Thin Red Line: Cornell Misses ECAC Bye
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Mike Schafer is currently in his 13th season as head coach of his alma mater, the Cornell Big Red. In that time, Cornell has won four ECAC tournament championships and played in five NCAA tournaments. And not once in the Schafer-era has the Big Red lost the regular season series to archrival Harvard.
Saturday night at Cornell's Lynah Rink, Harvard upended the Big Red 3-1 on a night of excitement for the ECAC Hockey League, which saw three teams — Harvard, Cornell, and Union — battling for the final two first-round byes in the ECAC tournament. In the end, Harvard and Union emerged as the league's third and fourth seeds, meaning Cornell will host a first-round best-of-three playoff series against Dartmouth next weekend.
"Our guys were very aware of what the game meant as far as standings," said Harvard coach Ted Donato. "I don't believe any Harvard-Cornell game needs extra hype. However, with all that both teams have been through, to have it come down to the last game for home ice, I think our guys put a real premium on it. It was very special."
But for Cornell, this was not so special at all.
The loss to Harvard was the culmination of a regular season that fans in Ithaca are simply not used to seeing. Not once during the regular season was Cornell able to finish a home ECAC weekend with four points — an improbable statistic for a team that has historically enjoyed a significant home-ice advantage, winning about three-fourths of its games in Lynah Rink.
Sure, a fifth-place regular season finish in a twelve-team league shouldn't be perceived as too disappointing, but this is a team that has finished in the Top Four of the league for each of the last eight seasons, including one Frozen Four and two near-FFs.
And now, after top-notch talent has bolted Cornell for the pros in recent years — including goaltenders David LeNeveu and David McKee, defensemen Sasha Pokulok and Ryan O'Byrne, and forwards Shane Hynes and Tony Romano — things have started to change.
No longer is Cornell considered a bruising physical force in the ECAC, as they certainly were in the early part of this decade, when a talented and upperclassman-led squad advanced to the 2003 Frozen Four as the No. 1 overall seed. Now, this year's edition of the Big Red — a team that, last year, was swept in a quarterfinal series at home by Quinnipiac — finished with an 0-8-0 record against Clarkson, Princeton, Harvard and Union, the top four teams in the league.
This year's Cornell team also has only four seniors — the fewest in the league. Compare that to Harvard, which has nine.
"They've been one of the top teams in the league, and we've been one of the top teams in the league," said Schafer, of the Big Red's recent contests with Harvard. "Every time we play them, it's a tough game. It's never an easy game. They've got some experience on their team, and you can see that with the way they're playing right now."
Still, Donato's Harvard squad has now won three consecutive games against Cornell — the first time the Crimson have held such a streak over Cornell since the early-to-mid 1990's, when Harvard won six straight in the rivalry series.
In fact, Donato has now led the Crimson to victories over Cornell in each of the last three ECAC regular season finales, as well as the 2006 ECAC Championship game in Albany, N.Y. And in all three of the regular season finales, a Harvard captain has come through to provide a big goal.
In 2006, Peter Hafner scored the game-winner for the Crimson in a 4-3 road win; in 2007, Dylan Reese put Harvard ahead 1-0 early in the game and led the Crimson to a 3-1 win at home; and in 2008, in Saturday night's game, current co-captain Mike Taylor scored a shorthanded goal to give Harvard the 1-0 lead in the first period.
Indeed, after the game, Taylor — one of the nine seniors on this year's Harvard team — grinned ear-to-ear as he discussed the Crimson's triumph, along with classmate and game-winning goal scorer Paul Dufault. There was certainly some irony as they celebrated quietly in the visitors' locker room while, outside, the Cornell senior class was being honored with an on-ice ceremony after losing on yet another Senior Night to Harvard.
Meanwhile, in the Cornell locker room after the ceremony, the coaches and players expressed a degree of both optimism and realism.
"It's not over," insisted Cornell senior co-captain Topher Scott. "It's not really Senior Night. We've still got games to play. We've got Dartmouth coming in next weekend, and I think we match up well against them. We're itching to get back to Albany, and we're just looking forward to next weekend. We can't worry about tonight anymore."
That was the optimism. This was the realism:
"We didn't deserve the bye," said Schafer matter-of-factly. "We didn't beat anybody ahead of us in the standings. I really believe that we ended up where we deserved to end up. Our guys played really hard and went after the win, and sometimes in sports, as a coach and for teammates, all you can ask of each other is to do that. And the chips fall where they may."
Asked about the mood of the team, Schafer continued, "Disappointment. Nothing but disappointment in the locker room. You work all year to give yourself the opportunity [to get a bye].
"We knew we had to go after it and try and get the 'W.' We had some opportunities, but we overskated some pucks. But the mentality was that we had to win the hockey game, not tie it."
Now, for Cornell to return to the ECAC championship weekend in Albany, they will have to win a home series against Dartmouth and then, if victorious, travel to Union for a best-of-three quarterfinal round the following weekend. The Big Red this season is led by sophomore Colin Greening, who had four goals over the weekend, and freshman (and NHL-first round pick of the Edmonton Oilers) Riley Nash.
So, there at least, there is optimism for the future.
But the immediate future is next weekend, and Scott reiterated the Big Red's focus on that, and that alone.
Said Scott, "The theme for us all year is putting 60 minutes together, and in pressure situations, we've got to step up to the plate. And there's no bigger pressure than when your back's against the wall coming into the playoffs. There's a lot of character in that [locker] room, and I think we've learned our lesson quite a few times. We're looking forward to getting out there in the playoffs and proving we're a top-notch team in this league."
And with a woeful record against the Top Four as a big red flag for this team, Cornell heads into the playoffs balancing optimism with uncertainty.