The North Country is a forlorn place.
Winters there are long, with snow weighing down every evergreen branch. To get there, you have to drive through Syracuse. And Watertown. And an army base. When you pass an army base, you know you are leaving civilization. And then you drive for two more hours.
Less than 20 miles from Canada, you arrive at two small college towns, 10 miles apart. You are closer to Montreal or Ottawa than Syracuse, let alone New York City or Long Island. The winter weather makes you feel like you are on another planet, and you have to pinch yourself to remember you are still in New York State, under the jurisdiction of Albany politicians.
This was the gray backdrop for Cornell men’s hockey as they arrived in the North Country this past weekend. Clarkson has flirted with the top ranking in the country this season, possessing talented forwards like Sheldon Rempal and Nico Sturm as well as a skilled defensive corps and one of the conference’s best netminders in Jake Kielly.
Ranked seventh in the country, the Golden Knights welcomed the Red to Potsdam for a top-ten clash in the North Country wilderness. The rink had a palpable playoff atmosphere to it, buzzing well before puck drop. Once the game began, both teams’ fans and pep bands were in full voice, anticipating a huge victory for their side, and anxiously awaiting their team’s first goal.
The only problem was neither fan base would enjoy a goal that evening. Cornell’s first 0-0 tie of the season was the result, as Kielly and freshman Matt Galajda both pitched a shutout on Friday. Cornell had significant injury absentees, plus head coach Mike Schafer’s ’86 illness-induced absence. Taking into account the road matchup in that atmosphere as well as these injuries, a 0-0 tie helped Cornell more than Clarkson. Given Cornell’s first-place status in the ECAC standings with six games left in the season, Clarkson would have eyed that game as a chance to catch up to the Red.
A tie kept a sizeable standings gap between the teams and ensured that Cornell still has its destiny in its hands. In other words, Cornell can win all its remaining games and be league champion. In order to lose out on the Cleary Cup for first place in the regular season, Cornell would have to lose or tie several games.
Saturday, after another overcast day with significant snowfall, Cornell prepared for a clash with St. Lawrence. The Saints are an interesting story — they had a horrid first half of the season, suffering a major injury crisis as their program was under NCAA investigation for possible ethical violations. As a result, they are in last place in the ECAC. However, many key players have returned, and the investigation closed this week with only a minor violation cited.
The Saints, poised for a better end to the season, may be a tough out in the ECAC Tournament. They took down Colgate, 5-2, on Friday and prepared for Cornell with nothing to lose.
The Red eked out a 1-0 win against the Saints, thanks to freshman goaltender Matt Galajda’s second shutout of the weekend and senior forward Jared Fiegl’s third-period goal.
Cornell tallied three points on the North Country road slog for the second straight year, and defended its No. 4 position in the national polls. Returning down a snow-coated Route 11, the team would have had reason to be proud of their achievements. Galajda recorded two shutouts in two tough road arenas far from home. Cornell had a solid defensive effort and ultimately earned three points with only one goal, with several regulars injured. Now, they will regroup and prepare for Brown and Yale at home. With Saturday’s Yale tilt being Senior Night, the weekend promises to serve up more entertaining Cornell hockey for the Lynah Faithful to savor. And the Faithful, unlike the team and this writer, don’t have to brave the North Country to see it.