Anthony Corrales/Sun Staff Photographer

March 23, 2024

Men’s Hockey Downs St. Lawrence, 3-1, in ECAC Championship, Breaks 14-Year Whitelaw Cup Drought

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This story has been updated.

As the final buzzer sounded at Herb Brooks Arena, Cornell fans erupted.

The Red skated toward its goaltender, players tossing their gloves in the air.

Head coach Mike Schafer ’86 embraced his coaching staff.

“[It’s] outstanding to finally win a championship again — it’s been a long time,” Schafer said. “The belief within the locker never, ever wavered once throughout the course of the year.” 

It had been a long time coming for Schafer and company. 14 years after its last title in 2010, men’s hockey defeated St. Lawrence, 3-1, in the ECAC championship game on Saturday. The win marks Cornell’s 13th Whitelaw Cup in program history, the most of any ECAC team.

Cornell had a scare after St. Lawrence pressed hard and cut a 2-0 lead to 2-1, but a late empty-net goal by junior forward Jack O’Leary iced the game for the Red. Freshman forward Jonathan Castagna notched two goals for Cornell, including the game-winner.

Cornell now awaits its next task –– the NCAA tournament.

“We’ve got to catch our breath. It’s a little bit of a sprint here and [we’ll] find out who we play, but we’ll be ready. It’ll take a little bit, but it’ll be fun,” Schafer said.

Rejuvenated after a successful early first-period penalty kill, Cornell got to work. A strong drive up the ice led to a pair of shots in rapid succession, and the trailer –– Castagna –– cleaned up the rebound with a backhand over the shoulder of St. Lawrence’s Ben Kraws.

When asked about both of his goals in the game, Castagna had few words to describe how he felt on the biggest of stages: “I would like to [say how it felt], but honestly, it was kind of a blur. It was a big game. … That first goal wasn’t the prettiest in the world, but it got in the back of the net.”

The goal broke a shutout stretch of 73:37 for the Saints, dating back to the third period of its second quarterfinal win against Colgate. St. Lawrence has received stellar goaltending from Kraws down the stretch, as the graduate student has maintained a save percentage of over .900 percent since Feb. 23.  

But the goaltending on the other side was equally formidable. Junior goaltender Ian Shane stopped 31 pucks, including 14 in the second period, to cement the victory.

“[I don’t know] how he doesn’t get to be one of top three goaltenders in the country for the Mike Richer [Award]. I just don’t think that people have enough respect for him,” Schafer said. “And I don’t think he really cares, and he keeps plugging away. He’s been there for us all year. He was there again tonight and made big saves.”

Late in the first, Castagna nearly doubled the score singlehandedly when he poked the puck past a St. Lawrence defender and fired a shot all alone in the slot, but Kraws swallowed up the attempt and the rebound to prevent his team’s deficit from growing.

Though the second period began with a bout of St. Lawrence possession, Cornell was able to prevail and create rush chances the other way.

It wasn’t long before Castagna got the second goal he was looking for.

5:13 into the second period, Castagna cleaned up a loose puck around the net and tucked it past Kraws to make it 2-0. Castagna celebrated as his teammates engulfed him in a hug after his second tally.

“[Castagna] and all the other freshmen –– all nine of them –– in the game tonight did a tremendous job,” Schafer said.

From there, Cornell’s stifling defensive unit –– which has been marquee to its style of play this season –– took the lead. Aided by Shane, Cornell was perfect on the penalty kill on Saturday, including a kill of a potentially momentum-altering penalty not long after Castagna’s second goal.

Not only did Cornell restrain a St. Lawrence power play that looked lethal in its semifinal game against Quinnipiac, the Red dismantled it –– the Saints struggled to get much going around the perimeter, and any shot taken from distance was easily gobbled up by Shane.

The Cornell netminder stood tall on Saturday, as he has all season long. Shane instilled a calm presence in the backend for the Red as the Saints began to threaten.

Cornell got an early power play chance to start off the third period, looking to score the potentially suffocating goal. There was no shortage of chances on Cornell’s second man-advantage, as the Red fired five shots on goal on the power play, but all were deterred by Kraws. 

St. Lawrence took the penalty kill as ammunition for its next attack –– as time expired, the Saints took the puck the other way and created a quick odd-man rush. St. Lawrence’s 13th forward, Cameron Buhl, opted to shoot the puck instead of pass it across, beating Shane cleanly to halve the Cornell lead.

“[Kraws] made two saves -– I thought we put the game away to make it 3-0,” Schafer said with admiration for the Saints’ netminder. “And then they come right back down and score, and then everybody’s anxious.”

The third period was a nail-biter, as the Red looked to maintain its 2-1 lead. St. Lawrence found its footing in the final frame, creating a few elongated shifts in its offensive zone and tiring out the Cornell skaters.

Shane –– cool, calm and collected –– was the difference down the stretch, particularly when St. Lawrence pulled Kraws. Making big saves until the final buzzer, the junior netminder kept the Saints at bay.

O’Leary’s empty netter with under a minute left sealed the game for Cornell. 

“It was a huge sense of relief,” Shane said. “You could feel in that third period –– they weren’t gonna go away quietly.”

The win clinches both the Whitelaw Cup and an automatic bid to the national tournament for Cornell. Selection Sunday, airing on ESPNU on March 24 at 6:30 p.m., will determine the Red’s opponent in the regional round of the NCAA tournament.

In the meantime, though, the Red will venture back to Ithaca with the Whitelaw Cup.

“Everyone’s so excited. That was our goal, after 14 years –– just to feel that, all the pent up emotions. … It was just such a fun weekend,” Shane said. 

“Before the game, you think: ‘this is the last time we’ll have the ability to fight for this title with the same group of guys,’” Castagna said. “It was incredibly special. What we’ve created is really special.”