This post has been updated.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — At the inception of the 2018-19 Cornell men’s hockey season, what transpired at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center Saturday could have been described as an abject failure.
Granted, making the NCAA Tournament in three consecutive years is no easy feat, being done just once in the current 24-year era of head coach Mike Schafer ’86.
But through the adversity that struck the Red over the course of the season — namely overwhelming injuries, most notably to All-American starting goalie Matt Galajda just a week before the NCAA Tournament — a 4-0 loss to Providence in the East Regional Finals Sunday may ultimately be looked at as a mark of pride, even though it surely didn’t feel like it by final buzzer.
“[The team’s] slogan this year was, ‘Enjoy the ride,’ and I told them that I’ve been in this business 33 years now and I can’t remember seeing a group of athletes who persevered, overcame adversity, never had any excuses all season long and kept plugging away for their goal of wanting to get to a championship in our league and get to the Frozen Four for a national championship,” Schafer said.
Adversity came all season long but was perhaps perfectly symbolized by the legend of sophomore goalie Austin McGrath. The backup-turned-NCAA Tournament starter filled in for an injured Galajda and propelled Cornell to its first Regional Final since 2012 while nursing an undisclosed injury of his own. He will undergo surgery in the coming week, Schafer said.
“Poor Austin, he was hurt, too,” Schafer said. “… Just the fact that that kid came in [with] his situation, knowing that Matty is out and he has to go under the knife in about five days — how do you get kids like that?”
But the pride of the Cornell program breeds an attitude that takes every excuse it’s granted and throws them right back in your face. Injuries happen to every team — even though losing 89 man-games to injury entering Sunday is staggering — and that excuse certainly doesn’t ameliorate the disappointment of seeing a Frozen Four drought grow to 16 years.
“It speaks volumes, and so many people use injuries as an excuse … and we’ve been asked about it because there have been so many,” Schafer said. “But [our players] never did. Not even tonight did they hang their head.”
In a season full of magical moments, Cornell’s mojo ran out of on Sunday, as the Friars — a No. 4 seed playing just a couple miles from its campus — held the Red scoreless for the first time in over a calendar year to snag the penultimate spot in the Frozen Four.
After Cornell went scoreless on two ineffective and early power plays, the Red managed to kill Providence’s first power play itself, but just seconds after senior defenseman Alec McCrea exited the box, forward Greg Printz sent home a rebound past McGrath to start the scoring for the Friars.
“They did to us what we do to a lot of people. You score the first goal and can play the game differently,” Schafer said after Cornell scored first in 28 games this season and was 1-4-2 in games it conceded first entering Sunday. “… We didn’t have that depth, didn’t have the ability to push the envelope throughout the course of the night.”
After looking crisp stopping 20 of 21 shots in the first-round win over the Huskies, McGrath struggled with rebound control Sunday, as two of the Friars’ three goals came on second-chance opportunities.
Providence scored less than two minutes into the period after the puck hit McGrath, then the foot of forward Josh Wilkins and in. Officials took a lengthy look at the sequence but deemed there was no deliberate kicking motion from Wilkins to negate the tally.
“I think that was the first time our guy has been wrong upstairs,” Schafer said.
The Friars all but put the game away in the dying moments of the second period. McCrea was whistled for another penalty with less than two minutes left in the period, which led to a short-side goal from forward Scott Conway with 0.6 seconds left in the frame — the “dagger,” Schafer said.
Cornell kept its foot on the pedal the entirety of the third period, outshooting the Friars, 9-7, in the final 20 minutes before Friar forward Brandon Duhaime chipped in an empty-netter. But even with McGrath pulled for a majority of the final three minutes, Providence goalie Hayden Hawkey turned aside all shots in the frame and 19 overall in the contest to keep Cornell without a goal in the biggest game of the season.
“We played the kind of hockey we wished we would have played in the first period, but we battled right to the very end,” Schafer said.
“You judge your season on the whole season,” Schafer later added. “You can break down this game … we were disappointed how we reacted to the first goal, we were disappointed how we didn’t have the jump that we needed to match their effort and intensity.”
Now come the questions. How will Cornell replace three senior fixtures on its year-in-year-out top defense and two more key cogs on the offense? Will the injuries to its two top goalies prove impactful come 2019-20? Can the next installment continue its upward ascension toward a Frozen Four berth?
But before any of those questions are answered, there comes a summer of reflection.
And five seniors in specific won’t be around to see any resolutions, but they move onto their next chapter knowing an ECAC Quarterfinal exit to Quinnipiac their first season has evolved into coming within one game of the national semifinals.
“It’s tough right now knowing that it is over, but in my four years especially I think there has been a lot of changes in the way that the program has kind of rebuilt itself to get back,” said senior forward and captain Mitch Vanderlaan. “ … We haven’t won one while I was here, but we got a lot closer. I think the camaraderie with the guys is something. I can’t even explain it. Being part of that group — guys that care so much — it’s been incredible.”