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March 7, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Red Flag or Red Herring

Cornell Has a Second Chance as Playoffs Start

by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer

Love them or hate them, Cornell has been the standard of ECAC excellence – and certainly consistency – for the vast majority of head coach Mike Schafer’s 17-year tenure. That’s what happens with a program boasting a conference-leading 12 ECAC tournament titles in its history (five under Schafer’s guidance to add to the one he earned as a player), three NCAA tourney appearances in the last four years, over a half-dozen former players now on NHL rosters, and a remarkable stretch of 13 consecutive top-five finishes in the ECAC standings – i.e. in every year of this millennium. Cornell also has more NCAA tournament wins, by far, during Schafer's tenure than any ECAC team.

So, in that sense, to say that the 2012-13 season for the Big Red (12-14-3) has been surprising may literally be – with regards to hockey in the ECAC, anyway – the understatement of the century.

“We’ve made our own bed,” says Cornell senior forward Greg Miller, the team’s leading scorer, of Cornell’s regular season finish (ninth out of 12 teams). “Obviously, it’s not the most ideal situation – that’s for sure. But it’s our fate right now, and we just need to collectively wrap our head around it and move forward and control what we can control now – and that’s our own destiny.”

Cornell heads into the ECAC playoffs as the No. 9 seed, now needing four road playoff wins – starting with two this weekend at Princeton – just to earn an opportunity to play at the ECAC championships in Atlantic City. And if the Big Red can’t accomplish that, they’ll finish the season with their first sub-.500 record since 1998-99 – when current starting goaltender, Ithaca-native Andy Iles, was seven.

Of course, this isn’t 1992-93, either – a forgettable season that saw Cornell win just six games all year, the program’s fewest since joining the ECAC in 1961. After all, this year came with national title-level expectations – naturally, after Cornell fell just a goal shy of the Frozen Four last season — the fourth time in Schafer's tenure that Cornell has been one goal short. And there have still been flashes of that potential, as this season’s edition of the Big Red is undefeated (3-0-0) against teams that played in last April’s Frozen Four.

But in reality, after squandering a 3-0 lead – once an unthinkable possibility for Cornell about 10 years ago – against Maine on December 29, the Big Red fell into a slump that was, by every measure, unprecedented during Schafer’s time behind the bench as head coach at his alma mater, a tenure that began in 1995 with two ECAC titles in his first two seasons.

Including the loss to Maine, Cornell lost 10 of 11 games, including seven consecutive ECAC contests – tying the second-longest streak for conference futility in the program’s history. “Slump” doesn’t really do it justice, as a slump for Cornell in the last decade has been losing four or five – but nothing even close to this.

“We were just not getting it done the way we were playing,” said Schafer, a three-time ECAC Coach of the Year. “It’s just one of those things – it’s hard to explain. We were doing the things we have always done to be successful, and it wasn’t turning into victories for us.”

Schafer insists that, aside from minor lineup tweaking, his philosophy and approach never changed during the slide. Stressing an “even keel” despite not accomplishing one of the basic objectives of hockey – “not scoring really killed us,” he deadpanned – Schafer relied most of all on what he knew defined all of his successful teams in Ithaca: his players’ character.

Said Miller, “[Our coaches] were trying to get us to play together as one – sticking together, working harder. For those weeks, we just kept working harder. Coach always firmly believed that hard work would push us through.

“[Schafer] stuck to his guns. He never lost faith in us. None of our coaching staff did, and neither did we. That’s a testament to his character.”

Only recently did things finally turn around – with Cornell enjoying a five-game unbeaten streak before last Saturday’s loss to Yale in the regular season finale. But the damage, without question, had already been done – irreparably so – leaving the Big Red without an opportunity to host a playoff series at Lynah Rink.

Another unfamiliar position for a team that usually gets this weekend off to rest and prepare.

“It’s something I’d never personally experienced, but when we were down, we were all stripped down naked,” said a candid Miller of the feeling of seeing expectations for his senior year begin to crumble. “It was just us. So it was a little bit of a different feeling. But coming out of it really showed the character of our guys – not giving up and battling back.”

In retrospect, one other key storyline to Cornell’s season coincided with its unprecedented slump and cannot be ignored. And Schafer, also candid, doesn’t deny that the two are intimately connected.

“I don’t think they were unrelated at all,” said Schafer, the program’s all-time winningest coach, of losing sophomore center Cole Bardreau to a dangerous neck injury in January. “When you lose a key piece like that who plays in that position, it definitely has an effect. It’s the intangibles that Cole also brings – his energy, his enthusiasm, his competitiveness. He’s an outstanding player. It definitely has an impact on the things you can and can’t do. “

Bardreau earned a Gold medal as part of Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Russia in January, and despite having now missed over half of the season’s games, he is still among the Big Red’s top 10 scorers for the season.

“To go from such a high to such a low, it was devastating for him, and we certainly miss him,” admitted Miller. “He’s a great player. He’s counted on in the defensive zone and also in the offensive zone. It was tough to see him go down. We’re glad that he is alright and that he’s going to make a full recovery.”

As the weeks wore on in January and February, Cornell struggled without Bardreau. And the losses all had their own unique flavor – from a heartbreaking overtime loss to Yale on national television to a 1-0 loss to Princeton in a game in which the Big Red outshot the Tigers 39-12.

“We knew it was going to turn,” continued Miller who has paced the Big Red this season with 29 points in 28 games. “We were playing the right way but still losing. We knew. You could just feel it. We were going to make our own luck, make our own destiny. The guys believed.

“Everyone was playing together. We were playing for the same goal of getting out of that slump. I never wanted to go back to losing, just because we had done it for so long. The feeling was terrible. That’s what personally drove me.”

Now, of course, the focus shifts to the postseason – a much-welcomed carte blanche for the Red after what’s been a puzzling season. Despite the distractions that come with a widely publicized losing streak, Miller – with 14 goals and 15 assists overall – has points in all but seven games this season and has points in six straight and nine of 10.

Cornell travels to Princeton this weekend, a team whose coaching staff includes former eight-year Cornell assistant Scott Garrow, and a team against whom the Big Red lost twice this season – including the game in which Cornell drastically outshot the Tigers.

Said Miller of that game, “We just couldn’t find the back of the net. I think we’ve solved that problem. Guys have more confidence all around in producing and creating more chances. We know they’re a really hard-working team.”

“In that game, we had an awful lot of chances,” said Schafer, who said Cornell will welcome back previously injured defenseman Kirill Gotovets for this weekend’s games. “Princeton is playing better now. It’s a matter for us to understand that. There was a plethora of scoring chances that night. It’s not going to be the same. The biggest mistake we can make is to think it’s going to be like that again.”

But who knows? The biggest mistake, actually, may be an opponent of Cornell’s buying into the talk that Cornell’s unprecedented slide was a red flag for the program – that Schafer’s approach has finally worn out. After all, Cornell’s play over the past three weeks – including a weekend sweep against Rensselaer and Union, two teams enjoying first-round byes – may suggest that its mid-season slide was merely a red herring in the complicated plot of the 2012-13 campaign.

Either way, the question remains unanswered until all the games are over. For sure, though, the preseason expectations once pinned on this team have evaporated. And as Cornell prepares for its trip to Princeton for its first-round playoff series, Lynah Rink in Ithaca is unseasonably quiet, save for the NCAA-bound women's team.

“For us, things got away from us a bit,” said Schafer. “But we have to make the most of it now in the playoffs.”

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©2014 Avash Kalra. All Rights Reserved.