For an intensive, play-by-play recap of the win over Union, click here.
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — In three games against Clarkson in the ECAC quarterfinals, Cornell men’s hockey failed to put up more than 18 shots in any of the three contests, forced to capitalize on a mere few scoring chances to take the three-game series.
Just one week later, in the ECAC semifinals against a superior team in Union, Cornell put up more shots in a 20 minute frame than in any Clarkson contest, en route to a 4-1 victory and a spot in the championship match against Harvard.
“That was the turning point in our season,” senior forward Eric Freschi said of games two and three against Clarkson. “Our season was on the line after we lost game one, then we fought back and won two games. That really showed the character of our team.”
Friday night’s opening period was tied for the most shots in a single period for the 2016-17 Cornell team, with the other 21-shot frame coming in the second period of a 5-2 win over Northern Michigan at the Florida College Classic. The team that struggled to get out of its own end at times against Clarkson flipped the script to open the game, and held one of the country’s most potent offenses to a seven-shot first period.
“A word was thrown around that we underestimated this team,” said Union head coach Rick Bennett. “I have no idea why we would ever think that going into this game, but that’s the mindset sometimes of a college guy.”
The focus for Cornell going into the semifinal matchup — like any team’s gameplan against Union would be — was trying to figure out how to limit the country’s finest in Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo, both of whom are finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. In two regular season games, the combination of Vecchione and Foo amassed a total of six points on the Red.
On Friday, the duo had only one — a Foo assist on his team’s only goal. For Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86, senior forward and captain Jake Weidner — selected as the ECAC’s best defensive forward — was the key to that accomplishment the third time around.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that [Vecchione] should win the Hobey Baker Award,” Schafer said. “[Weidner] has gone head to head against Vecchione in three-straight games, and he hasn’t given up a five-on-five goal against him. He leads by example and our guys follow him.”
Rather than just limiting Vecchione and Foo, the team put forth its own onslaught on Union’s Alex Sakellaropoulos, and the Union netminder did all he could to keep his team afloat by denying everything Cornell threw at him in the first.
But 3:23 into the second period, Cornell freshman forward Noah Bauld became the first to solve the Red’s opponent in net. Linemate Dwyer Tschantz’s shot hit post, then bounced right to Bauld’s waiting stick, and the freshman sent the no-doubter into the back of the net to put the Red on the board first.
Weidner made it a two-goal hole for the Dutchmen on a power play one-timer from the top of the left circle. The play required review, but upon confirmation, the captain followed up the freshman for what would turn into the eventual game-winner.
But after Weidner’s tally and around the halfway point of the second period, Union finally began to play like a team that earned itself the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. The Dutchmen found their footing and held Cornell in its own zone for the second half of the second, and a majority of the third.
The Dutchmen finally got on the board off a rebound put-back by Cole Maier on the power play 7:23 into the third. It was one of 18 shots Union threw at Gillam in a desperation period, but the only one that the Cornell senior was unable to corral.
Union faced a 14-shot deficit at the first intermission, but finished on top 34-33 in the same category. Freschi was not too concerned with the shot total, as he said his defense kept shots to the outside and in open lanes where Gillam had a clear look.
“If he sees the puck I’m confident he can stop them,” Freschi said of his goalie.
Freschi added a tally with 3:12 to play in the third for some breathing room, and sophomore forward Beau Starrett added the final blow 62 seconds later to clinch the ECAC finals berth.
Now, the team that was picked to finish towards the middle of the pack in the ECAC will have a chance to take the postseason conference crown against the most storybook opponent of them all: Harvard.
Just as Union boasts a one-two punch with its top line pairings, so too does the Crimson. Second line center Sean Malone provided a hat trick for Harvard in Friday’s first semifinal against Quinnipiac for the Crimson’s 4-1 win.
Regardless of what will be a tough opponent to play against, the “We want Harvard!” chants from the Cornell crowd ensued after Starrett’s late goal against Union.