This post has been updated.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Win or lose Saturday afternoon at the Dunkin’ Donuts Arena, Cornell men’s hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86 had one message for his squadron of shorthanded skaters coming off two straight losses in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“The game itself does not define us today,” Schafer said. “There was a lot written that we have not gotten past the first round, we have to win. That’s just not the mentality that we want our players to take … A game, when we talk like that, winning and losing doesn’t define who we are, and we wanted them to understand that.”
But even still, after two consecutive grueling first-round exits, Cornell found some reprieve from years past and took the first step in finally exorcising its NCAA demons with a 5-1 win over Northeastern Saturday for a spot in East Regional Finals against Providence.
“It wasn’t pressure to get to the next round, it’s not pressure to get to the Frozen Four, it’s not going to define Cornell University or define our athletic program, it’s not going to define who these guys are,” Schafer later continued. “We are just going to come in and have fun tomorrow and play hard and let the chips fall where they may. We know inside our locker room how we are defined, and it was a great lesson in life for our guys tonight being short-handed.”
And for senior forward and captain Mitch Vanderlaan, even though he tried not to think about the disappointment of the last two tournaments, Saturday’s win provided some momentary closure.
“Having been here twice and not being able to get the job done, it’s definitely nice to get the first step, but I think we can say that we didn’t come in here thinking about past years,” he said. “It’s a new season, it’s a new team, and I think everyone — regardless of whether they were there last two years — had the same hunger to get it done today. In that sense, it was a relief, but at the same time we weren’t thinking too much about the past years. At least I wasn’t.”
Part of what’s driving the tepid excitement for Vanderlaan is that even though Cornell finally broke through the first round, bigger goals lie ahead: One win against Providence — winner of the other Regional Semifinal Saturday — separates the Red from potentially reaching its first Frozen Four since 2003.
“Obviously, we want to make it to Buffalo, but we’re really focused on tomorrow,” Vanderlaan said. “Make sure we get some water into us, get some sleep, watch some film and get ready for tomorrow.”
The No. 3 seed Red — on to its first Regional Finals since 2012 — will take on the hometown No. 4 seed Friars at 4 p.m. Sunday. Providence toppled No. 1 seed Minnesota State, 6-3, in the early semifinal Saturday.
And Cornell had to get it done Saturday, like it has all season, without key contributors.
With sophomore starting goalie Matt Galajda bit by the injury bug in last weekend’s ECAC Championship loss to Clarkson, classmate Austin McGrath stepped in once against this season and backstopped Cornell to the victory. McGrath, battle-tested and experienced through his seven starts on the year entering Saturday, was sharp early and often, making 20 saves in the win.
“Our D did a great job tonight. We knew that they like to attack off the rush and generate like that,” McGrath said. “We had really good sticks, we kept them out wide, we didn’t really give them any opportunities in the way they like to play, so we made them play our game instead of letting them do what they like to do.”
Cornell, meanwhile, needed just 4:02 of gametime to solve Northeastern netminder Cayden Primeau — a draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens and finalist for the Mike Richter Award as top goalie in the country.
An innocent-looking wrister from Cornell senior forward Beau Starrett caught part of Primeau’s right shoulder but trickled through and across the goal-line. For Starrett, a New England native from just 20 miles away from Providence, it was done with a score of family members looking on — and a sister-in-law that graduated from Northeastern.
“That came off a faceoff play, something that we wanted to work on throughout the week and that we paid attention to in scouting reports, and Beau did a great job of cutting across the front right when he got in the zone and put a good shot on him,” said senior defenseman and alternate captain Alec McCrea. “And I think all night we had traffic around [Primeau], we got in front and we beat their guys. We had strong sticks going to the net and it paid dividends for us. Beau getting that first one, it was good and we were able to use that momentum.”
Cornell picked up right where it left off in the second period as a nifty move and score by Vanderlaan extended the Red’s lead to 2-0. The senior split two defenders and chipped the puck up to himself before beating Primeau high glove-side.
The captain with a beautiful goal. 2-0. pic.twitter.com/10UFoLFLiU
— Zachary Silver (@zachsilver) March 30, 2019
“At first I was just going to shoot, but when I wound up he kind of bit pretty hard,” Vanderlaan said. “So I just kind of snapped it to the inside with a little move.”
The Red continued its onslaught with two more second-period goals. Sophomore Morgan Barron fought for the puck behind the net, and the lefty scored a wraparound goal on a sequence that caromed in front of Primeau and in. Three minutes later, freshman Michael Regush sent home a rebound on a point shot Primeau could not corral cleanly.
What kept Northeastern competitive in the second was attracting penalties with its high-speed play. Cornell was tagged for two penalties in the first period and three more in the second. The Huskies finally got on the board with a goal on their fourth power play of the night, scored by senior Liam Pecararo with four minutes left in the second.
“The one area I was disappointed [by] was our lack of discipline with our sticks tonight,” Schafer said. “We deserved the calls that were called against us, and we’re going to have to be a lot better in that area tomorrow night.”
Cornell struck first and only in the third period, this time off the stick of sophomore forward Brenden Locke. The center received a pass from classmate and linemate Cam Donaldson, and he one-timed it past Primeau to give the Red its eventual 5-1 winning margin.
Insurance, thy name is Brenden Locke. 5-1. pic.twitter.com/kPKZFgfCMZ
— Zachary Silver (@zachsilver) March 30, 2019
Cornell now has less than 24 hours to prepare for the Friars, also hot off a dominant performance of its own over top seed Minnesota State. Although a lower seed than Cornell, Providence will take on the role of the home team playing in an arena two miles from its own campus.
“It should be fun, but we’re well prepared, we’re ready to go,” Schafer said. “Everything’s broken down already. It’s just a matter of getting our athletes back, getting them fed and getting an opportunity for them to see the information that we have.”