Those wearing the white jerseys of Cornell breathed a deep sigh. The game had lingered on for over half a game's length beyond regulation. The size of the Olympic sheet at Herb Brooks Arena had begun to take its toll in the two overtime periods. The opponent was a familiar and despised one: Harvard. The Big Red and the Crimson were in pitched battle for nearly five periods for what would be Cornell's tenth or Harvard's sixth Whitelaw Cup.
Cornell had endured a suspect call at the close of the first overtime when junior defenseman Doug Murray was whistled for a an alleged roughing penalty. An irritated Cornell squad weathered that storm. That is how it arrived late in the second overtime to battle for Cornell's third ECAC Championship in six years. Cornell had been denied one year before when the St. Lawrence Saints bested the Big Red in the 2001 ECAC Championship Final. The Crimson would do the same this evening.
Harvard's Tyler Kolarik let loose a shot at 16:11 of the second overtime that beat Cornell's Matt Underhill. That goal erased Cornell's hope of winning its tenth ECAC Championship that evening. As the Crimson celebrated at Herb Brooks Arena, Cornell prepared. It prepared not just for the coming NCAA Tournament, but for revenge against its most hated foe and redemption in the 2003 ECAC Tournament.
These passions drove the 2002-03 Cornell team. The team decided that having climbed so high and been denied that they must do more. In an era when NHL development camps did not exist, most of the 2002-03 squad remained on East Hill for the summer to prepare for a championship season; not just of the ECAC variety.
Talented veterans including Stephen Bâby, Mike Iggulden, Mike Knoepfli, Mark McRae, Matt McRae, Doug Murray, Sam Paolini, and Ryan Vesce led this drive for Cornell to secure postseason success. Promising freshmen including Cam Abbott, Chris Abbott, Jon Gleed, Shane Hynes, and Matt Moulson would need to perform to bolster this effort. Starting goaltender Matt Underhill graduated. The Big Red now would need to rely on sophomore Dave LeNeveu to fill that void. LeNeveu had seen time in 14 games during his 2001-02 freshman campaign.
These players knew as they logged time preparing for the season on East Hill that the team that carried Cornell to its second consecutive appearance in the ECAC Championship Final game returned. Eight of Cornell's top-ten scorers from the previous championship-game run returned. The lone departures were Denis Ladouceur and Kryztoff Wieckowski who had registered at sixth and seventh in terms of offensive production during the 2001-02 season. Dave LeNeveu received an unexpected vote of confidence in August when the Canadian Junior National Development Camp invited him to attend. The players would have the potential, but they needed to put that residuary into kinetic results.
The first test of the season would be against the Buckeyes of Ohio State. Schafer would lead his Red skaters into CCHA territory for the beginning of the season. There they would confront a talented roster that Cornell alumnus Casey Jones recruited for the scarlet and gray. The Buckeyes had played in five previous games. They had been victorious in three of them. This was Cornell's first contest of the 2002-03 season.
Few Buckeye leaves were awarded that evening. LeNeveu was solid in helping Cornell defend a one-goal lead late in the third period. Sophomore forward Mike Knoepfli and freshman forward Chris Abbott found the back of the net. The former would add an empty-net tally to give Cornell a final margin of 3-1 over Ohio State.
Cornell returned East to host a weekend of ECAC clashes at Lynah Rink. The Big Red convincingly defeated its Ivy-League foes the Bulldogs and the Tigers. Cornell outscored its opponents over its first three Conference meetings by a margin of 17 to two. The focus of the season was redemption. Cornell wanted to make Harvard pay for depriving Cornell of its tenth Whitelaw Cup at the end of an otherwise storybook season.
Dartmouth stood as the lone test between an 8-0 victory over Vermont and a rematch against the Crimson. The Big Green gave Cornell one of its lone blemishes on the season. Dartmouth bested the Red 5-2 at Thompson Arena. This loss represented one of the few early seasons disappointments of the 2002-03 season.
Cornell had fallen to eighth in the nation. It would host Harvard at Lynah Rink for the first meeting of the archrivals. The Crimson carried with them the rank of 15th in the nation. The 2002-03 team craved revenge and it wanted to exact it in front of the rabid Lynah Faithful.
