This story has been updated.
With a critical three points on the line and an emotional Senior Night ceremony looming, men’s hockey hosted Clarkson on Saturday. Entering the night just three points clear of Colgate and RPI for the final bye in the ECAC playoffs, the team’s emotions heading into senior night were overshadowed by the importance of the game.
“There’s obviously a bunch of excitement going into senior night, but we’re still focused on the fact that these games are essential,” senior defenseman Cody Haiskanen said.
Two power play goals and two goals from senior Kyle Betts helped Cornell come away with an impressive 6-2 victory over Clarkson on Senior Night.
After a disappointing overtime loss on Friday night, the Red found itself in dire need of an energy boost and a win. Senior Night provided that boost, as the coaching staff elected to start three seniors who have not been everyday players, and the team seemed to rally around them.
Instead of going with the best lineup on paper, the coaching staff elected to start senior forwards Zach Bramwell and Liam Motley as well as senior goaltender Nate McDonald, all of whom have been in and out of the lineup this season. That decision, and the emotional circumstances of the night, gave Cornell the spark it needed.
“We want to win [Saturday] night,” Associate Head Coach Ben Syer saidon Friday night. “We’ll be looking at all the possibilities here that give us the best chance. Obviously Senior Night’s a special night.”
Cornell got off to a strong start in front of a packed Lynah. The Red struggled on the power play on Friday night, but it converted on its first try on Saturday. With 10:51 left in the first, senior forward Liam Motley was tripped up entering the neutral zone, sending Cornell on the power play.
The Red scored just over a minute into the power play when freshman forward Ondrej Psenicka tipped a pass from senior forward Brenden Locke in from the crease. Psenicka’s 11th of the season gave Cornell a 1-0 lead 10 minutes into the game.
Two minutes after his tally, Psenicka was sent to the box for tripping. Cornell killed the penalty behind two saves from McDonald, who got off to a hot start. McDonald made a few nice saves down the stretch of the period to send Cornell to the locker room with a 1-0 lead.
“It meant the world to me,” McDonald said about starting on Senior Night. “Anytime I get the chance to put on the Cornell jersey … I just want to help the team win, and to get the nod on Senior Night with the rest of my class meant a lot to me.”
The second period got off to a slow start, with the Golden Knights taking the only shot of the first half of the period. Both teams suddenly came to life after the media timeout. Cornell scored its second power play goal of the night with seven and half minutes remaining after Psenicka set junior forward Matt Stienburg up to give Cornell a 2-0 lead.
Just over two minutes later, the Red extended its lead when junior forward Ben Berard redirected junior defenseman Sam Malinksi’s shot from the point into the net to put Cornell ahead, 3-0.
Penalties on Cornell gave the Golden Knights an opportunity to eat into the Red’s lead. With three minutes left, Berard was sent to the box for boarding. 54 seconds later, Haiskanen joined him, setting Clarkson up with a 5-on-3.
The Golden Knights quickly converted on the 5-on-3, beating McDonald off a one-timer from the faceoff circle to get on the board. The goal freed Berard from the box, but Clarkson scored again on its 5-on-4 advantage, cutting Cornell’s lead to 3-2 with a minute left in the period.
“The same kind of thing happened in my first college game against Alaska, two quick goals in the second period,” McDonald said. “You just have to worry about the next shift. You can’t dwell on the previous shift because you’re going to get another shot, and that’s the one that matters most.”
Neither team scored in the first half of a back-and-forth third period, but it looked like Cornell took a two goal lead with just over nine minutes left. Clarkson’s Ethan Haider got his pad on a Cornell shot, but freshman forward Sullivan Mack appeared to push the puck in. The goal, which would’ve been Mack’s first, was waved off after a review.
Just over a minute later, Cornell scored for real. On his Senior Night, senior forward Kyle Betts scored his fourth goal in three games to give Cornell a 4-2 lead with eight minutes left in the third.
Clarkson pulled its goalie after a Cornell penalty with just over three minutes left, giving the Golden Knights a 6-on-4. The last time the two teams met, McDonald was in net when Clarkson scored three extra-attacker goals to complete a miraculous comeback.
“You try not to think about it, but it might’ve been in the back of my head,” McDonald said. “It was kind of a redemption moment for me because that game really stuck with me for a while. To be put in the same scenario with the same team and stick it to them this time – it was a big moment.”
Unlike that night in Potsdam, Cornell iced the game behind two empty net goals. First, Psenicka’s shot from down the ice slid in with two minutes left. With 20 seconds left, Betts added another for good measure to close things out.
The goal secured a critical three points for Cornell on an emotional night. Colgate also won on Saturday night, meaning that the Raiders remain three points back of the Red heading into the last weekend of the season.
Cornell will hope to build momentum off the revitalizing, feel-good win. After the game and the emotional Senior Night ceremony, there was a sense in the locker room that the team got it done for the seniors and that the night could propel the group into the last weekend of the season.
“That’s exactly what you’re going for. I’m proud of our group for battling back like they did and I can’t thank them enough for getting it done for us,” Haiskanen said. “We have to build off [tonight], it has to launch us into next week … The message in the locker room is ‘we ain’t done yet.’”
After the game, the team honored fifth-years Locke, Betts and Haiskanen as well as Bramwell, Motley and McDonald. Adding to the emotions of the night was Head Coach Mike Schafer ’86’s appearance on the ice for the postgame ceremony. Schafer has missed the last month and a half after contracting COVID in early January and receiving a cardiac stent.
“Mentally, it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Schafer said. “Being away from the team for the last seven weeks – it’s difficult, because you want to help. You brought these kids here, and you want to be in the trenches with them.”
Schafer expressed doubts about his ability to get back behind the bench before the end of this season.
“Physically, I just can’t do it right now,” Schafer said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to by the end of the year. Time’s kind of running out for me, but it was nice to be at the rink tonight.”
Schafer is still on the mend, but he went out of his way to be at Senior Night.
“My health, just like the athletes, has to be the first priority. You can’t be putting yourself at risk as an athlete and I have to follow that same example and not be stupid,” Schafer said. “It was probably a little stupid [coming] tonight, but it was well worth it.”
The timing of Schafer’s absence has conspicuously aligned with the team’s recent struggles. The team is 5-5-3 since Schafer left. Schafer was unsure of the impact his absence has had on the team, but he praised his assistant coaches for the job they’ve done.
“You never know until we really dig into it, but [Syer], Sean [Flanagan] and Shane [Talarico] have done a tremendous job prepping these guys and preparing them and the details are right on,” he said.
This was Schafer’s fifth year coaching Locke, Betts and Haiskanen.
“I was happy to be here for those guys. To see them sacrifice and come back for a fifth year, I was proud of them,” Schafer said. “Athletics teaches you that you’ve got to go all in because you never know what the final result is. Those guys did that, and I’m very, very grateful that they did.”
Schafer also sung the praises of McDonald, Bramwell and Motley.
“I think guys like [McDonald, Bramwell and Motley], they’ve been kind of in and out of the lineup over the years. It goes to show you how much of an impact those kids could have on our program,” Schafer said. “They’re just tremendous young men. Most guys in today’s age would just quit, or they’d transfer. These guys are a huge part of our program, and their teammates really appreciate them. You see the bond that they have in the locker room.”
McDonald teared up when discussing that bond, especially with Bramwell and Motley.
“They’re my brothers for life,” he said. “I’ve gone through everything with them, and they mean the world to me. I’m just really thankful for them.”
Cornell will try to use the emotional night as fuel for the final weekend with the last bye on the line, starting at 7 p.m. on Friday against Quinnipiac in Hamden.