Sam Coatta skated up the left wing and fired in a shot, which hit the crossbar and ricocheted down into the net. With under a minute left, Union had just scored a seventh goal against scoreless Cornell in the first round of the 2015 ECAC playoffs. That goal capped off a terrible loss, serving as the icing on the cake of a decent season.
Fast forward roughly a year and Cornell faces the same task: a first-round playoff matchup with Union at Lynah Rink. This year, Cornell has the eighth seed and Union the ninth, whereas last year the Red were ranked seventh and the Dutchmen tenth. Cornell lost to RPI and tied Union last weekend; last year’s final regular-season weekend involved a tie and loss on the road at Brown and Yale, respectively. As a result, the Red enter the playoffs after a one-point weekend, just like last season. Cornell’s recent games and last year’s series explain why the Lynah Faithful lack optimism for this weekend. Let’s compare Cornell and Union in seven key areas to see which team should emerge victorious from the three-game series.
Forwards: Cornell has a set of tall, physical forwards who play head coach Mike Schafer’s ‘86 hard-nosed strategy, but struggle to score goals. In fact, Cornell has the least amount of shots on goal this season among all Division 1 teams (with the exception of non-conference Arizona State, a special case). Union’s smaller, quicker forwards play their transition game effectively. Two to watch are Spencer Foo and Eli Lichtenwald; Foo scored twice in the 7-0 playoff game and is Union’s leading scorer this season. Lichtenwald tallied in that game last year and scored twice last weekend against Cornell.
Defense: Cornell’s blue line is spearheaded by Reece Willcox and Patrick McCarron, two upperclassmen leaders. The Red also have strength in depth, with a number of young defensemen having solid campaigns. Union’s backline is the team’s main weakness; outside of junior leader Jeff Taylor, none of their defensemen are recognized as noteworthy blueliners in the conference.
Goaltending: Cornell’s goalie Mitch Gillam is one of the conference’s best netminders. His Union counterpart Alex Sakellaropoulos might win the longest last name in the conference award, but he is in the bottom half of ECAC goaltenders. This is no contest.
Coaching: Schafer is recognized as one of the best college hockey coaches in the country. His unusual defensive system has distinguished Cornell during his twenty-plus seasons as coach. Union’s Rick Bennett is in his fifth year coaching the Dutchmen. Bennett may lead Schafer in NHL games played (fifteen to zero) and NCAA championships (one to zero), but Schafer is the better coach.
Special Teams: Cornell has struggled on the power play for most of this season, yet so has Union. Both teams are converting on only 17 percent of their extra-man opportunities. Both schools have decent penalty kills; Cornell kills off eighty-two percent of penalties to Union’s eighty percent. However, neither team scored a power-play goal in their recent meeting last weekend.
Home Ice: Cornell has home ice for the entire series, which is a significant advantage going beyond the partisan crowd. Also, the Red will be familiar with the bounces of Lynah Rink. Most importantly, Cornell will get the last change this weekend. Last change is a hockey concept meaning the home team gets the final chance to change which players are on the ice. In other words, once Union puts five skaters out on the ice, Schafer can put out whatever group of players he likes and Union cannot counter. This can be a major strategic advantage, both offensively and defensively.
Edge: Cornell (by definition)
Intangibles: Sometimes, college hockey playoff series come down to the smallest factors. Union won the season series, with a 5-1 win at Lynah and a 3-3 tie at the Dutchmen’s Messa Rink. Union has eliminated Cornell from the playoffs in two straight seasons, which will no doubt be motivation for Cornell to return the favor. Union’s strong transition game seems to line up well against Cornell’s defensive scheme. The Dutchmen have scored sixteen goals in their last three games at Lynah Rink to Cornell’s three in those games. These are some of the reasons that prognosticators might list Union as the favorite for this series, despite Cornell owning the higher ranking.
Cornell wins four of the seven categories, with Union picking up two wins and a draw. I predict that Cornell will win the series in three games. When the teams hit the ice Friday night, Cornell has its chance to avenge their early elimination last year.