The Faithful would not need to wait five periods for a decision. The ancient foes exchanged blows in the first period. Mark McRae lifted Cornell to a lead when he beat Harvard's netminder through a screen. Harvard's Dominic Moore helped the Crimson claw back into the game less than three minutes later. Senior captain Doug Murray had an answer before the first stanza expired. He stepped up from the blue line and unleashed a potent slapshot that put Cornell back on top.
Hornby and Iggulden connected on an opportunistic breakaway. Shane Palahicky and Cam Abbott joined the Red rush in the second period. Both added goals. Harvard had only one lone response. Cornell entered the third period with a 5-2 margin in its favor. This was despite a second period in which the Cantabs outshot the Ithacans by a margin of 12 to five. The determined Big Red converted on three of its five shots in the second period.
Cornell had more than turned the corner on its loathsome foe. As was typical of Schafer-coached teams for seven years, Cornell defended the lead. Harvard had little chance to fight its way back into the contest. The players and coaches in the locker room knew that Cornell had taken a mere step toward its goal. Cornell obliterated the Brown Bears the next evening 5-0. A glimmer of another key contest gleamed on the horizon.
The beginning of the Schafer Era of Cornell hockey saw a marked improvement in the quality of out-of-conference opponents that Cornell could schedule in a given season. The respectable performance of Cornell at Michigan during the 1996-97 season as well as its admirable showings in the 1996, 1997, and 2002 NCAA Tournaments had earned the respect of most in the college-hockey world. One corner of the college-hockey world still was incredulous about the level of play that was on display regularly during the Winter months on East Hill. That corner was Cornell. That was about to chamge.
The Boston University-Cornell series during the 2002-03 season, much like the series between Cornell and Harvard in the same season, cannot be understood without looking back to the 2001-02 season. The previous meeting between the Big Red and Terriers before the 2001-02 season was a one-game meeting during Mike Schafer's freshman season behind the bench. That contest was decisive. Boston University demolished Cornell by a 7-1 margin.
The reignition of the heated rivalry between the historic foes and one-time archrivals would prove a suitable barometer for measuring how far Cornell had climbed in six years. Walter Brown Arena hosted the first two games of a four-game, home-and-home series between Boston University and Cornell. The Terriers were just six years removed from their fourth national title. Cornell had stumbled before the Schafer Era but was seeking to regain its footing. The Big Red's legendary nemesis had maintained its status as among the national elite. The Terriers represented a historic power that remained elite. The first game at Walter Brown Arena went as many had expected including many in the locker room on East Hill.
Cornell scored the first two goals of the contest. However, the offensive outburst of the Terriers in the second and third periods overwhelmed the traveling Red. Boston University tallied a win in November 2001. The final score was 5-3.
The second night went quite differently. Boston University pounced early. The Terriers owned a two-goal lead by the time the first intermission arrived. Then something changed. Matt McRae buoyed Cornell with two goals in the second period. The Terriers had no response in their historic barn that had known so many heroes of the game. That night the heroes wore carnelian, not scarlet. Doug Murray joined the scoring with a power-play goal in the third period. The final margin was extended with an empty-net goal from Kryztoff Wieckowski.
The meeting between the Big Red and Terriers during the 2002-03 season came just over a year after the 2001-02 season. Cornell had toppled the fifth-ranked Boston University in the 2001-02 season and claimed a split at Walter Brown Arena. The boost in the program's confidence was instantly apparent. However, Cornell had proven merely that it could compete with the best, not that it was among the best in college hockey again.
It was Cornell that held the higher national ranking in the 2002-03 meeting. Cornell hosted Boston University as the seventh-best team in the nation. The Terriers were recognized as the 11th-best team. A Cornell team had not beaten Boston University at Lynah Rink in 14 years. The 2002-03 team was determined to make a statement. The question remained how emphatic it would be.
Upstate New York native Sam Paolini showed that his proclivity for dominance extended to all rivalry series. Paolini notched three points with a goal in the first period to set the tone of the series. Dave LeNeveu was needed to hold off the Terriers in the first period. The Boston natives controlled the flow of the game and outshot the Big Red by a margin greater than two to one. The Big Red retained a 3-0 lead after the first period of the series. Matt Moulson and Shane Hynes added the additional tallies.
The game had 40 minutes remaining but it was effectively over. A goal for the Terriers midway through the second period and an empty-net goal for Cornell sent the historic enemies into the second game of the series. The second game of the 2002-03 series between the Big Red and Terriers took place during the afternoon of December 1, 2002.
