Cornell-Princeton: A Clash of Wills
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
After a series of first-round upsets in the ECAC, order has been restored for the league's final four.
This weekend, the ECAC's top four teams in the regular season — Yale, Cornell, Princeton, and St. Lawrence — will vie for the league title during the ECAC championship weekend at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. The prime time semifinal game is a showdown between the top two statistical defenses in the league, as Cornell faces off against defending champion Princeton.
Adding to the intrigue in the Capital District this weekend is that all four teams can potentially advance to the NCAA tournament — depending on their results and the results of conference tournaments around the country this weekend. Be sure to check out CHN's "You Are the Committee" to explore all of those possible scenarios.
Heading into Friday's semifinals, all four ECAC teams are in the top 15 of the Pairwise Rankings.
2. CORNELL BIG RED (20-8-4)
How they advanced: First-round bye; Defeated Rensselaer in quarterfinals (0-1, 4-0, 4-3)
Record in last 10 games: 5-5-0
Leading scorer: Riley Nash (33 points in 32 games)
Starting goaltender: Ben Scrivens (20-8-4, 1.68 GAA, .936 save percentage)
ECAC tournament championships: 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1973, 1980, 1986, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2005
Cornell returns to Albany after barely squeaking by a determined Rensselaer team that swept Dartmouth on the road in the first round, then won Game 1 of the quarterfinal series with the Big Red on Friday. And on Sunday, Cornell had to withstand a furious third period comeback attempt by the Engineers, who ultimately fell in the rubber game 4-3.
"It was a heck of a series with RPI, especially after losing the Friday night game," said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. "There was a lot of pressure on our program to get here to Albany and give ourselves a chance to win the title."
Schafer was suspended for Game 2 after publicly criticizing the officiating in Game 1. On Tuesday, Schafer commented for possibly the final time on the controversial situation.
Said the veteran coach, "From where I was sitting [during Saturday's game], I couldn't even see the whole ice surface, so it was even worse. It was not a great feeling knowing our backs were against the wall, but our assistant coaches and our team did a tremendous job. And hopefully that doesn't happen again for a long time."
Cornell has the most championships in league history but has been denied the trophy for each of the last three seasons, last winning in 2005. This season, the Big Red enjoyed one of the best statistical starts to a season in program history, losing just once in its first 17 games. In fact, in early January, Cornell even enjoyed the No. 1 spot in the Pairwise, and goaltender Ben Scrivens led the nation in all goaltending categories.
Then, beginning with a Jan. 23 4-3 loss to Yale at Lynah Rink in Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell began to struggle — due in large part to a series of injuries that still have the team reeling to an extent heading into the weekend. The Big Red will likely be without the services of both sophomore forward Joe Devin (fifth on the team in goals) and junior center Blake Gallagher (third on the team in points and arguably the Red's best faceoff option).
Said Schafer, "Those two guys are two of the top five scorers on our team, and we didn't have them on Sunday. But this is the time of year when you have to overcome injuries. So we're not healthy, but we're not complaining."
Without the services of Devin and Gallagher, the offensive burden will be shouldered even more heavily by sophomore Riley Nash, a first-team All-ECAC selection, and junior captain Colin Greening. For most of the season, the two were paired together on a line, completed by senior right-winger Evan Barlow.
But on Feb. 13, Schafer chose to split up the dynamic Greening-Nash duo, placing Greening on a line with Gallagher and Devin.
"I just thought that created a little more balance," said Schafer this week of his decision to make the change. "Moving [Greening] to that line gave us a lot of depth, and they were on fire when they played together. We'll look at our line combinations now, but that's kind of gone out of the window with the injuries."
The importance of offensive balance might be even greater for Cornell heading into its semifinal game with Princeton because the Tigers boast ECAC Player of the Year and Hobey finalist Zane Kalemba, who was also named the Most Outstanding Player of last year's ECAC tournament. Kalemba and Scrivens boast identical save percentages (.936) and virtually identical goals-against averages this season (1.68 for Scrivens, 1.69 for Kalemba).
Needless to say, the matchup figures to be a defensive battle.
"Goaltending is such a critical position at this junction of the season," said Schafer. "Both guys had great seasons. You don't win championships with average goaltending, and all of us are going to need it in order to be successful."
Cornell and Princeton split their meetings this year — with Cornell opening its season with a 1-0 win at Princeton, and the Tigers defeating the Big Red 2-1 at Lynah Rink last month.
The latter game featured some theatrics, as Princeton was first delayed in arriving by a bus breakdown and then ultimately scored twice in the final minute of the game, to overcome what appeared to be another 1-0 Cornell win.
Schafer and the Big Red have not forgotten.
