This post has been updated.
TROY, N.Y. — In the final weekend of a season already marked by the dusting off of decades-old achievements, Cornell men’s hockey clinched the Cleary Cup on Friday as the ECAC’s regular season champions for the first time since 2005.
The Red (23-3-2, 17-2-2 ECAC) secured its title with a 4-2 victory over Rensselaer (5-24-4, 4-15-2) at Houston Field House in Troy, where it was able to exact revenge on the team that knocked it off the top of the national rankings on Feb. 3.
“I think [the Feb. 3 loss] left a bad taste in our mouth,” said associate head coach Ben Syer. “We certainly wanted to play a little harder here tonight.”
After an even first period that saw the Red look sloppy at times, Cornell took control in the second and third, imposing its will on the second-to-last-place RPI.
“I thought we were probably a little slow out of the gate here tonight,” Syer said. “We got things going a little bit in the second period and continued that into the third.”
Syer had to take the helm behind the bench early in the third period after head coach Mike Schafer ’86 took a stick to the head and was helped off the bench. According to Syer, Schafer will not miss any more time.
“He’s all good now,” Syer said. “He’s a tough cat.”
Junior defenseman Brendan Smith was injured in the previous matchup against the Engineers, but returned for Friday’s matchup. In seemly fashion, Smith was the first to light the lamp, notching one past RPI netminder Linden Marshall a minute and a half into the second period.
“I felt that [the time off] was kind of a break for my body, to look at it from a positive standpoint,” Smith said. “The first couple of shifts took me a little to get back into it, but it’s really easy to get back into it playing with a guy like [junior] Alec McCrea.”
McCrea, Smith’s classmate and linemate, also returned tonight after being injured in last Friday’s matchup against Brown and missing the following day’s game against Yale. The pair of Smith and McCrea is one of the Red’s best on the blue line, and the injury-depleted defensive corps therefore received some much-needed relief Friday.
“It’s nice to have those two guys back, they log a lot of minutes,” Syer said. “They play well together … By the second they really started moving pucks together well.”
Eighteen game seconds after Smith’s tally, RPI’s Jacob Hayhurst tied it up on what seemed to be a defensive lapse for Cornell.
“We had a couple of missed assignments,” Syer said. “We knew they’d push back. I mean, Hayhurst is a dynamite player for them.”
After the Hayhurst goal, Cornell scored three unanswered to all but ice the game. One of those tallies came from freshman forward Morgan Barron — whose only point in the last 12 games was an assist on Feb. 2 against Union. Barron had previously earned 12 points in the team’s first 15 contests, including a point in seven straight to start his Cornell career.
“I think [inconsistency] is part of every season,” Barron said. “I’ve been just trying to play my same hockey and stick to the process. [Tonight] I got lucky and one squeezed through the five-hole.”
Barron would later add another point, assisting on freshman defenseman Cody Haiskanen’s first collegiate goal, which came late in the third period to provide his team a cushion as it cruised to victory.
“[Haiskanen] has been working so hard,” Smith said. “He’s so good at cutting to the net, we knew one was going to come eventually.”
When all was said and done, the Red’s victory put a five-point cushion between itself and second-place Union with just one game to play, securing the team’s place in first and the 2018 Cleary Cup.
As winners of the regular-season title, the Red earned the No. 1 overall seed in the ECAC playoffs, having already earned itself a first-round bye.
Before the team can enjoy the week off, it has one more test ahead. The Red will head across state route 7 to face the Dutchmen tomorrow. The puck drops at 7 p.m.