Cornell (That's Right) Takes Advantage of Large Sheet to Reach Finals
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. As badly as Cornell was outplayed at times in last week's ECAC quarterfinal series with Clarkson, it was just as dominant in the first period of Saturday's semifinal against Union.
And though Cornell was unable to parlay that advantage into a goal against Union goaltender Alex Sakellaropoulos despite 21 shots on net, it nonetheless set the tone for the rest of the way.
The Big Red scored twice in the second period, held off Union's inevitable third-period charge, and scored two more late goals to win 4-1. It will now face old nemesis Harvard in the championship game. Those two teams have met six times before in the ECAC championship, and four during Mike Schafer's tenure as Cornell coach.
For whatever reason, the Big Red played most of its best offensive games this season against Union, scoring 12 times in three meetings. But to do it on the larger ice sheet at Lake Placid's Olympic Arena is something else.
To get an idea, those 21 first-period shots were more than Cornell had in any whole game against Clarkson last weekend — any of the three games.
Thing is, most people assume that because Cornell doesn't have the top-to-bottom speed of some other teams, it will get hurt on larger ice surface. But, though coaches may grumble from time to time that the ECAC plays its championship on a 200x100 surface instead of the normal 200x85, if you play it right, it can work to your advantage, even for the team with less speed.
Cornell is not slow, by any means, but the advantage comes from the time and space you get, not from the ability to blow past defenders to the outside.
Cornell carried the puck into the offensive zone consistently in the first period, and once there, stickhandled in the zone and dominated possession. The time and space was there, and Cornell protected the puck, stickhandled and moved to space, to the point that it was running circles around Union in ways reminiscent of the Big Red's dominant teams of the 2000s.
Cornell coach Mike Schafer talked during the week about how the two-week break from the regular season to the quarterfinals, caused him to put too much on the players' plate during the practices, and it caused issues against Clarkson. Friday, Cornell players relied more on their offensive instincts, and it worked.
"It was a big coaching mistake last Friday," Schafer said. "And don't get me wrong, Clarkson played well against us and don't overlook that. They played with great pace. ...
"We narrowed our focus in terms of our preparation for Union. A lot of our focus was on their power play."
Of course, it's one thing to open things up on the offensive end, but to do it and still be responsible defensively takes extra special care. Cornell was able to keep Union's top unit of Mike Vecchione, Spencer Foo and Sebastian Vidmar in check. Once again, the assignment of dealing with Vecchione went to Jake Weidner, who was named the ECAC's Best Defensive Forward for a reason. In three meetings with Union this year, Weidner did not allow Vecchione to get an even-strength point.
"There's no doubt in my mind that kid (Vecchione) should win the Hobey Baker Award," Schafer said. "Just an all-around player, great on faceoffs, great on the power play, he's dangerous on the rush."
Schafer said Weidner took to heart Cornell's new mantra this season of blocking shots.
"Someone watched our practice the other night and they watched us firing rubber pucks at our guys — our guys take great pride (in blocking shots)," Schafer said. "That's a tall, tall order (stopping Vecchione). ... (Weidner) leads our charge on those blocked shots. He has twice as many as the next among forwards. ... (Seeing) Quinnipiac last year, our guys got a big lesson between getting to this level — you gotta pay the price to block shots. Quinnipiac was one of the best teams in our league last year. If there was certain things we were going to steal, or take pride in this year, of what different teams did (that was it)."
Now, to win an ECAC championship, Cornell will have to do it all over again against a Harvard team that has many similarities to Union. Harvard may be a tad better and a tad deeper.
"It was great preparation coming into tomorrow night," Schafer said.
The Big Red are now assured an NCAA bid for the first time since 2012, after being the first team outside the bubble last season. A win in the final, and Cornell could move up to a 2 seed.