March 14, 2010

Turning the Tide Against The Crimson

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When Mike Schafer ’86 became head coach of men’s hockey in 1995, beating Harvard was one of the three goals he stated for the team. We doubt he envisioned that happening four times in one season though.

When Doug Derraugh ’91 became head coach of women’s hockey 10 years later, the team had seen just two winning seasons in the previous 14. Before this season, Derraugh’s team had beaten Harvard just once.  We doubt he envisioned a Frozen Four berth in Minneapolis next weekend after a victory over the Crimson.

In case you blacked out for the last five months, Cornell men’s and women’s hockey thoroughly dominated the Crimson in every area of the ice this season.  Cumulatively, they finished an astounding 6-0-1 and outscored the opposition, 36-13.

Yet, neither coach has time to bask in the glory of their accomplishments.  The hardest stretch of hockey remains.  The men’s team travels to Albany next weekend for the ECAC Hockey final four and an attempt to improve its position for the NCAA tournament.  The women’s squad will fly to Minnesota for the program’s first ever NCAA Frozen Four.  They will face off against overall No. 1 Mercyhurst, a team that beat Cornell twice at Lynah in October.

Of all the common threads woven between the two teams this season, the most important is that each team is peaking at exactly the right moment.  Since Jan. 15, the women have just one loss, and are currently riding a ridiculous 10-game winning streak.  The men, similarly, have just one loss in their past seven games and put together their best full weekend of hockey of the entire season.

Leading the way offensively are junior forward Riley Nash and sophomore forward Catherine White, the ECAC Hockey Player of the Year.  Since returning from injury, Nash has scored at a blistering rate, recording 18 points in his last nine games, and he absolutely undressed the Harvard defense for Cornell’s fourth goal last Friday.  White, who has scored the first goal in each of her team’s last four games, has 17 points in her last 10 games.  She sits at 85 career points in 62 games played; Nash has 99 points in 99 games, while senior forward Blake Gallagher reached the century mark on Saturday.

Backstopping each team are the phenomenal goaltenders Amanda Mazzotta and Ben Scrivens, both of whom have been, and must continue to be, the difference makers in every game.  Mazzotta anchors a Cornell defense which at one time this season allowed no more than two goals for 11 straight games, including an improbable four consecutive shutouts.  Scrivens, the runaway favorite for ECAC goaltender of the year, now sits one shutout shy of tying Cornell’s all-time record.

The road to this success against Harvard has not been an easy one. Of the many chapters of the Cornell-Harvard hockey rivalry, the most recent stretch has been difficult for the Red fans. Entering this season, Derraugh’s teams were 1-11-0 against Harvard; the Crimson swept Cornell in playoff series each of the last two seasons.

Similarly, Schafer’s men struggled recently in big games against Harvard. Cornell lost to the Crimson twice in the ECAC Hockey tournament, falling in the final in 2006 and in the semifinal in 2008. With tournament seeding on the line, the men also lost to Harvard on the final night of the regular season in 2007 and 2008.

We can’t think of a better way for Cornell to gain the upper hand in this rivalry than to dominate the Crimson the way they have this season. On the men’s side, it appears that Cornell is returning to its form from the beginning of the decade, when it systematically dismantled Harvard in the 2003 and 2005 ECAC championship games. In addition to continuing to play smart, physical hockey, the Red was more aggressive on the forecheck, was stronger with the puck on the breakout play, produced countless scoring opportunities in each game and saw goals come from five different players.

The weekend sweep (thanks K.W. for the good luck) brought Cornell up to No. 8 in the Pairwise Rankings, which means it can stand to lose in Albany next weekend and still grab an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Cornell can even secure a No. 2 seed if it moves up a spot in the Pairwise. Such a possibility would have seemed nearly impossible at the beginning of January, when Cornell sat at No. 19 in Pairwise.

Yale lost its star forward, Sean Backman, after he shattered his heel while playing around in a pool one night last weekend.  The Elis consequently lost on Friday and Sunday to Brown in their quarterfinal series, meaning Cornell will face Brown next Friday. As Cornell heads to Albany this weekend, there is no doubt that many will favor the Red to win the ECAC tournament.

Next weekend intertwines the men’s and women’s threads yet again.  For the women, a victory over Mercyhurst would further enhance their resume as the best team in school history and bring them to the national championship game. For the men, two victories would return them to the top of the ECAC and lock in a high NCAA tournament seed.

Original Author: Elie Bilmes