Last season, with a trip to the NCAA Tournament already essentially locked up, Cornell men’s hockey had no trouble dispatching its quarterfinal opponent Quinnipiac.
With expectations sky-high entering 2018-19, the Red — the No. 2 seed in the ECAC playoffs — now finds itself in a must-win situation this weekend as it hosts seventh-seeded Union (19-11-6, 10-10-2 ECAC) in the conference quarterfinals, with a trip to Lake Placid on the line.
“If something happens and we lose this weekend, our season’s over,” said freshman center Max Andreev, who is likely to make his return to the lineup after missing six weeks with a broken collarbone. “Our season’s on the line, our seniors’ college careers are on the line. The expectations for this team are super high and we know what we’re capable of.”
Union’s ECAC record doesn’t reflect the Dutchmen’s difficulty as a playoff opponent. And while Union’s PairWise ranking — 17th — will benefit the Red if the home team takes care of business and picks up résumé-boosting wins, it signals that the best-of-three series is unlikely to be a cakewalk.
The Dutchmen earned a win and a tie against the top seed Quinnipiac this season but went 0-2-1 against both eighth-place Brown and 11th-place Rensselaer — so you never quite know which Union will show up.
“They have five senior forwards who are really experienced up front and [they had] kind of a unique year,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “They’re one of only four teams that beat [No. 1] St. Cloud this year, they have some outstanding wins. So we’re not getting a young team coming into Lynah, that’s for sure.”
Union comes to Ithaca needing a long playoff run to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Dutchmen could also be motivated by its two losses to Cornell earlier this season — a 4-0 thumping in Schenectady and a 3-1 decision on Cornell’s Senior Night.
As shown in the results when the teams have faced off this season, Union is a good matchup for Cornell.
“If we play our game and play physical we can kind of take the game to them,” said senior defenseman and alternate captain Alec McCrea. “The past two times we’ve played them this season I’ve felt like we’ve had strong starts and we’ve kind of dictated the way the game’s going to go.”
After months of ailment, all signs point to Cornell finally being nearly fully healthy as the playoffs get underway — the Red’s bye week gave it a monumental advantage in being able to rest up.
After the likely return of Andreev — the rookie who made an instant impact offensively early in the season before his injury, seeing top-six minutes and power play time — Cornell will be missing only sophomore defenseman Cody Haiskanen from its top 18 skaters.
The return of the Moscow native should allow freshman Michael Regush, who has been a bright spot offensively, to move back to the wing after being slotted into a fourth-line center spot for several weeks. Regush has scored 11 goals this season; eight of them came in Andreev’s absence.
While the bye week allowed physical ailments to heal, mental preparation was just as crucial, according to Schafer. Cornell’s enthusiasm heading into the playoffs is high.
“It wasn’t so much as a physical break for our guys, but they definitely needed a mental break, just away from hockey,” Schafer said. “It was a grind down the stretch and we had lost a little bit of our edge, our flat out passion for the game.”
While Cornell preaches that every year’s team is new and every season is a new experience, the Red wouldn’t mind replicating last year’s quarterfinal series, a sweep of Quinnipiac which included a 9-1 game-one romp.
“We played really, really hard in the playoffs last year and that’s the same message this year,” Schafer said. “We definitely want to play the kind of game that makes us successful which is a physical and strong and relentless type of hockey.”
The Red knows that this year, while the adversity it has faced may help it in the long run, it needs to advance to championship weekend in order to compete on the national stage for the third straight season.
“We know where we stand,” McCrea said. “Last year I don’t think we faced much adversity at the end of the year and that came back to bite us. This year we’ve been through ups and downs and our motto is ‘enjoy the ride,’ and a ride it’s been. But we know what’s at stake, we know we have to take care of business and I think we will.”
Cornell and Union face off at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Lynah Rink. Game three, if necessary, will take place at 4 p.m Sunday.