This story has been updated.
In a game that was symbolic of its season, Cornell lost the decisive third game of its ECAC quarterfinal series with Colgate and saw its 2021-2022 campaign come to an end on Sunday afternoon at Lynah Rink.
Cornell dominated Colgate for most of the game, but one mistake, a bad bounce and countless missed opportunities put the Red on the wrong side of a 2-1 loss.
Cornell outshot the Raiders, 37-14, but Colgate goaltender Mitch Benson’s phenomenal performance in net kept Cornell off the board until the final seconds of the game.
Cornell didn’t just run into a hot goalie in Benson. It ran into a scorching hot goalie who effectively stole the series for his team. Benson finished the series with 101 saves on 106 shots.
“When you look at Benson –– phenomenal. I don’t know if there’s another word that you could use to describe it,” Associate Head Coach Ben Syer said. “I’ve seen some great goaltenders, that was about as good as it comes.”
Benson’s dominance prevented Cornell from extending its playoff run to Lake Placid for the fourth consecutive time in as many opportunities. Had Cornell won, it would have faced Quinnipiac in the ECAC semifinals. Cornell swept the season series with the Bobcats.
“I think we just ran into a hot goalie. We threw everything we could at them and came up short,” said senior defenseman and tri-captain Cody Haiskanen. “One or two bounces our way and we’d be heading to Placid. That’s just hockey.”
After falling to the Raiders in game two on Saturday night, senior forward and tri-captain Brenden Locke said Sunday’s game would “come down to how bad we want it.”
Cornell’s determination was evident out of the gate. The Red applied an onslaught of pressure on Colgate’s defense and Benson in the first period.
Cornell appeared to have a heightened sense of urgency in the offensive zone. Instead of making extra passes to look for the best shot, the Red bombarded Benson with shots whenever it had a chance. Benson stood tall, making 10 saves in the first, and the Raiders defense blocked an additional 12 shots.
“You try to stay with the process because you’re generating as many shots as you are,” Syer said. “But at the same time, you try to mix things up where you get him moving a little bit more, get some traffic and bring pucks at him a different way. I thought we did that, but he just seemed to see everything tonight.”
Despite not scoring in the first, Cornell clearly outplayed the Raiders. Colgate only tested freshman goaltender Ian Shane three times in the first period, and Shane was up to the task.
Entering the game, a point of emphasis for Cornell was staying out of the penalty box. Over the first four games between the teams this season, Colgate scored 10 goals on the Red, including six on the power play.
The Red played a clean first period and went up a man late in the period when Griffin Lunn was called for slashing. Cornell was unable to put anything together on its power play, and the period ended in a scoreless deadlock.
“I think we did stick to the game plan,” Syer said. “It’s frustrating when you don’t win.”
Both teams benefited from lucky breaks early in the second period. With 17 minutes remaining, a Colgate shot from the faceoff circle beat Shane to his glove side, but the puck hit the post and deflected wide. About three minutes later, junior defenseman Travis Mitchell sent a redirection behind Benson and through the crease, but wide of the post.
After dominating five-on-five play, Cornell took its first penalty with 11 minutes left in the second when freshman forward Sullivan Mack was called for hitting from behind in the offensive zone.
Cornell killed the penalty without issue. The most dangerous look came when sophomore forward Kyle Penney and senior forward Kyle Betts stormed into the offensive zone on a shorthanded breakaway, but Benson denied their chance.
The kill led to the media timeout with just under nine minutes left in the period, and set up a face-off to Shane’s left after the break.
Colgate’s Josh McKechney won the offensive zone faceoff to Shane’s glove side and brought the puck toward the goal line. Junior forward Jack Malone allowed Matt Verboon to leak behind him, and McKechney found Verboon in the crease for an easy tap-in goal to give Colgate a 1-0 lead.
“We just kind of didn’t have our assignments,” Malone said. “It was a weird play off the faceoff, it just went right through. We didn’t have good coverage.”
The uncharacteristic mistake was the only goal of the period. Cornell had a few great looks, first when sophomore defenseman Tim Rego nearly cashed in on an open look on a delayed penalty, and then on the ensuing power play. Benson played remarkably, thwarting the Red with a sequence of pad saves to keep Colgate in front heading into the third.
The Red came out of the break in need of an equalizer to save its season. Two minutes into the period, Cornell came within inches of tying the game when Locke rifled a shot past Benson, but the puck hit the crossbar.
Cornell’s push for the equalizer continued for ten minutes. With just over eight minutes left in the game, junior defenseman Sebastian Dirven’s shot from the point hit a skate and bounced out of the neutral zone. Colgate’s Ross Mitton was the first to get to it. Mitton took the puck down the ice and scored a backhand goal on Shane on a breakaway to put Colgate up 2-0.
“Anytime you’re trying to come back and you go two down, it doesn’t matter how it happens, it takes the wind out of your sails,” Malone said. “I think we did a pretty good job on the bench of staying up and staying positive and knowing there was time left to make something happen.”
Cornell pulled Shane with just under four minutes left.
“I think the whole bench felt like we were going to get the next one. We had faith right up until the end that we were gonna win that game,” Haiskanen said. “We were playing well but we just needed to crack that shield. We couldn’t do that until there were seven seconds left.”
Cornell was unable to get on the board until the final seconds of the game, when a scrum in front of the net resulted in a goal with 7.7 seconds left.
It was too little, too late and Cornell fell 2-1.
At 23rd in the Pairwise, Cornell is out of consideration for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Cornell’s quarterfinal loss is its earliest exit since 2016, when it lost in three games to eventual national runner-up Quinnipiac.
The loss marks a disappointing end to Cornell’s season. The Red showed flashes of dominance, going 6-0-1 against teams in the top 20 of the Pairwise, but Cornell also struggled to beat lesser opponents at the bottom of the ECAC standings and played itself out of at-large consideration down the stretch of the season. Cornell finishes the season with a 18-10-4 record.
“We faced so much adversity and came through the other side pretty good,” Haiskanen said. “It felt like it was gonna be one of those years where we could’ve done more, but it comes down to one game.”
The team had a hard time coming to grips with the end of its season, especially because of how well it played on Sunday and the promise of what the team was capable of had it advanced.
“I don’t think it’s gonna hit me for a little bit,” Malone said. “It’s disappointing. We know we should’ve had better results.”
For the players, the pain that comes with knowing they outplayed their opponent and still seeing their season come to an end might be eased by a slight comfort: there wasn’t much else they could have done.
“I don’t regret a thing, my teammates won’t regret a thing,” Haiskanen said. “We left it all out there.”