The game was much like its immediate predecessor. Cornell performed at Lynah Rink very much unlike how Boston University competed at Walter Brown Arena in the closing game of the previous season's series. The first period mirrored that of the first game of the 2002-03 series. Cornell controlled a 3-0 lead at the first intermission. Shane Hynes, Jeremy Downs, and captain Stephen Bâby contributed the tallies. Boston University had little chance to reenter the game. Cornell was relentless.
Cornell controlled play. The Big Red physically dominated the Bay Staters who seemed pushed into submission. Red skaters added a goal in each of the remaining periods. Cam Abbott connected with Greg Hornby to extend Cornell's lead to a 4-0 differential. Mike Knoepfli was the last player to convert in the series.
Cornell defeated Boston University 5-1 that afternoon at Lynah Rink. Cornell had taken three of four games out of an elite opponent over the course of two seasons. The Big Red outscored the Terriers nine goals to two goals in the 2002-03 series. Dave LeNeveu preserved a save percentage of 0.962 against some of the best scorers in college hockey. Legendary head coach Jack Parker remarked upon departing from Lynah Rink that Winter that Cornell against Boston University in the series "was like men against boys."
The imputed value of greatest importance was not from Boston. The series between the one-time archnemeses proved something more to Cornell. Mike Schafer would remark after the series that it was the modern turning point for Cornell hockey. It was the moment that Cornell arrived again on the national college-hockey scene. Schafer commented how important the four-game series was to Cornell hockey. Schafer later described the experience "we walked in and we got a split on Boston University on the road. They were number two in the country. We were number eight. We walked into their home ice surface and we split with them. We came back the following year. We beat them here badly; two games in a row. Our team knew at that point in time, it’s been there ever since, that we could beat anybody at any time or any place.”
Those involved with Cornell hockey most importantly had proven to themselves that Cornell was again among the elite echelon of college hockey. This lesson persists today within the institution that is Cornell hockey. However, the task at hand for the 2002-03 season was incomplete.
Cornell controlled a series on the road against Western Michigan. The next contests for the Big Red would be at the Florida College Classic in Estero, FL. Cornell dropped the opening game to cohost Maine. The next day, the Big Red suffered another loss at the hands of Ohio State in the second meeting with the Buckeyes during the regular season. When ECAC play recommenced, Cornell accumulated a 9-1-1 record. The lone loss was an overtime loss to Colgate. Brown forced Cornell to settle for a tie. The last circled game on the Big Red's schedule was at Bright Hockey Center in mid-February.
Cornell still wanted to exact revenge against its modern rival despite having decimated its classic foe. The crowd at Bright Hockey Center in February 2003 was as partisan in favor of Cornell as it had been during the Schafer Era. It was Lynah East. The venue was not the only character in this meeting. Many of the figures in the Cornell-Harvard series of the 2002-03 season had begun to assume status as legends in the program. One such figure was Sam Paolini.
Sam Paolini hailed from Rochester, NY. He dreamt of playing for Cornell during his young adulthood. He was not recruited to play for the Big Red. He contacted Mike Schafer and the coaching staff expressing his desire to play for the program. The Rochesterian gained admittance to Cornell University without recruitment as a student-athlete. He pursued becoming a genuine walk-on, a nearly unheard of feat at an Ivy-League institution. His work ethic and resolve so impressed the hard-working Mike Schafer that he added Paolini to the Big Red roster for his freshman season. Schafer later joked that Paolini had "talked his way onto the team. We told him that if he worked hard, we’d keep him."
This story would be sufficient for most to gain legendary status. It is far from the complete story in the career of Sam Paolini. Paolini chose to wear the jersey number 25 of Cornell legend Joe Nieuwendyk. Paolini discovered his own way of bearing the weight and honoring the legacy of that number. He became the first Crimson Killer.
Sam Paolini developed an uncanny knack for scoring crucial goals against Cornell's most hated foe. He averaged 1.31 points per game and 0.69 goals per game when playing the Crimson. Each represents a performance increase of 170% and 216% respectively over his average offensive production. The title of Crimson Killer was rightfully his and no time was it truer than during the last months of his senior season.
