Leilani Burke/Sun Staff Photographer

Men's hockey fell 2-1 in the regional final on Saturday, ending its season.

March 30, 2024

Men’s Hockey’s Season Ends in Regional Final Defeat to Denver

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This story has been updated.

SPRINGFIELD, M.A. — Last year, men’s hockey downed Denver, 2-0, in the regional semifinal. The Red shut down the then-defending national champions, scoring early and never looking back.

On Saturday, Cornell scored first. But ultimately, it wasn’t enough. Cornell’s season ended in the Springfield regional final, as Denver overpowered the Red in a 2-1 defeat.

“I’m extremely proud of our hockey team,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “We fought all the way until the very end.”

Saturday marked Schafer’s 10th regional final game in his tenure. He has won only one of those 10, which came in 2003.

The game began fast-paced, with neither team taking control right off the bat. Denver had a couple of strong shifts in its offensive zone, which prompted a pad save by junior goaltender Ian Shane to start the game.

Despite making 16 saves on 18 shots on Saturday, Shane ultimately wasn’t named to the Springfield regional all-tournament team. Denver’s netminder, Matt Davis, was named the MVP of the weekend, while junior forward Sullivan Mack and freshman defenseman Ben Robertson were also named to the all-tournament team.

“[Shane]’s been outstanding all year long,” Schafer said. “He’s one of the top-three goaltenders in this country. It really ticks me off that he doesn’t get [to be a finalist] for the [Mike] Richter Award.”

Cornell followed Denver’s early chance with a strong shift of its own, which ultimately culminated in the game’s first goal. Following a strong bout of possession, the Red fired a pair of shots on Davis, creating a surplus of second-chance opportunities.

Sophomore forward Nick DeSantis cleaned up one of those loose pucks, tucking it past Davis and giving Cornell the first goal of the game. The Red took that and ran with it, ultimately controlling the play for much of the first period.

Though Cornell earned the first power play of the contest, the Red suffered a close call when Denver nearly evened the score on a shorthanded breakaway. Robertson, looking to wrist a shot on the power play, tripped and coughed up the puck to the Pioneers. Shane deterred the Denver breakaway with a left-pad stop to preserve the Cornell lead.

Despite hunkering down on defense, the Red couldn’t escape the period unscathed. After the Pioneers broke through Cornell’s forecheck, Miko Matikka — a first-year Pioneer — lasered a shot over the shoulder of Shane to knot the score with 1:32 left in the first.

In the second frame, Denver displayed what earned it the top seed in the region, as the Pioneers controlled the pace of play and suffocated Cornell in its own zone. The Red struggled to break through the Denver forecheck, and when it did, the Pioneers were quick to strip Cornell of possession. 

With less than a minute to play in the period, a costly interference penalty was taken by freshman forward Jonathan Castagna late in the second period, sending a top-20 Pioneer power play unit onto the ice.

Cornell nearly got out of the period with the score tied, but a late Pioneer push resulted in the go-ahead goal for Denver. A shot from the Pioneers deflected off of both Denver’s Sam Harris — who was ultimately credited with the goal — and junior defenseman Hank Kempf, who had been left in front of the net without a stick from a previous play. The puck slowly trickled past Shane and into the net, giving Denver a 2-1 lead with just four seconds remaining in the period.

“They capitalized on their chances. We didn’t kill the penalty,” Schafer said.

Meeting perhaps its strongest opponent of the season in Denver — a team with 11 NHL draft picks — Cornell looked tired as Denver carried its momentum into the third.

Cornell nearly evened the score, though, when Castagna had a gaping net with Davis off balance, but couldn’t corral the shot cleanly. 

Missed chances were ultimately the difference in the final period — though Cornell looked tired and Denver skated faster down the stretch, the Red had no shortage of looks, missing a few wide-open opportunities in the waning moments.

Cornell pulled Shane with 2:38 left, looking to even the score with its season on the line. The Red called timeout to draw up a play, lining up for an offensive-zone faceoff soon thereafter.

A defeating whistle blew as freshman forward Ryan Walsh made an errant play of slashing a Pioneer stick. With 2:35 left and searching for the equalizer, Cornell headed to the penalty kill.

“I don’t like the call. It’s one of the weakest calls in hockey,” Schafer said. 

The Red killed the penalty, but with the clock against it, couldn’t find the equalizer. Walsh fired a one-timer in the waning seconds, but Davis made the stop, sending Denver to the Frozen Four.

“Mistakes are gonna happen. Things happen in a game,” Schafer said. “Guys in our locker room were saying sorry to each other — there’s nothing to be sorry about. Ryan [Walsh] did everything he could to help us win that game, including that chance at the very end. He laid everything he could out there to help us try to win the game.”

Cornell finishes its season 22-7-6 and with a Whitelaw Cup under its belt. The Red will look to break its 21-year Frozen Four drought in the 2024-25 season.

“We knew we could only lose one game after Christmas,” Schafer said. “We could only lose one game and we’re going to be out of the tournament, and we lost one in overtime and we lost one that put us right on the bubble.

Just a week prior, Cornell won an ECAC championship to keep its season alive. Had Cornell lost in the title game, it never would’ve gotten the opportunity in the NCAA tournament, as the Red would’ve been mathematically eliminated from at-large bid contention.

“They carried that all year long, never got distracted, overcame that adversity,” Schafer said. “They kept plugging away. … That’s what sports is about — you get to here, now you’ve got to take that next step.”