The 2018-19 Cornell men’s hockey season was different in countless ways from the 2017-18 campaign — but this year’s Red finds itself in an almost identical position to last year’s entering the ECAC semifinals.
Last season, after dominating regular-season play and sweeping Quinnipiac in the quarterfinals, the Red drew red-hot No. 7 seed Princeton in the semis. Led by two of the league’s best forwards, the Tigers upset the top-seeded Red and eventually won the conference championship.
Flash forward a year and the Red is once again the highest seed remaining — albeit thanks to help from Brown’s unlikely first-round victory — and will face Brown, winner of four straight playoff games and fresh off a road sweep of No. 1 seed and then-national No. 5 Quinnipiac.
This time around, however, Cornell hopes its mistakes from last season can prepare it to extend its playoff run and win its first Whitelaw Cup since 2010.
The quest for a league title begins on Friday, when No. 2 seed Cornell — coming off a three-game quarterfinal series win over Union — takes on the No. 8-seeded Bears at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid.
“We remember last year. It’s redemption time,” sophomore forward Tristan Mullin said after the Red’s game three win over Union. “[It’s] maybe a similar story to last year. Princeton came in as an underdog, kind of a lower seed but caught a hot streak similar to Brown. Brown’s playing great hockey right now … We’re ready to redeem ourselves and go for an ECAC Championship.”
Experience facing a lower-seeded surprise team — plus having faced adversity in the regular season and, most importantly and more recently, in the ECAC quarterfinals — will prove beneficial for the Red entering this weekend, the team believes.
“We were on the brink of elimination [against Union]. I think that’s going to bode well for us when we’re [at Lake Placid],” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “Maybe last year not having to face [adversity], when we faced it for the first time against Princeton in the second period, we did get distracted.
“And this year we didn’t. We came back the second night against Union and we played very well and then [in game three] got down and faced that adversity like we did against Princeton, but we came back.”
After a dominant first period against the Tigers at Lake Placid last year, Cornell clung to a 1-0 lead. But a bad bounce tied the game in the second, and another Princeton goal made it 2-1. The Red never recovered, suffering a 4-1 loss.
“Last year I thought we played a great first period and we were up, and then when [Princeton] scored I really do believe our guys started getting distracted with, ‘Oh my god, could we possibly lose this?’” Schafer said. “They weren’t narrowly focused on the job at hand.
“[When they] made it 1-1 it was like ‘Whoa, what happened there?’ … Instead of just staying focused on the next play … their minds wandered a bit — ‘We might not get to the championship game.’”
Unlike the quarterfinals, championship weekend is one-and-done. And anything can happen in one game, especially when it’s against a team on a roll like Brown.
“That’s part of the problem with these tournaments for teams like us. You’re always coming in against a really hot team,” said sophomore forward Morgan Barron, recently named to the All-ECAC first team.
“It’s hard to win it. It’s a two-game set — anything can go right, anything can go wrong. A lot of factors go into a two-game weekend,” Schafer said. “I thought we played really well against Princeton last year, and we came out on the wrong end.”
Barron, who leads the Red with 13 goals and 32 points, said remaining calm in the face of difficulty will allow the team to achieve a different result than last season’s loss — the start of Cornell’s only losing streak of the season.
“We got down a goal and even though we were still playing well it felt like there was some panic instilled on the bench, and obviously that wasn’t the best thing for us, and we kind of got away from our process,” Barron said. “This year we’re just gonna try to stay cool, calm and collected and understand that if we keep playing the way we can we’re gonna win the game.”
The theme of the season, in sharp contrast to last, has been the adversity thrown Cornell’s way and how — it hopes — already learning how to overcome challenges will prove beneficial come late March. Now, it’s time to see if that proves true.
“We faced adversity right from the start with the sweep by Michigan State, and injuries nonstop, basically,” Mullin said after the Union series win. “We haven’t had an easy road, and I think [we’re] a better team for that.”
While Cornell breezed past Quinnipiac in the 2017-18 quarterfinals, dropping game one to Union this year— and the subsequent response — might help Cornell’s ability to extend its playoff run.
“I think we can take a lot of confidence in the way that we battled back after what was a kind of tough first night,” senior forward and captain Mitch Vanderlaan said of the Union series. “Having been in that moment now, when it was do-or-die, just the experience of it … knowing that we’ve been there and we all came out of it.”
While Cornell has had its share of success this decade, the ultimate goal in the ECAC has eluded the team. At Lake Placid for the third straight year, Vanderlaan’s senior class hopes it is the one to bring the Whitelaw Cup back to Ithaca for the first time since 2010.
“If we could be part of that it’d be pretty special,” Vanderlaan said. “A decade-long drought — it’s getting up there. So if we could be part of that it’d be incredible.”
“We have to play like we did against Union on Saturday,” Schafer said. “It’s one and you’re done, so you have to bring that urgency and desperation to the game.”
Cornell takes on Brown at 4 p.m. Friday. The winner will advance to Saturday’s championship game, set for 7:30 p.m., against the winner of the Clarkson-Harvard semifinal matchup.