Great teams are built on resilience.
And for this Cornell men’s hockey team, that mantra has held strong all throughout its improbably successful 2017-18 campaign.
Even on Saturday, when the team was shocked at home, 2-1, by a four-win Rensselaer team, Cornell appeared determined to net an equalizer down to the final buzzer. A late third-period push was perhaps too little, too late, and the Red fell short of what would have been its fifth comeback to tie or win from down multiple goals this season.
“You play with fire [when] you get down in a game,” head coach Mike Schafer ’86 said after his team’s loss to the Engineers. “And then you have to string some plays together, make some great plays. And we just didn’t do that [against RPI].”
With the loss, Cornell surrendered its newly-awarded consensus national No. 1 ranking, a position the team had not held since 2003. In a matter of three hours, Cornell’s reign atop the hockey world had ended, and the recognition it waited 15 years to receive had come and gone within one week.
“It’s a great honor for our program to be [ranked No. 1],” Schafer said during last week’s media availability. “But I’m more focused on [the players] and watching them respond to it.”
In Friday’s 4-3 win over Union, the Red coughed up an early lead – a scenario that might have seen many teams roll over and give up. But the Cornell men held steady, and the response that Schafer was looking for earlier in the week seemed to arrive just in time.
But on Saturday night, against a decidedly worse RPI team, the grit and intensity that drove the team to its success less than 24 hours earlier appeared to be wholly absent.
Cornell was down early, surrendering a fluke goal just 20 seconds in, and went down by two after a costly power-play turnover in its defensive zone led to an RPI shorthanded tally.
Despite a 2-0 deficit, it felt as though the moment would come where Cornell would finally make a push to reclaim its dominance. Perhaps just one strong shift was all they needed, or maybe a fortuitously-timed power play. But that moment never came.
“No one likes to lose,” Schafer said. “But with that comes staring reality in the face … But we’ll come back and get ready to play [next week].”
With a No. 1 ranking raising questions about the Red’s long-term potential this season, the loss can certainly characterized as a surprise. But Schafer and his team were well aware before this weekend that despite all of the national attention, this team was far from perfect.
“There are a few areas of our game that we have to get better at,” he said before the weekend.
Cornell also says goodbye to its nation-best 11-game winning streak, something Schafer’s group isn’t likely to lose sleep over.
“If you lose one game, … it doesn’t matter what happened in the previous 10,” Schafer said last week. “It means everything in the world to everybody else except the guys in that locker room. And that’s the culture that exists on our team right now, not being slaves to praise.”
This is a sentiment that is consistent with all of Schafer’s soundbites this season and many seasons before. And with a winning streak of zero games and a probable slip in the rankings, it will be key for the Red to hold onto its mindset if it hopes to cement this season into the annals of Cornell hockey history.
Now, the focus shifts to a road contest against No. 7 Clarkson, which lost to both Quinnipiac and Princeton this weekend, to try and make a statement against the ECAC’s second-place squad.
When asked what his thought process was heading into such an important game after such a disappointing loss, Schafer had no trouble mixing words.
“I’m thinking we better get our shit together this week,” he said. “That’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that these guys better wake up.”
Whether this loss was the wake-up call that Schafer describes remains to be seen, but this weekend’s perennially-tough trip to North Country will surely provide the answer.