"That was kind of a weird game," said Schafer. "Their bus broke down, so they were sitting on a bus, and we were sitting in the locker room waiting for a long time. And obviously, it doesn't happen very often when we give up a lead [like that]. I think that game probably cost us an opportunity at a league [regular season title]. You have to give them credit though. We made the mistakes, and they capitalized."
The final storyline for Cornell heading into the weekend is its NCAA implications.
Said Schafer, "I know where we are in the Pairwise. It's kind of hard to believe that [other] teams could move up this weekend by not playing, and we could move down or Princeton could move down or whatever by playing. That doesn't really make any sense. I don't really look at it a whole lot because it changes a whole lot from day to day, from game to game. I just look at our games.
"During the course of the year, we make sure our upperclassmen talk to our team about how important games are like at UMass. We knew that was going to be a critical game. We knew we had to win that game in order to get favorable comparisons down the road. And with going to North Dakota, we knew how important getting the split was. St. Cloud was a huge win for us, again because of comparisons. But right now, everyone is so focused on the ECAC and the championship."
3. PRINCETON TIGERS (22-10-0)
How they advanced: First-round bye; Defeated Union in quarterfinals (3-2, 2-5, 3-1)
Record in last 10 games: 6-4-0
Leading scorer: Brett Wilson (25 points in 32 games)
Starting goaltender: Zane Kalemba (22-8-0, 1.69 GAA, .936 save percentage)
ECAC tournament championships: 1998, 2008
Listening to Guy Gadowsky talk about his defending champion Princeton Tigers, there's a common theme when he discusses his players. As much as he credits their individual abilities, he more frequently stresses their ability to be good teammates and to help the team win.
Heading into the weekend in Albany, Gadowsky discussed three different players — goaltender Zane Kalemba, who on Thursday was named one of the 10 Hobey Baker finalists, Lee Jubinville (last year's ECAC Player of the Year), and junior Dan Bartlett, who leads the team in goal-scoring after a prolific playoff series against Union.
Said Gadowsky of Kalemba, "I can't overstate it enough. He's had a tremendous year — not only the numbers he's put up, but the way he does it. He's as calm a guy under pressure that I know. He's an incredibly intelligent man. He's a great person, and I don't know if anyone who was at Albany last year is surprised at all by the numbers he's putting up and the season he's having."
And of Jubinville: "He absolutely does so much to help the team win. He's a great offensive talent, believe me, but he is a great defensive player. And he always takes pride more in his own end than he does offensively. To me, he has had a great, great year — for all the things he does to help the team win, with so many things that don't show up on the score sheet."
And — although you get the picture by now — of Bartlett: "When you watch him, he [looks like] just a mild-mannered, skilled guy. But he's a tough competitor with sweet hands. And he's just been playing great. And he's taken off this year in his overall game. And now he's leading the team in plus/minus with a plus-15 right now."
Perhaps it is not surprising for these types of players to represent a championship team — one that has helped resurrect the Tigers from the ECAC abyss (in Gadowsky's first season with Princeton five years ago, the team won just eight games. Two years prior, they won only five). No one player alone, other than Kalemba, seems to stand out, as not a single skater is even close to averaging a point per game. Yet 13 players are in double digit point totals.
Compare that to the Yale and Cornell, who have eight double digit point scorers each.
The Tigers surprised most of the league last year and have put together a successful regular season as defending champions, with the bulls eye on their backs.
"We feel pretty comfortable that we have balanced scoring on all four lines," said Gadowsky, again crediting unheralded players, specifically naming junior Mark Magnoswki and sophomore Kevin Lohry. "It's been kind of a goal for us to get to that point, and I think we're closer to that point now than we've been in the past."
Another boost for the Princeton lineup is the presence of Cam MacIntyre, who missed the first half of this season with an injury, after reaching the 30-point plateau a season ago.
Said Gadowsky, "He's 100 percent healthy, and just having him in the lineup is a big confidence boost for our team."
Now, the title defense in Albany resumes with a semifinal showdown with Cornell — as mentioned above, a game perhaps destined to be a defensive battle. And while Gadowsky knows it will be a tremendous test — and one that has significant implications for the NCAA tournament — he and the Tigers are ready.
"[Cornell is] going to play an extremely good game. They're extremely well prepared, well coached. You play Cornell knowing that you're going to have to play well. Whoever beats Cornell — you have to play your best game. You're not going to be given anything.
"These aren't just the top four teams in the league [in Albany this weekend], but they're four of the top 15 teams in the nation right now, and I think that's fantastic. We're certainly not thinking of what wins and losses do right now to our national picture. After we lost Sat night, I usually check all the scores, but I made a conscious decision not to check one score on the national stage and just worry about what we had to do on Sunday. I think that's how we're going to approach this weekend in Albany."