For a blow-by-blow, extensive recap of the tie against Union, click here.
Instead of coasting and playing comfortably through a weekend that, in the grand scheme of things, would not have drastic implications on playoff seeding, the No. 9 Cornell men’s hockey squad — unbeknownst to the word ‘comfort’ — blanked RPI, and tied Union in an instant classic, overtime thriller to deny the Dutchmen the first seed in the ECAC tournament.
The team (18-6-5, 13-4-5 ECAC) finished the year on a nine-game unbeaten streak, going 6-0-3 in that span.
“[We’ve] been resilient all year long and found ways with a depleted lineup, and being healthy and not healthy, to win games or tie games,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “We have made quite the surge here to get to the top of the league.”
Despite clinching a bye last weekend, there were still several more under-the-surface benefits that the team takes from this weekend. With the win over RPI (8-26-1, 6-16), the Red locked up the No. 3 seed in the ECAC. And not only did the tie with Union give Harvard (22-5-2, 16-4-2) the No. 1 seed, but it also ensured that the earliest Cornell can face the Crimson is the ECAC finals, granted all goes in Cornell’s favor.
Despite Union (23-8-3, 16-4-2) securing a share of the ECAC regular season champion honors, a tiebreaker in Harvard’s favor leaves them No. 2. So Cornell could hypothetically face a team it is 1-0-1 against in Union before it might have to face the only team it is 0-2 against, Harvard.
Additionally, Cornell is the only ECAC team Union failed to beat at least once all season.
“We knew we can’t go to first place or second place, or we can’t go to fourth place but I do know it’s a big game for confidence,” Schafer said ahead of Union on Saturday. “A big game for the NCAAs and a great competitive game against a real good hockey team.”
Senior blueliner Patrick McCarron and sophomore forward Mitch Vanderlaan provided the scoring in the win over the Engineers. Senior goalie Mitch Gillam made 31 saves in the contest for his 11th career shutout. RPI outshot Cornell 31-25, but most of the shots the team from Troy engineered came from well outside the danger zone.
“Always good to get a shutout,” Gillam said of No. 11. “Guys played really well in front of me, they kept the shots from the outside for the most part. Give credit to the guys in front of me.”
The next game, on his senior night against Union, Gillam made 32 saves — his number. Half of those came in the third and overtime period, where Cornell was outshot 16-5 against a team fighting for seeding.
The contest was nowhere short of excitement, as is inherent with essentially any game that requires an extra period. Schafer called it “just a real good college hockey game,” plain and simple.
Part of that, he alluded to, had to do with one of Lynah’s most vocal crowds of the season.
“The atmosphere was great tonight, I thought the crowd was great,” he said. “I hope we get all the students in that one section to show up for our playoff games. The students in section B and A were awesome tonight. The other section, I don’t know what they got going for them, but we need them here for the playoffs.”
Junior forward Trevor Yates got the scoring underway a little over halfway into the first on the power play, his team-high seventh of the year on the man-advantage. It was indicative of how the game would pan out, as five of the six total goals on the night came on the power play.
“It was hard to figure out what was a call and what wasn’t a call,” Schafer said.
Union’s dangerous duo of Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo added a goal of their own, along with Brett Supinski. Cornell senior forward Matt Buckles found the back of the net on his senior night to regain Cornell the lead after Vecchione’s equalizer, but then Foo and Supinski gave the Dutchmen the lead.
Vanderlaan got the pivotal game-tying goal with 5:01 left in the third to send the game to the extra frame. It gave him a goal in five straight contests — a feat not achieved by a Cornellian since Michael Kennedy ’09 in 2007-08, according to Cornell Athletics — and solidified him at the top of the team in goals with 14 on the year.
“Sucks getting a tie, but I thought we battled pretty hard out there,” Gillam said. “All four lines played really, really strong, and it’s a taxing game, they’re a strong team.”
Cornell also lost sophomore defenseman Brendan Smith for the year after a hit delivered by Foo in the second period, per Schafer. It is a big loss for a defensive core that has already seen some centerpieces go down to injury. Freshman defenseman Yanni Kaldis also went down in the game blocking a shot, but did not miss a shift, and the air cavity of Lynah Rink relieved itself in unison.
“We only had five defensemen after that and then went into overtime, so that’s a lot of minutes for [the five, and] it’s pretty intense back there,” Gillam said. “We had to throw [junior forward Alex] Rauter back there for a bit. Good that he can come back and play a role like that at any time. But Sucks losing Smitty, he’s a good two-way defenseman.”
Now, the boys in red will get some well-deserved rest before hosting a team to be determined on the weekend of March 10-12 in the ECAC quarterfinals.
For Gillam and the other seven seniors honored on Saturday night, the team seems to be in the best position it has been in recent memory to make a run at the national tournament. Being a bubble team is no longer an option for them, and the coming week will be the time to get prepared for what the team hopes is a deep run, playoff beards included.
“I don’t know what’s going on but I plan on keeping the beard, maybe do something funky with it,” Gillam said.
Motivated by the excellence that has passed through the program, and the bitterness of never making the tournament, the team feels confident heading into the most exciting time of the year.
“It feels like just yesterday we were watching Andy Iles [’14] and then heading out,” Gillam said.
“It’s pretty crazy that this is our final kick at the can here, and I’m enjoying every minute of it with the guys.”
“We’re not finished yet, though,” he continued. “I think we are going to go pretty far.”