The unexpected success of the 1995-96 season ended when the Big Red fell to Lake Superior State at Albany, NY in the 1996 NCAA Tournament. Schafer had accomplished all of the goals of his first season. The only thing that could have made his freshman season more triumphant would have been obtaining Cornell's third national title.
Despite not achieving the truly unlikely, Schafer and his 1995-96 team had left an indelible impression on the ECAC and the proud institution of Cornell hockey. Don Vaughan, coach of Cornell's 1996 ECAC Tournament opponent Colgate and alumnus of St. Lawrence University, remarked after the 1995-96 season that "home crowds are usually good for a goal or two, but this crowd had to be good for three or four. I've never seen Lynah Rink like this and I've seen a lot of games here." Some questioned if the beginning of the Schafer Era ushered in renewed Cornell dominance or was a mere aberration that was a result of beginner's luck.
The cupboards were not bare on East Hill. Cornell returned six of its top-ten scorers from the 1996 ECAC Championship team. Former captain Brad Chartrand, whose leadership was integral in guiding the Big Red to success in a season of transition, graduated. Leadership in front of the blue line might have been lost but Jason Elliott who was the workhorse goaltender who helped Cornell win a Whitelaw Cup returned for his junior season.
Key players were lost, but ample talent remained for Cornell to attempt to defend its eighth ECAC Championship. No program had defended successfully a prior year's playoff success since the Saints of St. Lawrence had done so in 1988 and 1989. Only Jack Parker of Boston University had won and defended an ECAC Championship in his first two seasons as head coach. The 1996-97 team and their second-year coach wanted to do something nearly unprecedented. Something that no member of the post-Divorce ECAC had accomplished ever.
One key out-of-conference game loomed on the horizon. The members of the 1996-97 team did not lose sight of the goal before them. The Big Red wanted to put the Conference on notice that the skaters from Ithaca were ready to defend the historic crown of the East. Cornell's season began on the road at Meehan Auditorium and Bright Hockey Center.
Cornell's first game against Brown was a high-scoring affair. Nine goals were scored. Nonetheless, the deciding tally belonged to Cornell. The Big Red toppled the Brown Bears, 5-4.
Schafer's reinvigoration of the importance of the Cornell-Harvard rivalry quickly rendered the trip from Central New York to Cambridge, MA a pilgrimage for the Lynah Faithful. When the Crimson hosted Cornell, the former was awash in a carnelian-and-white tide. Bright Hockey Center had begun to become Lynah East.
The first regular-season battle between the historically dominant programs of the ECAC was very much unlike Cornell's game the previous night. The result was the same. Cornell left Massachusetts with a favorable 3-2 decision giving Cornell four consecutive victories over the Cantabs in the Schafer Era.
The first semester of the season concluded with Cornell accumulating a 6-3-1. The Syracuse Invitation Tournament provided the bridge between the first and second semesters. Cornell defeated former ECAC foe Providence College and Merrimack College during its trip to Syracuse. Cornell's fortunes looked bright as it became apparent that Cornell was among the league's best for the second season in a row. The trip to the North Country stood between Cornell and its greatest challenge of the regular season.
The Red skaters stumbled at Appleton and Cheel Arenas. Cornell salvaged only one point out of the trip and fell to the Golden Knights. It was time for the Big Red to pack its bags. The game that loomed large on Cornell's regular-season slate awaited.
Yost Ice Arena welcomed Cornell in January 1997. The previous meeting between the Big Red and the Wolverines was in the 1991 NCAA Tournament. That game also was at Yost. Both fanbases remember that series not for its result but for its creation of the Children of Yost. The throngs of boisterous Lynah Faithful that ventured to see their beloved team take on "the champions of the West" stunned and silenced the then-tame maize-and-blue-clad fans with their relentless harassment of the Wolverines and their netminder.
Michigan fans appropriated the chants of the Lynah Faithful and began to identify as "the Children of Yost." The 1997 meeting would be the first time that Cornell and the Lynah Faithful grappled with the Wolverines and their devoted Children of Yost. Cornell was up to the challenge.
Michigan entered the 1996-97 season riding high. It had just captured its first national title in 32 years at the close of the 1996 season. The Wolverines had realized that accolade in impressive fashion. Michigan ended the seasons of Minnesota, Boston University, and Colorado College to give Red Berenson his first national title. Cornell may have been seeking a defense of its most recent Whitelaw Cup, but Michigan was hoping to defend its national title.
The Children of Yost thought that such a defense was possible. In fact, Michigan's loyal fans believed that the 1996-97 team was far more skilled than the team that had a year prior won a national title in Cincinnati, OH. The Wolverines carried the banner of the top-ranked team in the nation into the clash against Cornell.
The first period saw Michigan jump to a one-goal lead. The intimidation of Yost, recent success, and lofty ranking of the Wolverines had little effect on the Eastern challengers. The winged helmet did not hold sway. Chad Wilson struck to even the game for Cornell less than five minutes into the second period. The Wolverines responded but a power-play goal from Vinnie Auger helped the Big Red keep pace. The stalemate would stand. Cornell and Michigan would both tally in the third period with the Big Red's Darren Tymchyshyn evening the game with under seven minutes remaining on the clock.
