With four games to play until the ECAC postseason, Cornell men’s hockey is in first place, primed for a much-needed first-round playoff bye. But four teams within three points of the Red means the margin for error is slim for a team in desperate need of a week of rest.
Cornell, in first place with 25 points, will host ninth-place Rensselaer on Friday before welcoming eighth-place No. 20 Union — which has struggled in conference play but hung in the national rankings due to some high-profile non-league wins — for Senior Night on Saturday.
Cornell’s 25 points barely outpace second-place No. 5 Quinnipiac’s 24, Yale’s 23 and No. 13 Clarkson and No. 17 Harvard’s 23. Currently 10th in the PairWise, Cornell has an 80 percent chance of making the NCAA Tournament, according to the latest simulation.
“We gotta get these guys some rest,” Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86 admitted Tuesday. “It’s quite evident throughout the course of the last few weeks there’s guys that are eating up a lot of minutes and there was no question in my mind that I thought our guys were tired on the weekend.”
Cornell missed a chance to earn some breathing room atop the ECAC standings on the road last weekend, earning a tie at Brown, surrendering three goals in 53 seconds after leading 3-0 on Friday and then pulling — and reinserting — sophomore goaltender Matt Galajda in a 5-2 loss to Yale on Saturday.
“Losing the point [at Brown] was one thing, but just losing our legs and having to expend that much energy on Friday really took the wind out of our sails on Saturday,” Schafer said.
Senior forward and captain Mitch Vanderlaan, one of five soon-to-be graduates that will be honored at Lynah Rink on Saturday, is confident he and his teammates can handle this tough portion of the grueling college hockey season.
“I wouldn’t say we’re getting tired out,” Vanderlaan said. “Every team, when you come down to this point in the year, you kind of taper off a bit because it is a bit of a long year. But we worked hard in the offseason to get ready for this, so I don’t think [being tired] is something we’re worried about.”
Looking ahead to its final regular-season games at Lynah and its final four regular season games, Cornell can all but lock up a first-round playoff bye if gets three wins.
“Controlling our own destiny is something we can do right now; we don’t need to rely on other teams,” said freshman defenseman Joe Leahy, who has played increased minutes due to a slew of injury-related absences on the blue line, including one that just ended sophomore Cody Haiskanen’s season. “If we just play our game [and] worry about ourselves, we’ll be fine.”
Schafer, who surpassed the 800 game milestone as coach last weekend, doesn’t care about the standings. If his team starts to look ahead, Schafer said, “you get distracted.”
“I know we’re near the top, I don’t know who’s behind us,” he said. “It might seem ridiculous that a head coach wouldn’t know that, but I just don’t. I don’t know how close they are, I have no idea but I don’t care.”
Last time Cornell faced the Capital Region teams, it came out firing and dominated Union on the road, 4-0, before running into a Owen Savory as the RPI goaltender made 40 saves and forced the Red to settle for a 1-1 tie.
Friday’s game is the first of two of Cornell’s final four that will come against teams in the ECAC’s bottom four as the Red travels to last-place St. Lawrence on March 1.
Its two remaining Saturday games, however, come against nationally-ranked squads: one — Clarkson — that could challenge Cornell for the regular season title and another — Union — whose NCAA tournament hopes likely hinge on its ability to make a run at a mid-tier seed in the ECAC playoffs.
It’s anybody’s guess which variety of the unpredictable Dutchmen will show up on Saturday night (Union beat No. 1 St. Cloud State in January only to be outscored 11-4 in its next two games). But Union is 3-1-1 since its 4-0 loss to the Red and, depending on this weekend’s results, could either jump into the first-round bye conversation or fall to the bottom four and be forced to play the first round of the playoffs on the road.
Despite last weekend’s road hiccup that squashed Cornell’s chances to simplify its path to a first-round bye, the Red has just two losses since winter break and only one in regulation. Cornell is 9-2-3 in 2019. The next two weekends will determine whether Cornell stays on a roll or if it instead limps into the playoffs.
Cornell’s seniors — Vanderlaan, Beau Starrett, Alec McCrea, Matt Nuttle and Brendan Smith — will be honored after Saturday’s game.
“[The seniors are] obviously the backbone of our team, the big voices in the locker room,” the freshman Leahy said of the class of 2019. “All of them are really great leaders. We want to play for them this weekend and, hopefully, we get the job done.”
Puck drop against Rensselaer on Friday and Union on Saturday is set for 7 p.m. at Lynah.