In some ways, men’s hockey’s recent month-long stretch of mediocrity has been costly. The team has played itself out of consideration for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and will not defend its Ivy League title or win the Cleary Cup.
But for the most part, despite repeatedly coming up short against ECAC opponents down the stretch of the league calendar, Cornell is not much worse off than it was before its rough patch. The Red will be a top six seed in the ECAC playoffs and could still end up with a first-round bye to the quarterfinals, which they would host at Lynah.
But only if it gets the job done this weekend.
Cornell enters the final weekend of the season three points ahead of Colgate and six points ahead of RPI in the race for the last bye in the ECAC playoffs. The Red would clinch the bye with at least four points this weekend and would get it as long as Colgate or RPI don’t catch Cornell –– both teams would win the tiebreaker over the Red.
Success this weekend would wipe the slate clean and set Cornell up in an advantageous playoff position.
“I think getting to reset and also the opportunity to have a bye and get guys healthy, that’s really important,” said Associate Head Coach Ben Syer.
Not only would clinching a bye let the Red forget about its recent woes; it would also give the team a chance to rest and get healthy, which players and coaches say is desperately needed.
“We’ve got some guys that are going through some injuries,” said junior defenseman Sam Malinski. “That bye week would be very, very useful for us so guys can get some extra rest.”
The team hopes that its effort to secure the bye this weekend will be boosted by an emotional win last Saturday on Senior Night.
“Everyone knows what’s ahead and people are excited coming into this weekend,” said junior forward Ben Berard. “I think we can keep that positive attitude and keep having fun out there. That’s huge for us going into the game. It’s always a lot better when everyone’s in a good mood.”
Cornell’s quest for the fourth seed will run through Quinnipiac and Princeton. The Red travels to Hamden on Friday to face the Bobcats before closing the regular season Saturday night at Princeton.
The opponents, especially Quinnipiac, set the stage for an important weekend for the defense.
The Bobcats have the best defense in the nation. They have allowed 33 goals in 34 games this season. Part of that success is due to the eye-popping numbers of goaltender Yaniv Perets.
“They’ve got two really good goalies,” Berard said. “The one guy’s the best in all the stats across the nation.”
That he is. Perets leads the nation with a mind boggling .810 GAAVG and a .955 SV%.
Berard beat Perets twice the last time the two teams met –– over 10 percent of the goals Perets has allowed this season have been to Berard. Both goals came on Cornell power plays, including an overtime game-winner.
“I think if we can show up and play the way we did the last time, we’ll give ourselves a pretty good shot at it,” Berard said.
The last time the teams played, a defensive battle that Cornell came away with in overtime thanks to Berard’s two goals, could be a model for how Friday’s game will play out.
“We always seem to have close games with them,” Syer said.
That type of close, defensive game, especially in the midst of a tight playoff race, puts pressure on Cornell’s defense. Cornell might have a hard time scoring against Quinnipiac, but if the defense keeps the Bobcats off the board, Cornell can come away with points.
“A few years ago, we went down to Princeton and Quinnipiac. We scored one goal and we came away with three points. A tie and a win,” Head Coach Mike Schafer said. “It all starts on the defensive end.”
While that weekend took place under the league’s old point system, the same logic applies this year. To control its fate on Saturday, Cornell needs a point on Friday night. Going to overtime with the Bobcats, even in a scoreless or 1-1 game, would earn the Red a point.
“That’s kind of been our thought process for a while. Just trying to shut the other team down and try to win the game 1-0,” Malinski said. “We just need to play a patient and sound defensive game, and that’s where we’ll succeed the most.”
If Cornell can leave Hamden with a point, or if Colgate does not beat Princeton in regulation on Friday, then Cornell will have an opportunity to clinch the bye on Saturday night against the Tigers.
The first time Cornell played Princeton, the Tigers handed Cornell a shocking 5-4 defeat. The win was Princeton’s first in its previous 10 games. The Tigers are 4-6-1 since that game.
That loss started a troubling stretch of Cornell failing to beat opponents with losing records. Including that game, Cornell has gone 1-5-2 against opponents with losing records since falling to Princeton.
“When we play some teams we think we should beat or that are below us in the standings, we play a different way,” Schafer said. “We just do. They’re seeing that, and that’s a hard lesson.”
With playoff seeding on the line, Cornell will hope to reverse that trend on Saturday.
“We just need to give every team the respect they deserve and show up ready to battle,” Berard said. “There’s a good chance it’s going to come down to that and it’ll be a really big game for the playoff position. We’ve got to come ready to play both games.”
The final weekend of the regular season begins Friday at 7 p.m. at Quinnipiac and ends Saturday at 7 p.m. at Princeton.