Schafer and the 1996-97 Cornell team returned back to East Hill having gone tête-à-tête with the defending national champion on the road and wresting a tie from Yost. The outcome was not the greatest possible, but it established that Cornell hockey's reemergence on the national stage was a burgeoning reality and not just a fleeting fancy found in the hills of Central New York. The Big Red and Wolverines parted ways each seeking their respective title defenses.
Cornell surged into February after the 1997 Michigan game. The Red skaters tallied three wins, one loss, and one tie in the run-up to the penultimate month of the 1996-97 regular season. Crucial tests against Harvard and Clarkson remained before the 1997 ECAC Tournament would begin.
Clarkson and Cornell had proven to be the teams to beat in the ECAC throughout the 1996-97 season. The Golden Knights and the Big Red sat perched atop the Conference standings by the end of February. Clarkson had guaranteed that it would begin the postseason at Cheel Arena. The welcome confines of Lynah Rink would host the beginning of Cornell's Whitelaw-Cup defense.
The closing weeks of the regular season witnessed Cornell's defeat of the Crimson by a one-goal margin for the second time in the regular season. The Big Red triumphed over its archrival with a 2-1 final score at Lynah Rink. Harvard had braved Lynah Rink with the hopes of securing a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The offensive power of Cornell ranked third in terms of productivity in the league. This might of the Big Red proved too much for the remarkable play of freshman Crimson netminder J.R. Prestifilippo. The historic rivals lobbed the same number of challenges but it was the markers of Cornell's Kyle Knopp and Matt Cooney that stood. The play of Jason Elliott and Schaferian defense in front of him held off Harvard's attempt at a third-period rally.
Cornell marched on to a disappointing loss to an atypically formidable Union College squad. The Big Red rebounded with a decisive 5-2 victory over the Engineers of RPI. The carnelian and white hosted the Golden Knights in the last week of the regular season. Clarkson defended its first-place standing at Lynah Rink with a 3-1 victory over the home-standing Red.
Cornell entered the 1997 ECAC Tournament as the second seed. Its nemesis had tumbled to eighth. The playoffs of the 1997 postseason would began as those from the 1996 postseason had ended: the Red and Crimson would battle once again for supremacy.
The 1997 ECAC Quarterfinals marked the first time in seven years that Cornell had hosted its rival at Lynah Rink in the postseason. Those who attended the 1990 ECAC Quarterfinals watched as Cornell swept the Crimson by a combined margin of ten goals to four goals in a two-game series. Home-ice advantage favored Cornell, but Schafer and his second squad knew that the beginning of their title defense would not be easy.
Harvard was one year removed from carrying the weight of an eighth seed to the ECAC Championship game. The Crimson could not be taken lightly. Anticipation was high on East Hill and in Cambridge. Harvard's Scott Turco remarked to The Harvard Crimson that "we are all looking forward to playing them. This is an intense and close rivalry."
The pace of Cornell's game had taken a notable leap in the build-up to the postseason and goaltender Jason Elliott had begun to show glimmers of his indomitable form from the previous year's playoff run. The first game of the two-game quarterfinal series was many things; disciplined was not one of them.
The first game was brutal. Both teams spent large portions of the game playing down a man. Cornell peppered Harvard's freshman netminder with 35 shots but only a power-play challenge from Jamie Papp in the first period and a third-period blast from Vinnie Auger found the back of the Crimson's net. Jason Elliott stood tall but two Harvard tallies beat him. The first game of the two-game series ended in a stalemate. However, the Red had fought its way back into a contest that it was losing with less than 11 minutes remaining. Cornell was determined that the second game would not be the same.
It took over half the first period of the second game for the scoring to open. Harvard established a crucial net-front presence, screened Elliott, and allowed the Crimson's Jeremiah McCarthy to blast a power-play shot into the Red's net. The Red roster, must like the Lynah Faithful in attendance, refused to be silenced. Tony Bergin knotted the game less than two minutes later.
Lynah Rink hummed as the teams returned to their locker rooms for the first intermission. A Schafer-coached squad had not lost to Harvard in six previous meetings. Five of those contests ended in wins for the Big Red. Anticipation and excitement was building. The zeal of the fans was not the only thing waiting to explode.
The first five minutes of the second period were uneventful. The passion and efficiency of Cornell's play began to build. The host was awarded a power play with about 12 minutes remaining in the second period. Cornell senior Vinnie Auguer collected the puck at the right face-off circle and rifled a shot past Prestifilippo that beat the goaltender cleanly. Cornell was not finished.
A Harvard error allowed Cornell's Mike Rutter to gain the blue line and race into the Crimson's zone unchallenged. The freshman unleashed a slapshot that expanded Cornell's lead to two goals with less than 30 minutes remaining.
Cornell's dominance receded somewhat. Harvard was able to generate several shorthanded opportunities. Steve Wilson stifled the Crimson's first shorthanded breakaway. With a goal all but guaranteed, he poke checked the puck out of the possession of an onrushing Harvard forward. Jason Elliott was all that was needed to quash the hopes of Harvard's other two threatening shorthanded breakaways.
