In order for Cornell men’s hockey to secure its second consecutive Cleary Cup as ECAC regular season champions — something the program has not done in over a decade — it may have to sweep its North Country foes on the road, also something the Red has not done in over a decade.
In first place in the ECAC, Cornell can use this weekend to clinch a Cleary Cup for the second straight year, a feat that hasn’t been done since the the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons. There is a chance that the Red won’t necessarily need to sweep St. Lawrence and Clarkson on the Saints’ and Golden Knights’ home rinks this coming weekend — something it hasn’t done since 2005 — but with just one point separating Cornell and Harvard-Quinnipiac tied for second, it’s certainly likely.
“It’s a very similar situation this year where we’ve gotta go on the road, gotta win two games to clinch,” head coach Mike Schafer ’86 said, referencing when Cornell locked up the Cleary Cup in the penultimate game last season visiting RPI. “That’s gotta be the mindset — we’re going to have to sweep to get the league championship.”
But arguably more important this weekend, however, is that Cornell can secure itself a first-round bye in the ECAC playoffs with at least one point this weekend. On the flip side, being swept up north and Yale sweeping its own home series could push Cornell out of the all-important top-four bye territory.
“Being a guy that’s been injured all year, it’s amazing what an extra week off can do,” said senior defenseman Brendan Smith.
In order to get two wins, Cornell will have to down a relatively upstart second-half St. Lawrence squad and a vengeful Clarkson squad also clawing for postseason security. The Red has already swept the North Country teams at home, but history has proved replicating that success upstate far more difficult.
“It’s great that we were able to [win the regular season title] last year, we’d love to do it again,” Smith said. “Being able to win the regular season in ECAC two years in a row is really tough to do.”
Looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament, a loss to a lowly St. Lawrence — second to last in the PairWise — would surely move the Red down in the NCAA tournament picture and would require Cornell to advance far into, or perhaps even win, the ECAC tournament to earn an NCAA bid.
In regards to St. Lawrence, the basement-dweller of the ECAC, the Saints have not gotten close to an easy win over the course of the second half — especially at home. St. Lawrence has won just a single game in 2019, but nearly all of the Saints’ home losses in the second half have been decided by a single goal. Their one win, too, was determined by a single goal over Princeton, and a 2-2 tie with Dartmouth salvaged another point.
“Our guys know that we need to win both games in order to get what we want, so I think we just focus on St. Lawrence on Friday night,” Schafer said. “They competed really hard here in the 3-1 game. It’s not like we can go up there and have a misstep against St. Lawrence and expect to win the championship.”
As for Clarkson, the Golden Knights suffered a 5-0 beatdown when they came to Lynah Rink in early February. Cornell went up 2-0 after one period and chased Clarkson goaltender Jake Kielly from the game after two periods, a year removed from failing to get one past Kielly in 125 minutes of action.
“We’re expecting [Clarkson] to push back for sure,” Smith, who missed the first matchup with an injury, said. “[We] had one of our best games of the year … Their goalie’s probably going to have a bit better game and their team’s going to be a bit better.”
Cornell remembers when it clinched the Cleary Cup last year at RPI. It was satisfying simply for the vengeance it inflicted on the Engineers, but even sweeter by solidifying the Red’s status as the paragon of the conference.
Repeating the feat this year — a year which has seen a multitude of long-term injuries to key players, among other adversities — would be a validation that Cornell may be better prepared for the imminent postseason than last year, when the team admitted adversity was almost nonexistent — Cornell didn’t lose consecutive games until its final two of the season, in the ECAC semifinals and NCAA Tournament.
“One of the things we really didn’t have last year was as much adversity,” said sophomore forward Brenden Locke. “Losing a few games, tying, not really getting those points is tough, but adversity is what you have to face in order to win and be a successful hockey team, so the fact that we can face that now and look at that and learn from it is really going to help us going into the playoffs.”
And to do so, it’ll have to make some opposing fans disappointed along the way just like last season.
“We have to remember how it felt when we actually did it,” Smith said.
“A greasy road win is sometimes just as good as a nice home win,” Locke said. “It’s going to be tougher, it’s always hard going into someone’s rink, especially like Clarkson and St. Lawrence, those are some tough barns to play in … Being away adds some extra toughness to it.”
Cornell plays St. Lawrence at 7 p.m. Friday and Clarkson at 7 p.m. Saturday.