The last games of any league’s regular season always have a weird vibe about them. This is because some teams do not care about the result, having secured playoff berths or fallen well short of the playoffs. Others are jockeying for playoff seeds, or most excitingly, right on the playoff bubble. As Cornell men’s hockey enters the 2017-18 season’s final weekend, they find themselves still in the thick of the action, as the Red tries to secure the program’s first Cleary Cup since 2004-05.
Yet, their first weekend opponent, the Rensselaer Engineers, are out of the spotlight. The Engineers sit in 11th place in a 12-team conference, with just 10 points. They could move up to 10th place or slide down to 12th, yet no matter what, their poor season will result in a road ECAC Tournament matchup against a team ranked higher than them. They are playing for pride this weekend, which works out for the Red. Cornell lost to RPI in their matchup at Lynah on Feb.3, so revenge on the Engineers’ turf at Houston Field House would suit the Red. Furthermore, Cornell needs just one point to clinch the Cleary Cup, and they would do well to do it against RPI.
That is because Saturday’s opponent is Union, Cornell’s only competition for the ECAC regular-season championship. To win the cup, Union needs a win against Colgate and aCornell loss to RPI on Friday. While those two results are unlikely, it is certainly possible. If so, Union would play Cornell on Saturday night for the ECAC regular-season championship, Cleary Cup, and first seed in the ECAC Tournament. On their senior night in front of Union fans with the chance to win the Cup, the Dutchmen would surely bring their A game and give Cornell a real battle. Thus, wrapping up the championship on Friday would help Cornell have the title in the bag and refocus on Union with little on the line on Saturday.
If Cornell can clinch the Cleary on Friday, the spotlight shifts away from the Red to other important series in the ECAC. Remarkably, just 3 points separate fifth-place Dartmouth from ninth-place Quinnipiac. Colgate is a point back of Dartmouth, while Princeton and Yale sit a point behind Colgate and one point ahead of the Bobcats. Quinnipiac and Princeton have to make the tough North Country swing to visit No. 7 Clarkson and a resurgent St. Lawrence, so the Bobcats look likely to remain in ninth position and be the only one of these five teams to miss out on a first-round home series. The only two of these teams to play this weekend are Dartmouth and Yale, who clash on Friday in New Haven. A Big Green win would put them in the driver’s seat to finish fifth, but a Yale win would make the playoff picture even murkier. First place and the congested middle of the standings are the two things left to decide in the ECAC over the final regular-season weekend.
When the dust settles, the view from here is that Cornell will be seeded first and have two weeks off. Union, Clarkson and Harvard have already locked up the other byes and will also get the time off to heal while the ECAC’s other eight teams duel it out with their seasons on the line. All of those teams know that a defeat in the ECAC tournament ends their season, as their resumes are not impressive enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, so they have to win the ECAC Tournament and earn an automatic bid to extend their season. Contrariwise, Cornell and Clarkson are all but guaranteed an at-large bid, regardless of ECAC tournament results. Union and Harvard have some work to do, but they could represent the ECAC in the national tournament with a strong run in the ECAC tournament.
As the ECAC regular season concludes, Cornell is well-positioned for postseason success. This weekend, they look to wrap up the ECAC regular season championship, even if they have to do it on rival Union’s ice. If they can, fans will focus on other ECAC battles for playoff standing, and the Red will gladly leave the spotlight, enjoy the rest and prepare for the playoffs.