The third period observed Cornell's commitment to defending its lead. Harvard could scarcely gain the Big Red's zone. The few times that the Crimson did, Cornell quickly re-collected the puck and dumped it into Harvard's zone. Cornell successfully defended its lead, but not before Ryan Moynihan notched a tally of his own against Harvard. Cornell advanced with a score of 4-1 over Harvard. Schafer remained undefeated against the Crimson. The 1996-97 squad earned the right to defend the Whitelaw Cup at Herb Brooks Arena.
Fourth-seeded RPI awaited Cornell in Lake Placid, NY. The Engineers had earned a berth to the ECAC Championships with a sweep of regional rival Union College. Cornell had relative confidence when preparing for the meeting with the Engineers of Troy who were two years removed from earning the program's third ECAC Championship. Cornell had split the regular-season series with RPI. The Big Red had outscored the Engineers seven goals to six goals in those meetings. Neither meeting saw fewer than six goals scored. The contest between the two Harkness-influenced programs in the 1997 ECAC Championship Semifinal would be no different.
RPI would exhaust two netminders. Jason Elliott would face 39 shots. The raucous fans draped in cherry and white and the Lynah Faithful in carnelian and white made Herb Brooks Arena and Lake Placid a volatile place during the semifinal meeting. Cornell controlled a two-goal lead before the first intermission.
Jamie Papp scored the marker that would stand as the game-winning tally less than three minutes into the second period. RPI battled back to a 4-3 margin by the time the second intermission occurred. Cornell's third period against the Engineers resembled that against Crimson. The Big Red defended its lead while adding a tally. This time Ryan Smart's power-play goal expanded the margin.
Cornell's victory over the Engineers gave the Red skaters the right to battle the ECAC's other engineering institution for the Whitelaw Cup. It seemed destined that Clarkson and Cornell would be the last two teams standing in the ECAC Tournament. The two had dueled for the top spots in the regular-season standings throughout the season. Cornell knew that most commentators who followed the Conference believed that Clarkson was the far more talented squad. Most regarded Clarkson as the one team whose talent could burn Cornell if it made even a minor mistake.
Cornell needed a break to defend its title. A Cornell power play at the end of the first period provided Cornell such an opportunity. Jason Dailey scored a goal with exactly three minutes remaining in the first period. Cornell continued its tactic of biding its time and waiting patiently for its opportunities to score while clogging the neutral zone and dumping the puck down the Olympic-sized ice at Herb Brooks Arena.
These tactics held Clarkson at bay for over two periods. Steve Wilson added another power-play goal for Cornell just before the midpoint of the game. The third period arrived. Cornell needed to do what it had done in the two previous games. Only 20 minutes stood between Cornell and its second Whitelaw Cup in as many years.
Clarkson challenged the Big Red's defense and Jason Elliott was called on to perform heroics for the second consecutive year in Lake Placid. Half of the third period expired with Clarkson still held scoreless. Cornell continued to dump the puck and defy the Golden Knights to penetrate the Big Red's zone.
Cornell's opponent did beat Elliott with less than seven minutes remaining in the game. Cornell continued to remain committed to defense. The Red skaters and their coach were fearful that a misstep would give the North-Country natives the championship they desired. The minutes passed. Mark Morris pulled Clarkson's Murphy with exactly one minute remaining. The final 60 seconds of the game elapsed as had most of the game. Cornell held off Clarkson's best challenges. Cornell won the contest 2-1.
The Big Red had done what few outside of the locker room on East Hill had thought possible at the beginning of the 1996-97 season. Schafer had become the first Cornell coach to win consecutive ECAC Championships since Ned Harkness had in 1969 and 1970. The 1996-97 team became the first Cornell team in 27 years to defend an ECAC Championship. Cornell's run to back-to-back ECAC Championships answered the doubts of all Eastern detractors. The Decade of Dormancy had come to a punctuated end as Cornell lifted the Whitelaw Cup on March 15, 1997.
Cornell outscored its opponents 13 goals to seven goals during the 1997 ECAC Tournament. Steve Wilson found the back of the net in overtime for Cornell's championship-clinching goal against Clarkson. Jason Elliott produced a goals-against average of 1.75 and a save percentage of 0.943 over the course of the 1997 ECAC Tournament. Elliott became the second goaltender in Cornell hockey history to win at least two ECAC Championships. He joined Ken Dryden. Cornell celebrated its ninth ECAC Championship that evening on March 15, 1997 at Herb Brooks Arena.
David Adler, Vinnie Auger, Tony Bergin, Jeff Burgoyne, Levi Clegg, Matt Cooney (C), Jason Dailey, Jason Elliott (G), Jason Kendall, Kyle Knopp, Frank Kovac, Ryan Moynihan, Jeff Oates, Jamie Papp, Keith Peach, Jean-Marc Pelletier (G), Damian Rocke, Mike Rutter, Rick Sacchetti , Ryan Smart, Doug Stienstra, Darren Tymchyshyn, Chad Wilson,
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