March 17, 2006

M. Hockey Set to Defend ECACHL Title

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With each Cornell player boasting a playoff beard on their chins, last year’s kings of the ECACHL hope their reign and facial hair will continue to grow after this week, as the Red looks to defend its conference title in Albany, N.Y., starting tonight at the Pepsi Arena. Its first opponent comes in the form of No. 2 Colgate (20-11-6).

The Cornell-Colgate game will be the second of two semifinal games – with the first being No. 1 Dartmouth taking on No. 4 Harvard. Although it is by no means a surprise that the No. 3 Red finds itself in the Final Four of the league tourney, it had to survive the two longest games ever to be played at Lynah Rink last weekend, eventually sweeping No. 9 Clarkson in a pair of double-overtime contests last Friday and Saturday nights. Senior Matt Moulson, who was named to the All-ECACHL second team yesterday, scored his 17th goal of the season to cap an intense weekend.

“We know how difficult it is to get there, especially [since] the league has been the deepest and strongest as it has been for many years,” said Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86 said. “Our games against Clarkson demonstrated this – they played tremendous hockey over here in the last two games in our rink.”

Schafer and his squad were boosted by the return of junior defensemen Ryan O’Byrne, who was named to the third team all-league squad, and sophomores Sasha Pokulok and Doug Krantz, who were all out in previous weeks due to injury. For the first time in several games, the Red was not forced to put forwards on defense.

“Over the month and a half, we’ve been able to withstand a lot of adversity within our hockey team with injuries and getting guys back this [past] weekend was great,” Schafer said. “We know we need to be at full strength to be able to compete at Albany.”

The returning players also boosted the Red in other areas, including the penalty kill, which shut down all of Clarkson’s 15 power plays over the weekend, including a key five-minute major during the end of the first, and beginning of the second overtime where the Golden Knights also had a 5-on-3 advantage at one point. Cornell’s 88 percent success rate on the penalty kill now puts them tied for second nationally in that category.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research on video and focused on taking away from the advantages of [the other] team,” said senior forward Daniel Pegoraro. “Everyone is on board and everyone is really focusing in.”

Cornell (20-7-4) will need to be focused against Colgate, which is coming off a three-game home series against Quinnipiac. The Bobcats gave the Raiders a stern test from the get-go, taking Game 1 at Starr Rink, 3-0, before Colgate bounced back to take 5-3 and 4-0 decisions and book its third consecutive trip to Albany.

“We had a great battle with Quinnipiac,” said Colgate head coach Don Vaughan. “Obviously on Friday night, they took it to us pretty good and we ended up going three games against them. It was a great series and it was something that we expected – we didn’t think it would be anything other than that.”

Cornell swept the season series in early February against Colgate, but the Red proceeded to end its regular season with a 2-3-1 record, finishing a point behind co-champions Dartmouth and Colgate. Vaughan and Schafer both downplay the teams’ recent history and expect an intense battle tonight.

“I think when you get to this point in the season, I don’t think the guys are looking at it, ‘Who won what game and when it was during the season.’ You throw it out the window and you know it’s going to be a battle and that’s where your focus has to be,” Vaughan said.

The Cornell penalty kill will have to again be on form for the Red, as Colgate boasts some of the top forwards in the league. Kyle Wilson, who tallied a pair of goals during the Raiders’ 3-2 loss to the Red in Hamilton, N.Y., earlier this season, leads his team in points with 39 off 22 goals and 17 assists, while Tyler Burton, Marc Fulton, Jesse Winchester and Jon Smyth have combined for 57 goals and 81 assists this season. Mark Dekanich has arguably been the best netminder in the league, and has stopped 92.3 percent of shots faced – the highest in the ECACHL.

“I think we played some of our better hockey against Colgate,” Pegoraro said. “It will be a good challenge for us, they are gifted offensively, they roll with four strong lines and they have guys [we need] to key in on who will challenge us defensively.”

Vaughan indicated earlier this week that his team would be prepared to face the physical challenge that comes from playing a team like Cornell.

“Mike’s teams are very stingy defensively. You’re not going to get a whole lot of opportunities so you need to capitalize on your chances when you get them,” he said. “I think his teams are big and strong and they want to play in the offensive zone and when we played them this year, we were prepared to do that and I’m sure we’ll have to be prepared again to do that in this game.”

Because of its relatively strong postseason credentials in its PairWise ranking, Cornell, unlike Colgate or Dartmouth, does not necessarily need the automatic NCAA berth which comes with winning the ECACHL tournament to qualify. However, according to Schafer, this is a dangerous mindset to possess.

“You’re not sitting there saying, ‘Geez, if we win one, we’re going to clinch this thing…'” Everybody wants to win the ECAC championship,” Schafer said. “You don’t come to this weekend to try to qualify for the NCAAs, you come to Albany to try to win the trophy. That’s where everybody’s preparation is at now.”

The puck drops tonight at 8 p.m. If the Red makes it to the finals, game time is also at 8 p.m., while the third-place showdown is at 4:30 p.m.

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Senior Writer