Men’s hockey received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and will face Denver in the first round on Thursday afternoon in Manchester, N.H.
Cornell’s postseason fate was briefly up in the air after its loss to Harvard in the ECAC semifinals last Friday in Lake Placid, but the Red (20-10-2) made the tournament field as the four seed in the Manchester region. Three other ECAC teams – Quinnipiac, Harvard and Colgate – made the 16-team field.
Boston University and Western Michigan will compete for the other spot in the Manchester region’s final.
Cornell’s path to its first Frozen Four since 2003 will open with the defending national champion Pioneers. Denver (30-9) had a strong regular season campaign in its quest to repeat, but was upset by Colorado College in the NCHC semifinals and will enter Thursday with uncertainty in net after goaltender Magnus Chrona left last weekend’s game with an apparent injury.
As the region’s top seed, Denver will be the favorite in Thursday’s matchup.
“We’re a bit of an underdog going into it as the lower seed,” said senior defenseman Sam Malinski. “It just gives us a little more motivation to try to take down the national champs.”
Cornell has been to five NCAA quarterfinals since its last Frozen Four appearance, but has not gotten over that hump in 20 years.
“All four teams are going to go in there and think they’re going to win this thing,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “The pressure is on the one seed. Everyone’s expecting them to win. They didn’t even mention us on ESPN, they assumed that B.U and Denver were gonna play the next night.”
Upsetting the Pioneers will require sophomore goaltender Ian Shane and the Red’s strong defense to continue their recent success, but Cornell will also need to get more aggressive on offense and the power play.
After a strong regular season on the offensive end of the ice, goals have been hard to come by for Cornell during the playoffs. The Red has scored five goals – including an empty net goal – across its three playoff games and did not get on the board against Harvard.
Denver has had a top-10 defense this season, allowing 2.2 goals per game. To score on the strong Denver defense, Cornell will look to ramp up its aggression on offense.
“It’s about us having a different mindset going into this game. More aggressive. Going for it more,” Schafer said. “We need to have more of a desperation mentality going into this weekend… I thought we played smart against Harvard but a lot of times we didn’t play aggressive. We need to combine those two this weekend.”
Including the empty net goal against Clarkson, Cornell has only scored three even strength goals over its last three games. Cornell’s ability to roll four lines and get contributions down the line chart has been a strength this season, but the extra media timeouts in the NCAA Tournament will place more of an emphasis on the Red’s top scorers on Thursday.
“The game is a lot different, it’s a lot longer,” Schafer said. “You use less guys and the guys that you use a lot get more rest,” Schafer said.
Cornell will look to differentiate itself on special teams. Most of Friday’s game against Harvard was played at even strength, which prevented Cornell’s dangerous power play from being much of a factor. Denver’s middle-of-the-pack 10.9 penalty minutes per game coupled with its middling 78 percent penalty kill rate is perhaps the one vulnerable area of its game.
Conversely, the Pioneers are reliant on their very capable power play. Denver has converted at a 26 percent clip on the power play, which is third best in the nation. The Pioneers have scored nearly 36 percent of their goals on the man advantage, which is the sixth highest proportion in the nation. Cornell will need to stay disciplined to keep Denver’s dangerous power play unit off the ice.
“We’ve just got to be really disciplined,” Schafer said. “Be physical but be smart about it. We haven’t taken that many penalties and we definitely haven’t taken anything after the whistle in the playoffs. That’s got to continue for us.”
Denver has averaged 3.8 goals per game this season. Cornell will hope that Shane and its defense can contain the potent Pioneers offense. The Red has allowed just one goal in each of its three playoff games and is second in the nation with 2.0 goals allowed per game over the season. Shane has been dominant recently, posting a .956 save percentage over his last six games.
“Our strategy against Harvard was to limit their chances and stay above them,” Malinski said. “We’re probably going to do something similar against Denver. We’re going to stick within our systems and focus on our defensive style.”
Thursday will be Cornell’s first NCAA Tournament game since 2019. Senior forward Max Andreev is the only player from the 2019 team left on the roster. Denver, meanwhile, is returning most of its national championship roster from last year.
While the Pioneers have more experience, Cornell is hoping that Denver will feel the pressure of trying to defend its national championship.
“Maybe put some pressure on Denver as that number one seed wanting to repeat,” Schafer said. “Get them a bit frustrated. That’s not a weakness [for Denver], that’s something we’ve got to do and force.”
Puck drop is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Thursday at SNHU Arena in Manchester. The game will be broadcast on ESPNews.