Throughout the entirety of the regular season, the Cornell men’s hockey team was one that prided itself on its ability to be resilient and overcome adversity. The first weekend of the postseason proved to be no exception.
With half of the defensive core out for a good part of the year, only four home games before Jan. 1 and the ghosts of regular seasons past haunting in the hallowed rafters of Lynah, the resilient Red used an undefeated February to surge into third place in the league, ramping up excitement for what was sure to be an exciting quarterfinals following a bye week.
“To overcome [a season] like that is a testament to those guys in that locker room, because they just don’t use anything for excuse,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “There was never belly aching or talking about [away games]. We just went on the road and we did it. That kind of adversity and resiliency has stayed with this hockey team all season long.”
So when Clarkson came to town for the ECAC quarterfinals and took a blowout 6-2 win in game one, Cornell was not in unchartered waters from a mental standpoint. All that was learned during the 29-game regular season was going to be put to the test the remainder of the weekend.
With its backs against the wall, the Red came out of Saturday with a gritty 2-1 win to level the series and keep its season alive. With one final game remaining at Lynah, everything was put on the line Sunday. A second consecutive hard-fought 2-1 victory has punched Cornell’s ticket to the ECAC championship weekend in Lake Placid this coming weekend.
“I think the first game we were just too worried about what they were doing and we didn’t really focus on the process that we usually do before games,” said senior goaltender Mitch Gillam. “We brought it the last two games and we played our game — we were physical, we were dominant on the boards, and we did a great job defensively.”
Sophomore forward Anthony Angello proved to be Clarkson’s worst nightmare, as he notched the game-winner in both Red victories. Facing elimination on Saturday, the sophomore scored the second goal of the night for his team, one that would become the most important. And his goal on Sunday broke the one-all tie and stood firm to win the series.
“Especially as a sophomore, he tried to do things a little bit too much,” Schafer said of Angello. “But over the last few months, he’s sort of started to settle in.”
Clarkson’s Juho Jokiharju closed the scoring on Saturday, and he opened it right back up on Sunday. The sophomore struck 11:45 into the first off a beautiful feed from linemate Marly Quince for his second goal of the weekend. The puck sailed across the slot, and Jokiharju caught Gillam sliding across his crease, but the Cornellian was a millisecond too late to snatch the chip shot.
Just about two minutes later, Cornell freshman forward Jeff Malott thought he got his team on the board off a wraparound attempt that squeaked by the right pad of Clarkson netminder Jake Kielly. Malott made his way to celebrate in front of the Cornell student section, but he was alone in his own world; the referees waved it off and play continued. At the next whistle, the officiating crew made its way into the video review room, and Lynah was stuck in limbo.
After what felt like an eternity, the stripes emerged from the pow-wow session, and to the delight of Lynah, only one arm was outstretched instead of two being waved horizontally. Malott’s premature celebration was, in actuality, warranted.
“Very proud of our players to fight through after giving up the goal, then come right back and score right away,” Schafer said, again alluding to his squad’s resiliency. “A great play by Malott, who was outstanding [all weekend].”
The wraparound tactic seemed to be in Cornell’s favor, as sophomore Beau Starrett gave it another go about halfway into the second and found Angello alone in front of the net. For the second night in a row, the sophomore got the clutch goal for his team.
The Red had a few opportunities in the period to extend its lead to two. On a power play after Jordan Boucher was sent to the box for a tripping call, Angello collected a stretch pass from Gillam behind the Golden Knights defense, but Kielly did well to react and save the puck with his right pad.
Gillam has never been one to shy away from jumping into the offense, as he is the leading point-getter in the country among netminders with a legendary goal and four assists. On another great stretch pass from the goalie, junior forward Alex Rauter had a second Cornell breakaway opportunity against Kielly, but missed it just left. And in the final minute of the second period, a shot from senior defenseman Patrick McCarron from the blue line hit the post and bounced wide.
“Two break aways, crossbar, goal post, missed chances in the second — it almost felt like, ‘Man, was that our opportunity to put this game away?’” Schafer said. “But just a great effort, proud of our players to fight through.”
With the series win, Cornell has comfortably positioned itself to secure a bid into the NCAA tournament, and it would be the first for every student on the roster. But before that, the team must take on Union in the ECAC semifinals in Lake Placid this coming Saturday.
The excitement of advancing brings along with it a bittersweet moment for the senior class.
With impending renovations to Lynah’s roof, the team will only get one more time on the home sheet before the rink closes up to get ready for next season.
“It’s pretty sad to leave this spot, but it was a great way to go out,” Gillam said. “[The Lynah Faithful] is amazing — they’re the best fans in hockey, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Making it to Placid is the farthest the team has reached since its current seniors were freshmen. In that season, Cornell ran into Clarkson in the quarterfinals, also going three games to finally advance.
Last time at Lake Placid, Cornell met Union in the semifinals, and the Dutchmen were in the midst of its first and only NCAA championship run. And now, after downing Clarkson, it is Union once again that stands in the way of Cornell and an ECAC finals bid.
Seem eerie? Do not bring that up to Schafer, who has been around the league enough to see almost everything.
“Deja vu? I’ve been around for 23 years,” Schafer joked. “For you it might be deja vu, but for me I’ve been here.”
While there is still much for the Red to achieve before the season’s end, Cornell will enjoy the series win, at least for a little bit. But as is customary with any yearly installment of the Cornell program, satisfaction always lies ahead.
“There is a lot of hooting and hollering [tonight], but I’m proud of them,” Schafer added about this year’s team. “We’re just looking forward to playing.”