Very appropriately — thanks to some lineup fiddling by head coach Mike Schafer ’86 — the six Cornell players left on the ice for the last 2.7 seconds against Yale Saturday night were the Red’s six seniors: goalie Matt Underhill; forwards David Kozier, David Francis, Denis Ladouceur, Krzysztof Wieckowski; and defenseman Brian McMeekin. Though Senior Night was officially two Saturdays ago, this was clearly the way the group wanted to leave Lynah Rink — with a convincing sweep of Yale in the ECAC quarterfinals and the Lynah fans flooding the ice ,mobbing them in adoration.
“It was a nice moment, to see them lined up,” said junior Travis Bell. “They’ve worked for us, just day in and day out. You couldn’t ask more from a senior class.”
“That was pretty cool,” Underhill said of the moment. “I didn’t know [Schafer] was going to do that. That was a classy gesture by coach.”
“You can’t end your career better than this,” Francis added.
While Saturday night may indeed have been the seniors’ curtain call in Lynah, it most certainly wasn’t the end of the road for them. With Yale (10-19-2) out of its way, top-seeded Cornell (23-6-2) will now continue its path towards the ECAC championship at the Final Five Tournament in Lake Placid. On Friday night, it will play the winner of the Thursday play–in game between fourth-seeded Dartmouth and fifth-seeded RPI.
“Now the fun really begins,” Schafer said.
The Elis had been a conundrum for the Red all season. In two regular season contests and the first game of the playoffs on Friday, Yale had repeatedly taken Cornell to the wire. But with a 4-2 victory Saturday, the Red finally cleansed itself of any Eli demons.
“They’ve been a thorn in our side,” Underhill said. “They always play us tough.”
Unlike Friday night, when a slow start by Cornell almost allowed Yale to swipe the upset, the Red took the lead just 2:13 into the game Saturday. A shot by Bell took an unexpected bounce off sophomore Greg Hornby’s body in front of the net, surprising Yale netminder Dan Lombard.
“That was a big goal, just to get us going,” Bell said. “That kind of relieved some pressure.”
Though the Elis leveled the game at 5:00 of the first period on a stick-back by Jason Noe, it was apparent that Cornell dominated play for the duration of the game.
The Red reclaimed the lead with two minutes remaining in the first when Francis received a feed from behind the net by rookie Mike Knoepfli and fired it beautifully above Lombard’s left shoulder.
“It was just tremendous work by Mike Knoepfli in the corner,” Francis described the play. “He had three guys draped all over him. And he managed to walk out and make a great pass to me. And fortunately the goalie was a little slow reacting, and I had a lot of room to shoot.”
Against a veteran goalie like Lombard, Schafer had urged his team to pelt the Yale net with a barrage of shots. And through the first two periods, his team executed the game plan flawlessly. During the first 40 minutes of play, the Red attempted 45 shots and had Lombard dancing all around his goal mouth.
“We work extremely hard and we got ourselves scoring chances,” Schafer explained.
Cornell’s workman-like first line power play almost connected to make it 3-1 midway through the second period. On the heels of some crisp puck movement, a cross-ice pass from sophomore Ryan Vesce just missed junior Sam Paolini in front of the net. But what the first unit couldn’t do the second one accomplished just seconds later. Once again, it was Knoepfli who generated the scoring opportunity. His point-bank shot slithered away from Lombard, and junior Matt McRae, who was trailing on the play, slammed home the rebound for a 3-1 advantage.
With the offense having played its part, the defense stood center stage for the third period.
“Going into third period, we knew what we had to do: we just had to shut them down and not give them much,” Underhill said. “And that’s what we did.
Underhill, starting his second consecutive night in net, had a relatively boring evening — he needed to stop only 16 shots. But his defense was an immutable obstacle in front of him, closing down most of Yale’s shooting lanes.
“I thought our guys played really solid in front of [Underhill],” Schafer said. “I didn’t think we gave them many opportunities.”
In particular, Cornell thoroughly shut down Yale superstar Chris Higgins, who was third in the ECAC in scoring. Junior defenseman Doug Murray didn’t let Higgins out of his sight all night.
“I thought [Murray] and [defensive partner freshman Jeremy Downs] just controlled that line the whole weekend,” McMeekin lauded.
It was a defensive effort that led to the Red’s final goal of the game. With 4:34 remaining and Cornell short-handed by two men because Francis had been whistled for a holding penalty, and Lombard had been yanked in favor of another forward, Bell inadvertently sailed a clearing attempt into the Elis’ net. However Bell’s goal was not without suspense: it spun across the ice painfully slowly, leaving both the fans and the Cornell bench to hold their breath.
“We were just kind of hoping that it would keep on sweeping and curling,” Schafer said. “The boys were yelling ‘sweep’ from the bench.”
“I was just praying that went in so it bailed me out,” said a relieved Francis. “I almost jumped over the glass in the penalty box I was so excited.”
Yale did add its second goal in the waning seconds of the game.
Most members of the Red were tight-lipped on the topic of who’d they rather play at Lake Placid.
“I don’t care. Doesn’t bother me who we play,” Schafer said.
But McMeekin did let it slip out that some in the Cornell locker room secretly do want to have a rematch with Dartmouth. The Green swept the season series with the Red.
“I’d personally like to see Dartmouth and take a shot at them again,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys on this team that feel like we owe them something.”
No matter who they play next Friday night, one thing is for sure. The Cornell players will — going along with playoff tradition — be going unshaven for a few more days.
“We’re getting a little hairy, a little ugly too I guess,” Bell joked.
Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj