To say members of Cornell men’s hockey were excited to compete in their first NCAA tournament would be an understatement. Senior defenseman Patrick McCarron called it the most excited he’s ever been in his career. The inexperienced postseason team from Ithaca seemed confident and poised to make a deep run knowing any game could be the last for its eight seniors.
And that confidence was rightfully earned. Throughout the entire season, Cornell was one of just seven teams to not get shutout while serving up several shutouts of its own. But every streak eventually comes to an end, and unfortunately for the Red, that shutout-less streak ended in the first round of the NCAA tournament, when UMass Lowell walked away with a convincing 5-0 win to eliminate the team from its first NCAA appearance in five years.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our hockey team with what they’ve gone through this year,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “Tip of the hat to [UML], but from our perspective, couldn’t be prouder of our hockey team.”
It’s a tough way to go out by dropping a 5-0 decision, which brings a swift end to the long-awaited return to the national tournament. But from the game’s inception, the Red seemed as if it was going to make the most of its time on the big stage.
Cornell appeared to score 54 second into the game, when sophomore forward Mitch Vanderlaan collected a rebound and sent it by UML’s freshman goalie Tyler Wall. The play went to video review, and refs deemed that senior forward Eric Freschi played the puck with a high stick just moments before, meaning the play should have been called dead before Vanderlaan’s tally. The hot start was quickly cooled off.
Wall’s name would hold true from that point on, as the freshman stopped all 19 shots Cornell threw at him over the course of the remaining 59 minutes.
What ensued following the called-off goal was a huge momentum swing in favor of the River Hawks. Cornell sophomore forward Anthony Angello was called off for a trip, and the No. 6 power play in the country got a shot to get on the board first.
Cornell evaded the danger on the UML man-advantage opportunity, but the River Hawks’ pressure eventually paid off 6:34 into the contest. A turnover behind the net eventually found its way to Ryan Dmowski, who was creeping down into the zone and sent a shot from the slot past Cornell senior goalie Mitch Gillam.
Turnovers like that burned the Red throughout the course of the night, as UML has always been a team built around transition offense. With an injury-ailed defensive corps, Cornell had trouble containing the explosivity of the River Hawks lineup.
“That [depleted defense] kind of showed tonight with [UML’s] transition speed to get up and down the ice,” Schafer said.
But Cornell came out with a short burst of good pressure to start the second. Freshmen forwards Jeff Malott and Noah Bauld both drove on Wall with speed and strength, but the opposing freshman in goal got the better of the Cornellians on both occasions.
“There’s your couple opportunities to get one and maybe make it a 1-1 game and change the momentum a bit, but we never did,” Schafer said. “It’s a long uphill fight for the rest of the night.”
Almost 20 minutes passed until UML struck again, this time off the stick of Ryan Lohin in the midst of a delayed penalty in favor of the River Hawks. A fake shot caught Gillam off his moorings, then Lohin sent the puck past the sprawling Gillam for the two-goal lead.
Karma appeared to be coming back in Cornell’s favor, as a Gillam gaffe awarded the River Hawks a layup of a goal on the penalty kill, but replay revealed UML had too many men on the ice. Cornell’s deficit remained at two.
Thirty-six seconds after that nearly disastrous Cornell power play ended, C.J. Smith got another for UML, and this time no video review was necessary. The River Hawks entered the second intermission with a three goal lead.
At the third period’s early moments, Cornell came out yet again sharp and with a vengeance, but UML simply overpowered the team from Ithaca and added two additional goals in the period en route to the convincing 5-0 victory.
“We didn’t capitalize on any of our chances and they did,” said senior forward and captain Jake Weidner. “That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Hope is not lost for both the program and Cornell hockey fans. While a disappointing result in the moment, the 2016-17 team far exceeded any and all expectations laid out for it. After being picked to finish fifth and sixth in the preseason media and coaches poll, respectively, the Red found itself third by the regular season’s end, and as runner-ups in the ECAC postseason.
All of this was done without one goal scorer surpassing 30 points, only two homes games in the 2016 segment of the season and the myriad of injuries across the roster, especially to the defensive core.
“As a coach I’ve been around a long time,” Schafer said. “[And] the pride I have in that group of guys and how they’ve stuck it out all year long is impressive.”
It would be easy for the men to be satisfied with how the season has ended given what was expected of them. The first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2012 is no small feat, and a loss to a respectable UML team is certainly not something to hang one’s head about.
But as is evident in the type of culture that Lynah Rink has grown to become associated with, good enough is simply never good enough. The team feels its eight graduating seniors have laid the groundwork for continual and repeated success in the coming years.
“This is a great program and one that expects a lot from its players,” said senior forward Jeff Kubiak. “With us getting back to the tournament this year it’s going to only lead to good things in the upcoming years, and I think that’s one thing the guys in the room are going to take away from this experience and remember how it felt today.”
Luckily for Cornell, a strong group of young talent, paired with a solid pool of recruits, means that questions surrounding the program can be quickly hushed. All that’s left in the moment is to wonder what could have been, and honor the eight seniors that contributed four years to the team on East Hill.
“We’re still in that transition [period],” Schafer said. “But I thought these guys had a great year, one of the best years we’ve had here at Cornell.”