Cameron Pollack | Sun Photography Editor

Both home and away, Cornell fans made their voice heard as their teams fought into NCAAs.

April 6, 2017

LINSEY | Conquering Challenges: Playoffs

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This is part two in Kevin Linsey’s three-part series recapping the Cornell men’s hockey season. View part one here.

After an excellent regular season, Cornell men’s hockey geared up for a playoff run. Cornell earned the No. 3 seed in the ECAC and a bye to the quarterfinals, where it would face Clarkson in a three-game series at Lynah Rink. A series win would send Cornell to Lake Placid to fight for the ECAC championship, and likely earn the Red a sure NCAA Tournament berth as well. However, a series loss to the Golden Knights would seriously jeopardize Cornell’s shot at an NCAA Tournament slot. With so much on the line, the Cornell-Clarkson series proved to be the Red’s most exciting playoff matchup since the teams last met in the playoffs, when the current senior classmen were freshmen.

Going into the Clarkson series, Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86 had plenty to ponder. The chief concern with playing the Golden Knights is Clarkson’s coach, Casey Jones ’90. No matter the players at his disposal, Jones is familiar with the Cornell hockey style, and can get the best out of his players against the Red. One particular strategy his team employs that tends to be effective against Cornell is winning the puck battles along the boards, and then quickly passing it to center-ice. Clarkson’s advantages lie in its speedy forwards, and the team used this strategy to get a number of breakaways and odd-man rush opportunities in game one.

Cornell senior goaltender Mitch Gillam is a solid netminder, but he is at his best when his defense gives him time to see the puck. In game one, when Clarkson had so many chances on the rush, he was often exposed and Clarkson made the Red pay. When the dust cleared, the final score was 6-2 in favor of the team from Potsdam, and Schafer had to come up with a tactical answer or Cornell would face the end of its season the next night.

Games two and three unfolded quite differently, as Cornell had to alter its strategy. Cornell’s defenders focused on limiting the Golden Knights’ chances on the rush, allowing Gillam to see the puck more often. At the other end of the ice, Cornell’s offensive pressure paid off in a pair of one-goal victories to make it past the quarterfinals. Cornell was headed to Lake Placid, where the team would face the Union Dutchmen in the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Cornell matched up well with Union this season, mainly because of the Schenectady college’s reliance on one line. Spencer Foo, Mike Vecchione and Sebastian Vidmar are excellent players, but Cornell was built to defend a team of the Dutchmen’s ilk. Cornell’s line of Mitch Vanderlaan, Jake Weidner and Eric Freschi has typically matched up with the opposing team’s best players and shut them out. In Lake Placid, Union’s top line was held scoreless in the first two periods, as Cornell raced to a two-goal lead. This defensive effort was crucial, as Cornell is a very good team when playing with the lead, and the Red cruised to a 4-1 win.

The next night, Cornell faced Harvard for the ECAC championship in the Adirondacks. One of the major factors in this game was the larger-than-usual ice surface. Lake Placid, of course, was the host city for the 1980 Winter Olympics, and the game was played at the rink built for the 1980 Games. International ice hockey competitions are played on somewhat larger ice surfaces than the typical college rink. Cornell is often at a disadvantage on a bigger sheet, when faster and more skilled teams can exploit more space on offense. That is exactly what Harvard did to Cornell, and the Crimson succeeded, taking the league championship 4-1. The offensive skill of Harvard shined through, and the Crimson skated away with the Whitelaw Cup, beating Cornell for the third time this season in as many games.

Still, there was more playoff action for the Red. The impressive run to the ECAC Finals earned Cornell an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. Cornell, a No. 3 seed, was assigned to the Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H. The Red played the UMass-Lowell River Hawks, the No. 2 seed. The River Hawks came into the matchup as Hockey East regular season and tournament champions, and brought a very balanced and dangerous team to New England. Lowell also brought a huge crowd of fans, given the short 40 minute drive between Lowell and Manchester. Cornell battled with the River Hawks, even scoring a goal in the first minute that was waved off after replay. However, Lowell was clearly the better team, and came away with a 5-0 win.

Check back next week for the third column in the series, an overall reflection on the entire season.