The rafters of Lynah Rink are donned with dozens of gleaming red banners — tokens of the accomplishments of Cornell men’s hockey across several decades. This weekend, the 2017-18 team gets another chance to add to that collection after it clinched the Ivy League title earlier this year.
The top seed in the conference, Cornell (25-4-2, 17-3-2 ECAC) travels to Lake Placid this weekend fresh off a dominant quarterfinal series against Quinnipiac in which it outscored the Bobcats, 11-1, across two games. Its task is to capture a conference-best 13th ECAC Championship —its first since 2010.
“Our role is to put another banner in those rafters,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “We want a championship banner. That’s the first and foremost in our mind: to win an ECAC championship.”
The first obstacle in Cornell’s path is seventh-seeded Princeton (17-12-4, 10-10-2), a red-hot team that recently upset second-seeded Union on the road in a quarterfinal sweep of its own. The Tigers boast a high-powered offense that is ranked third in the nation, averaging a potent 3.73 goals per game.
“Princeton [has] some depth and obviously some very lethal threats offensively,” said freshman forward Kyle Betts. “It takes four lines to matchup … all four lines have to be responsible if we’re going to shut those guys down.”
The Princeton offense is led by two of the nation’s top four scorers in Max Veronneau and Ryan Kuffner, who have 53 and 50 points on the year, respectively.
“They’re a very skilled team, so we need to take away their time and space,” said freshman defenseman Cody Haiskanen. “We just [need to] play our game, transition well and … make them play in their defensive zone.”
Princeton’s first line of Veronneau, Kuffner and Alex Richie has earned a healthy plus/minus rating of plus-57 combined, while the other Tiger forwards stack up to a lackluster minus-43.
Cornell, on the other hand, prides itself on its scoring depth. The Red does not have a “top line” with multiple 50-plus point scorers. Instead, Cornell has no players with more than 26 points but 15 players with double-digit totals, while Princeton — a higher scoring team than the Red — has just nine.
“Our [whole] team is our secondary scoring,” Schafer said. “I love a team like that. It worries me when you have one line, and you rest your laurels on that line. If another team does a great job of shutting down that line… now where’s the offense?”
The Tigers are also owners of the nation’s best power play unit, sporting an eye-popping 29 percent success rate on extra-man opportunities.
“It goes back to being in shot lanes, having strong sticks,” Schafer said. “They have some great players, and if you give them time and space or you make a mistake, they’re going to make you pay.”
On the penalty kill, and on defense in general, one of the hallmarks of this Cornell squad has been key shot blocking — a point Schafer said he’s been emphasizing in practice all year long.
“Shot blocking isn’t the most popular thing to practice,” Schafer said. “But if you can block shots and keep pucks from getting to the net, your defense is going to be much better.”
Speaking of defense, Cornell’s is the best in the country and has been for months, allowing a stingy 1.45 goals per game on average. The defensive unit believes its success has been primarily forged by its character and resilience.
“Guys are willing to sacrifice [themselves] for the greater good of the team,” said junior defenseman Alec McCrea, recently tabbed as the ECAC’s top defensive blueliner. “It’s showed when we’ve faced adversity too … guys are still laying out and blocking shots or getting the puck out and going to the dirty areas.”
On offense, the Red will look to duplicate its production from the last matchup against Princeton, a 7-1 thrashing of the Tigers at Lynah Rink on Jan. 5. Cornell swept the season series, which also included a come-from-behind 5-4 victory on the road Nov. 4, 2017.
The Red has already secured a bid the NCAA tournament via its position in the PairWise rankings — used to determine seeding in the national playoffs — so regardless of the outcome this weekend, Cornell will still have some hockey to play.
“That actually takes pressure away from this weekend,” Schafer said. “It allows us to really focus on the weekend, because we know we’re in [the NCAAs].”
Last season, Cornell made it to this same point, where it defeated Union in the ECAC semifinal but fell short in the conference championship game against its archrival Harvard.
“We’re excited to be back at Lake Placid,” McCrea said. “We have some unfinished business there from last year, and we can’t wait for the opportunity.”
In a season that has already become the program’s best in more than a decade, the Red will look to cap it off with an ECAC Championship before taking its place on the national stage next weekend.
If Cornell defeats Princeton in the league semifinal at 1980 Herb Brooks Arena at 4 p.m. Friday, it will face the winner of the second semifinal between fourth-seeded Harvard and third-seeded No. 7 Clarkson in the championship game at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.