Like holiday decorations in December or the sun emerging in early May, there is a special atmosphere in Ithaca during mid-March. No, it is not the collective frustration of prelim-embattled students or the overwhelming longing for spring break. It is something far more tangible, and far more special. It’s playoff hockey time.
The men’s hockey team (22-4-3, 18-2-2 ECACHL) returns to the ice this weekend after a week-long hiatus amidst a tangled web of storylines, drama and heightened expectations. Cornell, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. College Hockey Online, enters the ECACHL playoffs riding a 14-game unbeaten streak — the longest active run in the country. Since the onset of the streak, a steady movement has galvanized throughout the East promoting the Red as a NCAA championship favorite.
However, for the coaches and players, these expectations are no more significant than a shot rattling off the post.
“The guys have been dealing with expectations like that since Christmas,” said Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “It is the same idea now as it was when we were ranked eighth or 12th.”
The last time the Red advanced to the Frozen Four was in 2003, when now-legendary stars like Stephen Baby ’03 and David LeNeveu ’05 led Cornell to the national semifinals against the University of New Hampshire. Plenty of similarities exist between the 2002-03 squad and this year’s incarnation, primarily on the defensive end.
In 2003, the Red was tops in the nation in total defense, allowing an average of 1.36 goals per game. This season, bolstered by the consistent dominance of sophomore goaltender David McKee, Cornell is giving up an average of only 1.31 goals per game. Furthermore, the 2003 squad sailed into the NCAA tournament on the heels of its own impressive unbeaten streak — before its 3-2 loss to UNH, Cornell had not lost in its previous 15 games.
Yet, regardless of comparisons, expectations or high hopes, the current team knows this weekend’s series against Clarkson (13-21-3, 7-13-2 ECACHL) is ultimately about taking care of its business. For the well-disciplined athletes taking the ice at Lynah Rink for the last time this season, that business is only about winning.
“Right now the mentality is that its playoff time,” senior captain Mike Knoepfli said. “Everyone is going to step up, and we are looking forward to getting back on the ice.”
For Knoepfli and his classmates, tomorrow and Saturday’s games represent the final opportunity to play in front of the Lynah faithful. However, far from immersing himself in sentimentalities, Cornell’s stoic leader is directing his attention to the matter at hand — defeating the Golden Knights and prolonging his final season as much as possible.
“We try to keep our focus on the ice,” Knoepfli said. “Regardless of the team, we are going to continue to play our style of hockey.”
On the other side of the spectrum, this season’s freshman class will be exposed to playoff college hockey for the first time. Yet, like so many other obstacles in the past year, this challenge is one that the rookies are more than eager to tackle.
“I’m just excited to get it started,” said freshman Topher Scott. “Playoff hockey is the most fun type of hockey to play. It is a lot different than the regular season.”
The magical playoff atmosphere turned sour last season when the second-seeded Red was upset in the quarterfinals by a familiar opponent — the Golden Knights. Now, the players returning from last year’s debacle are anticipating some very different results.
“We need to keep things simple,” McKee said. “The most successful teams are the ones that take things one game at a time. If we play the way we have been playing all season, we are going to win.”
With playoff victories come playoff heroics, and this weekend’s series should provide plenty. Luckily for Cornell, a hero can emerge from almost anywhere in its deep lineup.
“There is just something in the air during the playoffs,” rookie winger Raymond Sawada said. “Someone is going to be the hero this weekend, we just never know who it is going to be.”
Archived article by Kyle Sheahen
Sun Senior Writer