The last time the Cornell men’s hockey team found itself in Lake Placid was three years ago, in the ECAC semifinals and against a familiar foe. Friday night, the Red takes on the Dutchmen of Union College in the hopes of advancing to the final round and a shot at a 13th Whitelaw Cup.
It was in 2014 that the eventual NCAA champions Union prevented Cornell from reaching that final game. A 5-2 loss sent the Red — including many of the current seniors — packing one night too early. The Red lost to the Dutchmen in every game that season.
“I am looking forward to getting another crack at Union in Lake Placid,” said senior forward Jeff Kubiak, who has faced Union in every postseason since his arrival at Cornell. “They got the best of us our freshman year.”
But this year, with those freshmen now as seniors, tells a different story.
In its final game of the regular season, Cornell (20-7-5, 13-4-5 ECAC) tied Union (25-8-3, 16-4-2) at home as the result of a late power play goal from sophomore Mitch Vanderlaan. And earlier this season, the Red marched into Schenectady to defeat its semifinal opponent, 5-3, in a win that displayed this squad’s potential.
“I think [the team has] a great mindset,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “We had two great games against Union this year. They are a good hockey team with some of the best players in the country and we are looking forward to that challenge.”
The Dutchmen also know what to expect from Cornell, but are unfazed by previous results.
“I have a lot of respect for Mike Schafer and staff,” said Union head coach Rick Bennett. “You know going in that they’ve done their homework. It’s going to be a tough matchup. The last time we were there was a heck of a lot better than the … beating we took first game. We are always looking to improve each game and hopefully on Friday night we improve from the last time we were there.”
Nevertheless, the Red is ready to exact its revenge for the last semifinals shortcoming. The end of the week cannot come sooner for this eager team.
“We want to return the favor this year,” Kubiak said. “It’s going to be an exciting game and atmosphere. It’s going to be fun.”
Cornell is coming off of a resilient bounceback series against Clarkson. With Sunday’s rare afternoon game and Tuesday’s closure of Cornell’s campus, preparations have a bit modified.
“It’s a short turnaround with everything,” Schafer said. “With the weather, having taken monday off and with the snow, everything is out of routine. But the mentality is good. We had to change a few things up against Clarkson … and we did survive.”
Now it is one-game elimination. There is no best-of-three cushion — no room for error.
“One thing you have to realize … is how every shift is going to matter,” Kubiak said. “You don’t have that second or third game to come back if you lose. Everyone has got to realize it is do-or-die at this point.”
Schafer and his team know they must keep an eye on Union forwards Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo. The two have been named finalists for ECAC player of the year, and finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, named to the nation’s top player.
“You got to make sure you know when Vecchione and Foo are on the ice,” he said. “They are great team-guys, they utilize other players on the ice. You have to make sure you don’t let those guys get out of control, don’t let them get on two-on-ones, three-on-twos. They have the ability to make plays — that’s what makes them so good.”
If Cornell can maintain its discipline in what will be a treacherous 60 minutes, the Union pair will have a difficult Friday evening.
“I think our guys have done a good job [of stopping them] … this year,” Schafer added. “Five on five, we have been able to control [Vecchione and Foo]. Special teams will play a key role in this weekend’s game.”
The Herb Brooks Arena contains an Olympic ice sheet, a larger ice surface than Cornell and its counterparts are used to playing on. This new environment could affect gameplay, but the team is doing all it can to limit its influence.
“Puck possession is going to be huge, especially for our team,” said junior Alex Rauter. “We can’t get chasing outside the dots … or trying to kill people with our big bodies like we usually do. I think as long as we maintain the puck and play good defensively I think we can be successful.”
Rauter has had an unusual season as of late. The veteran has been called back to play on a depleted Red defense for the time being. Barring any blueliners returning, it looks like that will be his spot to end out the year.
“It’s an interesting transition,” Rauter said. “I haven’t played a second of defense my entire life. It’s been fun. With all the defensemen helping me out … they’ve made it easy.”
After playing a long and gritty three game series against Clarkson, Cornell could benefit from single-game elimination due the team’s lack of depth in the back. Two more hard fought games and this team could return to Ithaca as ECAC Champions before its imminent NCAA campaign.
If Cornell can top Union, the team will face the winner of Harvard and Quinnipiac in the ECAC finals. If not, the Red will head home and await its selection for the NCAA Tournament.
Puck drop for the semifinals is 7:35 p.m. Friday in Lake Placid, with Harvard-Quinnipiac taking place at 4:05. The ECAC championship match will take place Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
“Ever since my freshman year we have always had high expectations of getting back to Lake Placid,” Rauter said. “I think it’s a testament to how good this team is that we are actually going to be there.”