Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen.
The No. 1 team in the country’s reign atop the rankings will be short-lived after being beaten soundly by an opponent stuck near the bottom of the conference standings.
Rensselaer (5-20-4, 4-10-2 ECAC), the 59th-best of 60 teams in the nation according to the PairWise rankings, skated into Lynah Rink and shocked the Red by a score of 2-1.
Cornell (19-3-1, 13-2-1) surrendered a goal 20 seconds into the contest, and things failed to get much prettier from there.
The Red looked nothing like the team that dominated the month of January, seeing its unbeaten streak end at 11. The Red hadn’t trailed in any game since Jan. 12 at Yale and had boasted a 3-1-1 record when down by multiple goals heading into the contest with RPI.
This time, however, the top-ranked team in the nation couldn’t find a way to claw back for a gritty victory as it had three times before.
“The resiliency [came] a lot earlier [in other games,]” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “This game was a little bit like Niagara. We sucked for two periods against Niagara and we played well in the third. The difference tonight is we tried but just didn’t get the job done.”
The Engineers went on the rush on their first possession of the game. RPI’s Jacob Hayhurst slapped a sharp-angled shot, which benefited from a fortuitous bounce and caught some of Anthony Angello’s stick, rocketing past freshman goaltender Matt Galajda. The reigning ECAC Rookie and Goaltender of the Month has allowed five goals in two total February games after posting a dominant .71 goals against average in January.
“[Angello] jammed [the shot] and it went right in the back of the net and that kind of signified what the rest of the night would be like for us,” Schafer said. “But [RPI] played hard over the course of the night and we didn’t respond well to it.”
Cornell simply could not recover from the early goal. RPI goaltender Linden Marshall closed the door on a number of Cornell chances late in the opening period.
Midway through the second, RPI’s Brady Wiffen made Cornell’s sloppy power play unit pay, scoring shorthanded to extend his team’s lead to 2-0. It was the first shorty allowed by the Red this season.
“Our power play didn’t get it done, but our power play was reflective of the rest of our game,” Schafer said. “We had guys wide open. We had chances, but for whatever reason tonight we just didn’t have it.”
Erratic passing may have been the worst plague to hit the Red Saturday. Several possible scoring chances morphed into turnovers due to mistimed and mishandled passes.
“[We] were struggling the whole night to string passes together,” Schafer said. “We didn’t execute in those areas, and when you’re not executing, it’s going to make for a long night.”
An excellent sprawling save by Galajda with just over six minutes left in the second kept the game 2-0. He made a lunging stick save, sliding across his crease to stop an Engineer tap-in.
One minute and 35 seconds into the third period, senior forward Jared Fiegl, battling the flu, gave the Red new life, netting his second goal of the weekend — and second of the entire season.
“He was hurt and sick, and he probably played with the most energy of anybody on the team,” Schafer said.
Fiegl’s goal appeared to set the stage for a Cornell bid at another come-from-behind win. However, Marshall and the Engineers had other ideas. The RPI goaltender squashed a number of Cornell opportunities late in the contest to preserve his team’s lead.
“Give credit to RPI … they played hard,” Schafer said. “And we got to respond, you’ve got to overcome adversity.”
The Red now enters somewhat unchartered territory: responding to a loss. Schafer said he hopes the performance will be a wake-up call for his team that needs to get back to playing with intensity.
“[When] you’re winning games, maybe those lessons don’t get through to guys, and we’ve been pretty solid in our games up to this point, but we haven’t been good,” he said. “It’s a lesson [that] we all need to show up to play, we need to play hard [and] we need to play simple.”
The team has six days until a crucial road contest with No. 3 Clarkson, one that has broad implications for both the ECAC playoffs and the NCAA tournament.
“I’m thinking we better get our shit together this week,” Schafer said. “That’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that these guys better wake up.”
Cornell travels to face the Golden Knights on Friday, followed by a matchup with St. Lawrence Saturday.