Cornell had earned the respect of many and was ranked second in the nation by the time Cornell and Harvard met for the second time in the regular season. Harvard committed a penalty less than 20 seconds into the contest. As had become common, Doug Murray made the Cantabs pay on the power play with Ryan Vesce redirecting the puck to open scoring. Cornell opened the lead on another power-play opportunity when it was the Crimson Killer, Paolini, who ushered the puck past Grumet-Morris from a shot from Stephen Bâby.
Cornell went to its locker room with the same 3-0 lead that had seen it victorious in both games against Boston University. It took the Crimson more than half of the second period to ruin Dave LeNeveu's chance at a shutout. LeNeveu was resilient after that tally, but Harvard continued to press Cornell. Less than five minutes later, Cornell's lead had been whittled down to one goal. Cornell would not be held scoreless in the second period.
Stephen Bâby muscled his way around the net and let loose a blast. Vesce and he exchanged chances on the rebounds, but it was the former who gave Cornell its fourth tally. Cornell had reclaimed a two-goal lead with 40 minutes remaining in the game. Harvard's last gasp of life came early in the third period. The margin stood at 4-3. Cornell's defensemen and Dave LeNeveu held fast. Cornell claimed a regular-season sweep of the Crimson.
The time for which this Cornell team had waited laid just ahead of it. The Big Red accumulated four more wins in the regular season. Cornell had secured the first seed in the 2003 ECAC Tournament. Harvard had garnered the second seed. The only time that the two rivals could meet would be in the championship game. The 2002-03 team all but hoped for that outcome.
Cornell hosted RPI in the quarterfinals. The 2002-03 team would enjoy a bye week before the first series of the playoffs. The ECAC had adopted a new format for the 2003 postseason: all teams made the playoffs while the top-four seeds earned a bye from the first round of play. The Engineers had earned the right to play at Lynah Rink with a sweep of Capital-District rival Union College. Cornell had outscored the Engineers four to one in the regular season en route to a regular-season sweep. RPI would not fair much better in the 2003 ECAC Quarterfinals.
Ryan Vesce opened scoring for Cornell 3:27 into the series. Matt Moulson and Charlie Cook expanded that lead. RPI never caught the Big Red in the entirety of the series. Ryan Vesce, Mike Knoepfli, Cam Abbott, and Shane Hynes scored in the second game while Dave LeNeveu was putting on a shut-out performance. Cornell advanced to the ECAC Championships with 3-2 and 4-0 wins. Cornell swept RPI. Harvard swept Vermont.
The air of destiny had begun to return to the Lynah Faithful like it had during the 2002 postseason. This time the team was committed to ensure that it brought a championship back to East Hill. No opponent could deny the Big Red, especially its archrival. Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Harvard traveled to the Times Union Center in Albany, NY.
Cornell met the Brown Bears. The Crimson would duel with the Big Green. The Bears were one of five teams during the 2002-03 regular season that denied Cornell a victory. Cornell mustered only a win and a tie against Brown. Cornell would not be denied. The first period witnessed six penalties divided evenly between the teams. Neither team converted. Brown held tough but Cornell had battled to a 1-0 lead by the time the second period expired. Shane Palahicky, Mark McRae, and Travis Bell connected for Bell to wrist a shot past Brown's netminder. The 2-0 margin would hold. Cornell and LeNeveu would earn its second shutout of the 2003 ECAC Tournament.
Harvard had defeated Dartmouth in the other semifinal match-up in a game that saw eight goals scored. The 2003 ECAC Championship Final would be a rematch of the 2002 ECAC Championship Final. Cornell's 2002-03 team got the chance for which it had waited one year. Cornell could exact revenge against its greatest rival.
Sam Paolini remarked about the rematch in the 2003 ECAC Championship Final that "the loss was definitely the driving force going into this year. It’s always Harvard and us, and we felt we had to win the ECAC title to prove something. I know that loss changed my hunger for a championship." Mike Schafer echoed the sentiments of his entire team "we’ve been disheartened from last year to this year and we’ve carried that will and focus for 365 days." Cornell had gotten its chance to redeem itself from utter disappointment from a year prior. Redemption seemed to lay just 60 minutes away.
Nearly 1,800 more fans made the pilgrimage to the Times Union Center for the rematch than had to Herb Brooks Arena in 2002. The crowd of 8,296 was decidedly dominated by the Lynah Faithful. Emotions and tensions ran high for both squads. Harvard was whistled for holding less than one minute into the game.
