In a season already marked by historic accomplishments, the No. 2 Cornell men’s hockey team has more items to check off before its 2017-2018 campaign can truly be called one of its best.
Near the top of the list of things yet to be achieved is the Cleary Cup, awarded annually to the ECAC’s regular-season champion. Cornell has not captured the trophy since 2005.
But with two games to play before it enjoys a first-round ECAC playoff bye, the Red (22-3-2, 16-2-2 ECAC) needs just one point to lock up a regular season conference title and the No. 1 seed in the ECAC tournament.
On Friday, the Red takes on Rensselaer (5-23-4, 4-14-2), who dealt then-No. 1 Cornell a shocking 2-1 loss on Feb. 3.
“We obviously owe them one,” said sophomore defenseman Yanni Kaldis. “We weren’t ready to play last time, so I think we’ll give them our best game.”
Following the matchup with RPI, Cornell takes on No. 19 Union (20-13-1, 15-5) in a battle of the ECAC’s top two teams on Saturday.
Last time the Red and Dutchmen met, Cornell saw a 3-1 lead slip away before freshman forward Brenden Locke’s power-play goal in the final minutes gave the Red a 4-3 victory.
Union, four points behind the Red in the standings, is 5-0 since the Feb. 2 game at Lynah Rink. The loss to Cornell is the one outlier in a 9-1 stretch for the Dutchmen.
Senior Ryan Scarfo leads the Dutchmen with 18 goals fourth-most in the ECAC. His sophomore teammate Anthony Rinaldi has 15 tallies. Junior forward Anthony Angello leads the Red with 12 goals.
Cornell will look to build off its home sweep of Brown and Yale last weekend. Head coach Mike Schafer ’86 was pleased with his team’s performance against the Bulldogs after what we called a “lackadaisical” effort in the win over Brown.
“It’s something that’s been inconsistent for us over the last three weeks to a month, Schafer said. “So I was pleased that we came out ready to work on Saturday for the full 60 minutes.”
Kaldis, one of the few healthy skaters in the Red’s otherwise-depleted blueline corps, said the team’s success starts with defense.
“Offensively we’re going to try to keep growing and build off this weekend, try to score some more goals,” Kaldis said. “But defensively, keep trying to shut down the other team’s top lines and give them nothing. We build off our defense, so when our defense is strong that usually translates into our offense.”
Schafer said junior defensemen Brendan Smith and Alec McCrea’s statuses are questionable for this weekend. The pair are among the team’s best defenders, and in their absence, senior captain Alex Rauter has filled in on the blue line. Rauter is a forward by trade who played defense in a relief capacity toward the end of last season, a role he has stepped into once more this season.
“Rauter did really well [this weekend],” Kaldis said. “We knew he could do the job… I think everyone stepped their game up [on defense] and we got the job done.”
Offensively, the Red hopes the win over Yale was the start of a scoring resurgence resurgence. After the Red’s win over Union Feb. 2, it scored just four total goals in its next four games before scoring 3 against the Bulldogs.
“We’ve had some good looks and good opportunities,” Schafer said. “To increase your puck luck you have to work harder, you have to do the things necessary to create more traffic in front of the goaltender.”
Although the team is just a win or tie away from a regular season title, the Red hopes the Clearly Cup is just one step toward a long playoff run.
“Everyone knows about [the Clearly Cup],” Kaldis said. “It’s not the big picture, it’s not what we want, not the end result, it doesn’t end there. But obviously it’d be great to win that [and] we’re obviously going to work hard to capture [it].”
Despite the fact that it isn’t the end goal, Schafer knows that winning a regular season conference title is the mark of a special team.
“These guys have shown a lot of consistency,” he said. “In order to win the Clearly Cup you have to be consistent.”
The Red takes on RPI Friday in Troy and Union Saturday in Schenectady. Both games are at 7 p.m. Cornell then has a weekend off before hosting an ECAC playoff quarterfinal series March 9-11.