Three minutes and eighteen seconds into overtime, Cornell men’s ice hockey team (15-9-7, 8-8-6 ECAC) had Union (13-14-9, 6-10-6) pinned in the offensive zone.
A day after the Red triumphed over Union, 1-0, Cornell had a chance to win again, and this time, a victory for Cornell would mean a trip to the next round of the ECAC playoffs.
In the overtime period, the puck trickled into the corner where senior forward Christian Hilbrich gathered it. Meanwhile, junior forward Matt Buckles found a bit of space along the left side of the ice and darted towards the goal.
Hilbrich sent the puck towards Buckles, who ripped a shot that snuck through several players in front of the goal and found its way into the back of the net. Buckles pumped his fist with joy as the rest of the Red bolted onto the ice to greet the goal scorer.
The goal helped the men get revenge on a team that had knocked them out of the previous two playoffs. Cornell’s victory, a 2-1 win, completes the sweep of Union.
“We ended up getting [the puck] in the corner and I just took off towards the net and [Hilbrich] hit me with a nice pass,” Buckles said. “I just wrapped it in.”
From then on, it was endless applause from the Lynah faithful and victory laps around the ice.
But the celebration that ensued appeared to be in jeopardy several times. The battle with Union was not the type of game that fans could sit back, relax and coast through with a strong likelihood of victory.
The game brought high intensity, end-to-end hockey that appeared to leave several players gassed by the end of overtime.
The game brought adversity to the Red in the form of five power play opportunities for Union and a two-minute stretch in which junior goalie Mitch Gillam didn’t have his stick. The fans urged him to go after it in the corner. But Gillam, poised and cautious, waited for the right opportunity to gather it.
The game brought scores of controversy. Twice, Union saw goals waved off, one of which came after a lengthy replay.
But Cornell also appeared to be squeezed by the officials, as the Red was denied calls on what appeared to be clear penalties and had a goal of its own taken away by an early whistle.
“I had no problem with the calls they had against us,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “But we wouldn’t have minded a call going our way once in awhile.”
With seemingly endless opportunities to lose focus and fall off the rails, the Red remained sharp and clean for much of the night.
“Our guys didn’t get distracted with it on the bench,” Schafer said. “They killed penalties and overcame the adversity tonight.”
Union appeared to take an early lead on second chance opportunity for sophomore forward Ryan Scarfo. But the officials went to the replay booth for several minutes and waved off the goal.
“I thought that was the correct call,” Schafer said.
The long debate was over whether or not Gillam had the puck underneath him before Scarfo could take the shot. The officials deemed that Gillam had secured the puck and the first period ended with no score.
Cornell took the lead 10:56 into the second period on a goal from sophomore defensemen Ryan Bliss. The goal was a result of some “puck luck,” Schafer noted.
“Ryan shot [the puck] and it seemed like it hit three or four guys before it went in,” Schafer said. “That’s the nature of the game right now.”
The rest of the second period was scoreless, in large part due to the play of Gillam and Union goalie Alex Sakellaropoulos.
Gillam finished the game with 32 saves. In the series against Union, Gillam saved 59 out of 60 shots — which gave him a 98 percent save percentage on the weekend.
“I thought the difference between our series last year and this year was goaltending,” Schafer said. “[Mitch] had an outstanding series. He’s been like that all year.”
Gillam, who sports a .933 save percentage, has won ECAC Goalie of the Week four times this season.
“I’ve just been working on fighting traffic and handling,” said Gillam. “I’m always just trying to make the next save.”
Gillam’s full range of talent was on display all night long. He made kick saves, glove saves, covered the puck through traffic and even played without his stick for nearly two minutes. No call on the ice was made.
“I just tried to close my five hole as much as I could,” Gillam said. “[Someone] grabbed it right out of my hands after I played the puck and threw it in the corner.”
The referee had the puck at his feet and missed what had transpired.
The only time Gillam was beaten was 10:56 into the third period on the fifth Union power play.
The Red had some chances to win in regulation, as did Union, but the game went to overtime when neither team could punch it in. Union tried desperately to escape with a victory, but Buckles had other ideas in mind.
His goal was of paramount importance. Not only did it prevent a winner-take-all game three scenario, it also provides an extra day of rest for the Cornell, which it will surely need after a gut-wrenching, all-in performance.
Cornell awaits No. 1 Quinnipiac, a team with which it has quite a bit of history. The teams played twice in the regular season. The Red lost once in overtime and tied the Bobcats most recently.