tentative and you won’t play to win. This team doesn’t have that mentality. We’re playing to win.”
Similar to last weekend’s Harvard game and commemoration of the 1967 NCAA championship at the first intermission of the Dartmouth game, this weekend will not be without festivities.
The Headway Foundation, which “aims to provide a safer sports culture,” per its website, is sponsoring the entire slate of ECAC weekend games. As the team’s representative for the partnership, Tschantz has a personal relationship with head injuries.
“Concussions are something that get overlooked by a lot of people. I think the culture in hockey is pretty progressive compared to other sports,” he said. “As a guy who has had a few myself, I can’t speak to how important [reporting concussions is] enough. It’s very easy to turn your cheek and say I’m okay … Just [get] it taken care of while you can or else it can really linger and cause issues down the road.”
The Union game will be broadcast on television via the American Sports Network with puck drop not scheduled until 8:30 p.m. The Red takes on RPI at 7 p.m. the following night.