Following last Saturday’s ECAC championship game, head coach Mike Schafer ’86 explained that as driven as the Cornell team was to beat Harvard for the conference title, the Red was just as focused on avenging last year’s NCAA quarterfinal loss. This weekend, Schafer and the 26 members of the team have a chance to do that, and advance to the Frozen Four.
Tomorrow at noon, the No. 1 Red (28-4-1, 19-2-1 ECAC) will put its 13-game unbeaten streak and season on the line when it faces No. 11 MSU-Mankato (20-10-10) in Providence, R.I. Cornell is the top-seeded team in the East Regional, while the Mavericks are fourth and last. The winner of the game will advance to the quarterfinal, where it will play either Boston College or Ohio State on Sunday at noon.
“Losing [to UNH] late in the game was a driving force also. We talked about earlier in the year we didn’t come out and play our style of hockey early in that course of the game,” Schafer said.
Cornell enters the game with a target on its back and a chip on its shoulder. For the first time in its history, the team garnered a No. 1 ranking in both the USCHO.com and the USAToday/AHM polls. However, the Red has felt a lack of respect from the NCAA selection committee due to the quality of its first-round opponent. Since Cornell had come into the tournament as the overall one seed, it expected to face either the MAAC or CHA automatic bid, Mercyhurst or Wayne St., respectively. In order to avoid first-round intraconference games, fourth-seeds Mankato and St. Cloud from the WCHA were shipped east.
“We want to move further in the tournament than we did last year,” said sophomore David LeNeveu. “Also I don’t think we’re getting as much respect as we deserve coming into this tournament, so we’ve got a lot to prove as a program and as a league and we’re taking it upon us, ourselves, to go in there and do all we can to represent Cornell as best we can.”
Schafer expressed his contempt for the seedings on the selection show on ESPN last Sunday. Since that night, though, the team has looked solely towards tomorrow’s opponents.
“That’s over,” Schafer said of the selection controversy, “I voiced my displeasure on Sunday night and I haven’t thought about it since. We’ve moved right on and focused all our energies and concentration on Minnesota State.”
And MSU-Mankato deserves the energies Cornell has devoted towards it. The Mavericks have two of the best offensive weapons in the country in linemates Shane Joseph and Grant Stevenson. Both are scoring an average of more than 1.5 points per game and lead one of the most lethal power plays in the nation — it has a 25.6 conversion rate. Mankato advanced to the WCHA final five as the three seed in the tournament by sweeping Wisconsin, 2-1, 6-5 (2OT). Since then, it has lost its last two games: in the semifinal to Minnesota, 3-2 (OT) and in the consolation game to Minnesota-Duluth, 6-4.
“It’s a very skilled team, they play on Olympic ice and they’re good on the power play and so on,” senior captain Doug Murray said of Mankato.
The team has the 11th best offense and the most ties in the nation. With the third-worst scoring defense and last-place penalty kill in the WCHA, Mankato often gets into shootout contests with its opponents. It also has the challenge of making the transition from its larger Olympic-sized rink to the smaller NHL-sized one in Providence.
The Red, on the other hand, welcomes the smaller ice surface, which favors the more physical and defensively tighter style of hockey Schafer embraces. The Red already enters the tournament with the best defense and goaltending in the country. LeNeveu is putting up the best goals against average ever in college hockey (1.13 GAA) and is being considered for the Hobey Baker Award. The Red also boasts a strong power play which can take advantage of Mankato’s weak penalty kill.
More importantly, Cornell has the advantage of playing in two NCAA games last year. The team won it’s opening game against Quinnipiac, 6-1, only to lose to New Hampshire the following evening as the Wildcats scored a late goal on Matt Underhill ’02.
In that game, the stingy Cornell squad was forced to play a more up-and-down game, which favored the speedy Wildcats. The Red, one of the top penalty-killing teams in the nation, also uncharacteristically allowed three power play goals.
Suggesting that UNH upset the Red’s gameplan in the 2002 quarterfinal Schafer said: “We’ve got to trust each other and trust our style of play and trust things that we do will make us successful when we get to that point.”
Murray seconded Schafer’s sentiments.
“We’ve changed nothing from what we’ve done all year long, and I think when you get to this time of year, it’s very important to play your style of hockey game and concentrate on what you do best,” he said.
This is the first year since 1997 that the Red has gotten an automatic bid into the tournament with its ECAC title, having to rely on an at-large selection last year. The team is looking to continue its trend of success going into NCAAs.
As for its conference championship, that — like the selection — is in the past for the team.
“We celebrated over the weekend when we won the ECAC title,” LeNeveu said, “… but we’ve still got one more goal to accomplish and that’s to reach the final four and win an NCAA title.
“Last weekend’s behind us and we’ve got a whole new weekend ahead of us.”
Archived article by Amanda Angel