After taking down the defending national champions on Thursday, men’s hockey will face Boston University in the Manchester regional final on Saturday with a spot in the Frozen Four on the line.
Since its last Frozen Four appearance in 2003, Cornell has appeared in five regional finals but has been unable to get over the hump.
“I thought we’d be back there a lot sooner,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86 when the 2003 team was honored at Lynah Rink in February. “The ’03 team won an overtime game to get there. We’ve lost a tremendous amount of games in that second game in overtime to not get there.”
On Saturday, Cornell will have another chance to end its long Frozen Four drought.
“They know what’s at stake, one game away from the Frozen Four,” Schafer said after his team’s win on Thursday.
To put itself in this position, Cornell came out swinging and took out the defending champions. After falling to Harvard in overtime of a defensive battle in Lake Placid, Schafer implored his team to be aggressive against Denver.
“I made them too tentative, and that’s not the way our program is built to be,” Schafer said. “So I commend our guys for coming back tonight and rebooting on a big stage.”
At the heart of Cornell’s success over the past few weeks has been its defense. The Red has allowed one or fewer goals in each of its last seven games. Cornell has successfully killed 17 penalties in a row and has not allowed a power play goal since Feb. 17.
Behind that defense stands sophomore goaltender Ian Shane, who has been lights out recently. Shane, whose mindset has always been critical for his performance, has spoken recently about elevating his game during the playoffs. He has done just that.
Shane has allowed three goals across Cornell’s four playoff games and has posted a .966 save percentage during that span.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand why he doesn’t get more credit than he gets,” Schafer said. “I think he sits third in the country in goals against average but didn’t even make the first, second, or third team in our league. I think it’s just a little chip on his shoulder.”
Shane, who is second in the nation in goals against average, has the college hockey world’s attention. His 27-save shutout on Thursday was the first by a Cornell goaltender in an NCAA Tournament game since Ken Dryden in 1967. After taking down top-seeded Denver, it’s clear that Cornell can beat anyone when Shane and the defense are at the top of their game.
The unit will have its hands full with Boston University. The Terriers have the third best offense in the nation with an average of 3.9 goals per game (Denver is tied for fifth at 3.8).
The Terriers are led on offense by Hobey Baker finalist Lane Hutson, whose last second goal lifted B.U. over Cornell at Agganis Arena in Boston in January.
Cornell is a better team now than when it blew a third-period lead and fell to the Terriers at the buzzer on the road.
“We came into their rink, their ice and we did all the things we wanted to do, we just didn’t finish it,” Schafer said at the time.
B.U. has also improved since then and is coming off winning the Hockey East Tournament and a 5-1 thumping of Western Michigan in the regional semifinal.
“How do we prepare for BU? Same way we did last time. They are a hell of a hockey team,” Schafer said. “I texted [B.U. head coach] Jay Pandolfo after that game and said that they taught us lessons we needed to learn.”
While the matchup of the Terriers’ high-powered offense and Cornell’s lockdown defense will be critical, Cornell will also need to stay aggressive and look to get the puck past Boston’s Drew Commesso, who enters with a .914 save percentage and a 2.46 goals against average. Commesso made 28 saves on 31 shots when the teams met in January and got roughed up by Cornell to the tune of six goals at Madison Square Garden in November 2021.
Cornell’s biggest area of concern heading into Saturday will be its recent struggles on the power play. The Red looked disjointed on its nine minutes on the man advantage against Denver and is now three for its last 35 attempts. Special teams played a big role when the teams met in January, with each team notching power play markers in the third period.
Look for Cornell to roll out a similar game plan against the Terriers as the one it employed against Denver – come out aggressive, trust Shane and play lockdown defense.
“We have to control those guys and it will be difficult, but so was Denver,” Schafer said. “We have to play our hockey. We had a great game, and we will have another great game Saturday.”
Cornell’s historic rival is all that stands between the Red and a trip to Tampa for the Frozen Four. After the 2020 postseason was canceled days before Cornell seemed poised to make a deep run, the significance of Saturday’s game is not lost on the players, including the ones who joined the Red after that season.
“In 2020, where they were the number one seed and got the rug swept out from under them, it’s tough to see for [my class] too because you want the best for the program,” Shane said. “It means a lot to us to be back in business, and take the game not for granted, and understand a bunch of guys before us led us to this point, and we’re not just playing for ourselves but the guys who came before us as well.”
With one game between it and the Frozen Four, Cornell will meet Boston University at 4 p.m. on Saturday at SNHU Arena in Manchester N.H. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.