The Cornell men’s hockey team is now in uncharted territory.
Unlike last week’s ECAC Championship weekend, not a single member on the roster has competed in the NCAA Tournament — until now. The Red will have the opportunity to skate with the River Hawks of UMass-Lowell on college hockey’s biggest stage this weekend.
No. 3 seeded Cornell (21-8-5) will play regular and postseason Hockey East Champion UMass-Lowell (26-10-3) — the No. 2 seed — at the northeast regional semifinal in Manchester, N.H.
Saturday’s contest will be the Red’s 20th appearance in the NCAA tournament and its first since 2012 as Cornell seeks a third national title. But this team has yet to enjoy this experience.
“I don’t think [experience] plays a part,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “I think it plays a little bit of a part if you don’t get into … your league championship. But these guys have had that kind of experience this past weekend where there’s a lot of pressure in wanting to win a championship.”
This team, especially with the upperclassmen, has been yearning for this opportunity for quite some time.
“Everyone in my class is excited,” said senior defenseman Patrick McCarron. “We are trying to share that with the younger guys not to take it for granted. It’s our first time [here]. It’s the most excited I’ve been in my entire career.”
Despite UMass-Lowell’s impressive resume in 2016-17, Schafer is not too concerned about his team’s ability to advance.
“They are not intimidated by anybody,” he said. “They respect all opponents we have played all year long. That has been a strength of ours: coming into a game and really respecting what the other team can do, but not fearing it and getting ready to play our game too. Lowell’s got a great hockey team, they are well coached and they play hard. We feel we have a lot of those similar traits.”
The River Hawks boast a high-powered offense. They rank third in the nation in power play efficiency (27.1) — narrowly beating out ECAC Champion Harvard — and sixth in goals per game (3.69). UMass-Lowell is also home to the 10th and 11th best scorers in Division I.
“[UMass-Lowell has] CJ Smith and [Joe] Gambardella, and that line is an outstanding line,” Schafer said. “But they play a team game. They are an offensive team. They are very well coached and have great offensive habits. We have to have great offensive habits ourselves.”
Lowell is very capable defensively, as well. The team ranks 13th in defense with 2.29 goals allowed per game — not far behind eighth-ranked Cornell at 2.24.
And while UMass-Lowell is an unfamiliar foe, Schafer is sticking to the basics.
“[The key is] to play a very simple game,” he said. “We simplified our game plan for Union, we knew exactly what we wanted to do. [We] made that mistake against Clarkson [and] had way too much thinking. We’ve got to make a couple adjustments against Lowell, they play a little bit of a different style. But those adjustments will be very minor.”
The SNHU arena in Manchester is just under 40 miles from the River Hawks’ home ice, a somewhat unfortunate draw for the Ithaca-based squad. The team is confident that its fans will show up, though.
“We’ve been doing pretty well on the road all year so we are not too worried about how many fans they have,” said senior goalie Mitch Gillam. “We will probably have a lot of Lynah Faithful there anyway.”
It has been an emotional and crazy past two weeks for this team with last week’s snow day in addition to victory and defeat in Lake Placid. Due to renovations at Lynah, the Red is also practicing at a nearby rink in Lansing.
“I thought the guys did a good job of staying focused last week on a wacky week of preparation,” Schafer said. “And it’s a wacky week of preparation again, a lot of exams, practicing out here at Lansing. [But] also, it’s fresh — it’s different. This is more like the NHL shaped rinks without much ice behind the goal. So there are a lot of similarities that practicing out here will help us going up to Manchester also.”
The Red is coming off a 3-goal loss to Harvard in the ECAC Championship finals but was not overly discouraged in defeat.
“I think we are working hard,” Gillam said. “Harvard buried their chances on the power play and got a lucky bounce. Other than that I thought we played with them and played up to our expectations of working hard. I think we just need to carry that into this weekend.”
Action gets underway at noon on Saturday, March 25 in Manchester. The game will be broadcast by ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app.
“We have worked hard all year, and I think we deserve to be here,” Gillam said. “I think people are looking down upon us, and I think we are right there and we can come out of this with a national championship.”