During the 2016-17 campaign, Cornell men’s hockey played every ECAC opponent twice; of the 11 other schools, Cornell was able to defeat all but three of them — one of which is this weekend’s opponent, Clarkson.
“They’re a good hockey team — you look at the wins they’ve had, I mean they’ve had some great victories this year,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86.
The Golden Knights provide a challenging matchup for the Red’s first ECAC best-of-three playoff series. After closing the season out on a nine game undefeated streak and finishing third in the conference, Cornell earned a first round bye and did not face competition last weekend.
Schafer credits the team’s hot streak to maintaining the same approach day in and day out.
“They’ve been able to stay even-keeled and be consistent and come ready to play every night,” he said. “Coaches talk about process all the time, but very few times this year have we gotten away from that. These guys have done a great job of sticking to that process.”
Unlike Cornell, Clarkson was in action last weekend. The sixth-seeded Golden Knights swept RPI at home. Clarkson had no trouble with the Engineers — topping them by a combined score of 11-6 in Potsdam.
While Cornell had a whole week off, the team did more than just rest up for the quarterfinals.
“Monday and Tuesday we were just giving them time off for their bodies to regenerate, but then we went pretty hard,” Schafer said. “We had long competitive practices, and I think that’s the compete level that you don’t want to lose over the break … These were some of the best practices I’ve had here in a bye week in a long, long time.”
Once the puck is dropped Friday night, the two teams will renew their rivalry for the 133rd time, dating back to 1923. Cornell leads the overall series 64-13 with 15 ties. Two of those ties came during this season.
Each matchup ended, 3-3. In the first, Cornell came back from an early 3-1 deficit to salvage a point. The second time out, just over two minutes separated the Red from earning the win when Clarkson’s Troy Josephs tipped in a shot from the point to tie the game up. Once again, the extra five minute frame was not enough to settle the score.
“In both games we had to come from behind, and that’s something that you don’t want to happen on a regular basis,” Schafer said. “But they play a great style that doesn’t allow you to play well at times.”
In addition to giving the Red a hard time, Clarkson has been a solid team all year long. Currently 24th in the pairwise ranking, the Knights have earned impressive victories over UMass-Lowell, Union, St. Lawrence and Quinnipiac over the course of the season.
Clarkson is tied for 16th in the nation in scoring, averaging 3.22 goals per game. Sam Vigneault has certainly contributed to that figure, leading the team in scoring with 12 goals and 24 assists. Josephs has set the pace in goals scored with 19.
Senior defenseman Patrick McCarron knows Clarkson will be a tough opponent but is more focused on how his own team plays.
“We focus a lot on what we have to do,” he said. “We think that if we play our system and play the way that we can then we’ll be ok no matter what happens.”
“We suffocate teams,” he continued. “It’s hard for teams to plays against us for 60 minutes; it’s just a frustrating style of hockey to play against.”
Unlike Clarkson, Cornell’s back end was its greatest strength during the regular season. The team currently ranks fifth in the NCAA in goals against — averaging just 2.17 goals allowed per game.
Leading the way defensively have been McCarron, sophomore Alec McCrea and freshman Yanni Kaldis. Senior goaltender Mitch Gillam has had another excellent year himself (18-5-5, 2.12, .921). The Ontario-native will also need to play well for the team to accomplish what it has set out to.
Offensively, the Red has been led by sophomore forward Mitch Vanderlaan. His 14 goals and 26 points are both first on the team. Vanderlaan is also a plus-13 goal differential, tied for second with senior forward Eric Freschi. McCrea leads the squad at plus-15.
However, Vanderlaan is just one of many Cornell players to contribute offensively — a characteristic of this team that is different from years past.
“I think this is the deepest team I’ve been on here for sure,” McCarron said. “We’ve never really had four lines that can score, play in their own end and do all the little things. It’s not just a top heavy team, and you can’t just pinpoint one thing on our team that you’re going to stop that night.”
Last year, the Red lost in the ECAC quarterfinals to Quinnipiac, but the team is hoping to punch its ticket to Lake Placid — where the semifinals and finals are hosted — with a pair of wins over Clarkson.
If the Red wins this series, a trip to the NCAA tournament becomes a virtual certainty.
If past history is any indication, Lynah should be packed all weekend, and the team wants to make sure to take advantage of its home ice advantage.
“We have the best fans in college, so obviously any home ice advantage that we can get can help us get to Lake placid, and that’s obviously our goal,” McCarron said.
Action gets underway Friday night at 7 p.m. Game two is Saturday at the same time, and game three would be at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, if necessary.
“I think we’re just starting to come together at the right time,” McCarron said. “This is when you want all your systems working.”