LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Out of the rubble that was Saturday’s overtime loss to Clarkson in the ECAC Championship game, Cornell men’s hockey still has something to hang onto: the season isn’t over. Next weekend, the Red will embark on its third consecutive NCAA Tournament run.
Falling to the Golden Knights meant missing out on the automatic bid that is awarded to the ECAC champion, but Cornell is essentially guaranteed an at-large bid to the NCAAs as it finished the year at No. 11 in the PairWise Rankings. The team will learn its placement — most likely as a No. 3 seed — Sunday at 7 p.m. during the selection show.
Essentially all that’s left to figure out is which regional — Fargo, Providence, Allentown or Manchester — will host the rebound-focused Red.
“Next week will be a challenge,” head coach Mike Schafer ’86 said postgame Saturday. Players were not made available for comment.
It will especially be a challenge because, in the championship game, junior forward Jeff Malott sustained a knee injury that will keep him out 7-8 months and sophomore goaltender Matt Galajda’s goal toppled onto him during overtime, handing him, as well, a knee injury with an unknown timetable, Schafer said. And it’ll be a challenge, of course, because the Red needs to pick itself up from the demoralizing loss in time for next weekend.
That seems like a long list of problems that the team has to deal with in a short time. But Cornell believes its season until now leaves it better equipped to handle these problems than most.
It isn’t any secret that injuries have nagged at the team all season — two of the Red’s top centers, three key blueliners and its starting goaltender all missed lengthy stretches with injuries varying from concussions to broken fingers to broken collarbones. But going into the playoffs, Cornell was finally healthy again, save for sophomore defenseman Cody Haiskanen, who is out for the season.
“I like our character. I mean, we’ve never used excuses,” Schafer said. “Cody Haiskanen went out … We lost other guys, lost Jeff tonight, lost Matty. There’s no one in [the locker room] looking for excuses for why we lost tonight. They know they competed hard.”
Cornell has fought hard all year to come back from each hurdle that gets thrown at it — and it certainly feels as though such problems have been plentiful. But the Red still was the No. 2 team in the ECAC Tournament, still made it to the championship game and will still go to the NCAAs. In short, Cornell’s season thus far has been objectively successful.
But with the sky-high expectations set at the season’s onset, every instance of adversity has felt like a brutal blow. And missing out on the Whitelaw Cup for the ninth consecutive year will surely leave a bitter taste in the team’s mouth.
Dwelling on the past, however, is not the style of this Cornell team. As Schafer said throughout the season, none of his skaters adopted a “woe is me” attitude when problems arose. The Red tackled its issues head-on and sought to improve constantly, even as complications sprang up at random. So looking ahead to the NCAAs is the only course of action.
“We’ll regroup, lick our wounds, piece it back together and get ready to play again,” Schafer said.
Naturally, this loss was more painful than most, coming just one goal away from ending the Whitelaw Cup drought. But the sentiment remains: the team needs to move on.
The NCAA Tournament is what a team plays for all season. Though the ECAC Championship is a more obtainable accolade than a national title, Cornell — along with three of its ECAC competitors — remains in the running for that ultimate prize.
It’s a new season again for the team; a season of single-game eliminations en route to the championship. Should the Red make it to the Frozen Four, it will find itself back in upstate New York, playing in Buffalo. As always, though, the team will take it one game at a time, focusing on each match and opponent separately and not getting ahead of itself.
This will be the first time in Schafer’s 24-year tenure that Cornell is off to the national playoffs in three consecutive years. The past two tournament runs ended in the first round, two years ago against UMass Lowell and last year against Boston University. But with a new year comes new chances at victory.
NCAA Tournament play will offer Cornell another opportunity to show on a national stage that it can live up to the hype. The conference title is lost, but the season is not.