The road to Lake Placid just got a little bit easier for the Cornell men’s hockey team. This past weekend, the Red clinched a top-four spot in the conference, and with that, a first-round bye in the ECAC tournament.
Now, with just two games remaining in the regular season, the team will look to improve upon its third place position with contests against RPI and Union at Lynah this weekend.
“It’s huge to clinch and get a week off and not have a play in a tough first round series,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “But we’ve still got to focus on RPI and then Union with an opportunity to continue to climb up in the standings.”
While Cornell (17-6-4, 12-4-4 ECAC) will wait to begin postseason play, the team welcomes two familiar foes RPI and Union this weekend. First up, the Engineers (7-25-1, 5-15) come to town for a Friday night affair.
RPI has been in or around the league’s cellar for the better part of the regular season, but has been respectable following the holiday break. The team is 4-6 in its last 10, and has had some impressive wins — most notably a 4-0 rout over Harvard back in January.
Averaging just 2.24 goals per game — 55th in the country — RPI has struggled to produce offense on most nights. Senior forward Riley Bourbonnais now leads the team in scoring with 27 points, and sophomore Evan Tironese is not far behind with 20 assists on the season.
Chase Perry is now the team’s primary goaltender, but the sophomore has had an up and down year. He gives up 3.32 goals per game with a save percentage of .910.
During the Red’s visit to Troy, freshman defenseman Yanni Kaldis scored the game-winner with just 24.6 seconds left in regulation to give his team the 4-3 victory. RPI is always a tough matchup for the Red, and that win was Cornell’s first over RPI since the 2013 campaign.
Despite past struggles with the Engineers, senior goalie Mitch Gillam is confident in his team, given the way the players have come together throughout the year.
“The team is gelling on and off the ice right now,” he said. “We’re all just one big group of friends and family, and we love to do everything together — especially play hockey.”
The following night, Cornell will host No. 7/8 Union on what will surely be an emotional senior night.
The Dutchmen (22-8-2, 15-4-1) sit atop the ECAC at the moment, but depending on Friday night’s results, the tilt with Cornell could be for first place in the league. Union is a strong team all-around — its senior goaltender Alex Sakellaropoulos compliments the powerhouse group of forwards that have kept this team in the NCAA top ten all year long.
Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo are both tied for third in the nation in points with 54 apiece, and both have been almost unstoppable night-in and night-out. Cornell was able to handle Foo, limiting him to a single assist, but Vecchione tallied two goals, including one of the shorthanded variety.
Last time, the Red took town the Dutchmen in what was a rather impressive road upset. Cornell scored three in the first and held on for a 5-3 victory — arguably the biggest and most defining win of the season.
So while Cornell’s not-too-distant fate is already decided with the first-round bye, the team could still potentially move itself up the ECAC totem pole. Saturday night could also be an opportunity to play spoiler to a Union squad vying for the top seed, and what better night to accomplish that than the one which honors its veteran seniors.
“It’s been a fast four years, but it’s an exciting time and I think we’ve got a chance to do something special here,” said Gillam, who has started since sophomore year. “So we’ve gotta keep it going into the playoffs and see how far we go.”
“They’ve grown a lot as a group and as individuals over the four years,” Schafer added of his eight-member eldest class. “All of them are having the best year they’ve had since they’ve been here. They’ve been there to help lead the team it’s been great to see them have the success that they deserve.”