The dominant power-play unit from Cornell took to the ice. Its mission was apparent. Stephen Bâby found an open patch of ice and a lane to Grumet-Morris. Sam Paolini redirected the shot into the net. The arena erupted as Cornell took the lead less than two minutes into the title game.
The game took a dramatic shift. A premature whistle erased an apparent Cornell goal later in the first period. Cornell clung to its 1-0 lead. The midpoint of the first period saw Harvard be awarded consecutive power plays. One of those was against key defenseman Doug Murray. Cornell killed off both penalties with the nation's best penalty-killing unit that was denying opposing teams on 90.2% of power-play opportunities allowed.
The Crimson appeared to knot the game early in the second period. The goal was disallowed because the net was dislodged. Harvard was undaunted. Dominic Moore of the Crimson challenged Dave LeNeveu several times in the second period. The netminder from East Hill was equal to all the challenges. However, it was Harvard's Moore who would tie the game in the third period. Red forwards including Matt Moulson ensured that Harvard's netminder did not go unchallenged.
The final five minutes of the game arrived. Cornell and Harvard were tied. The sense of apprehension in the building grew as players and fans alike began to anticipate an overtime game like that played in Lake Placid. That apprehension among the Lynah Faithful was replaced with dread moments later. Harvard solved LeNeveu with 3:46 remaining in the game.
A group of Red skaters known for its physicality and defensive play, not its speed and offensive prowess, would be forced to chase a lead late in the third period of a title game. Time ticked away. Schafer called LeNeveu to the bench with 1:27 remaining in the game. Cornell earned a face-off in Harvard's zone. Harvard lobbed a puck at Cornell's empty net that barely missed. The game clock stopped at 0:38 as Harvard's missed attempt was ruled icing.
Ryan Vesce took the resulting face-off. He passed to Mark McRae. Doug Murray and McRae took positions in the face-off circles. The four other Red skaters established a dense maze of carnelian and white in front of Harvard's net. Mark McRae anticipated passing to Murray. He took another look. He saw a lane to the net. He let loose a wrister with 33 seconds remaining. The puck blazed through the mass of bodies. Cornell had tied the game. The Lynah Faithful in attendance unleashed a deafening roar. Could this team be denied?
Dave LeNeveu returned to the net. He was challenged in the closing seconds of the third period. His skill dwarfed the challenges that Harvard presented. The 2003 ECAC Championship Final like that of the season before would be decided in overtime. Paolini took upon a leadership role in the locker room before the overtime. He was determined that his last ECAC Hockey game would not end in defeat to Harvard. The Crimson Killer recollected that "we mentioned that before overtime : 'Remember all the hard laps and runs up the Hill [over the summer].'"
Cornell had waited long enough for its tenth Whitelaw Cup. Cornell had been denied in 2001 and 2002. It was not to wait a moment longer. The first overtime began. Harvard pinned Cornell in the Red's zone. Cornell grappled with the Cantabs along the boards to the right of Dave LeNeveu. Mark McRae retrieved the puck and connected with a streaking Sam Paolini at center ice. Paolini at the blue line deked around a Harvard defender. He raced onto open ice. A two-on-one opportunity developed. The Crimson Killer surveyed the situation. He had his shot. He wound up a slapshot and unleashed it.
The net rippled as Paolini's shot found the back of the net. The Lynah Faithful found reason yet again to celebrate. Cornell had won its tenth ECAC Championship. The Big Red had done it in spectacular fashion. The scorer of the game-winning goal remarked after the game "maybe I could score more against teams that aren’t Harvard, but they are our biggest rivals. Who better to score against?" The weight of a year's preparation had been lifted. Schafer remarked humorously about the fact that Paolini had scored the game-winning goal that "I think I’ll have to start telling him that each opponent we play is Harvard." The historic nature of the 2002-03 season did not end that evening.
Cornell advanced to the 2003 NCAA Tournament. The Big Red was selected as the first overall seed in the national tournament. Cornell defeated Minnesota State 5-2. It took overtime heroics, but Cornell behind Matt McRae's game-winning goal defeated Boston College 2-1 to advance to the 2003 Frozen Four in Buffalo, NY. That win was Cornell's 30th win of the season. Schafer's 30 wins in the 2002-03 season surpassed even Harkness' 29 wins in the 1969-70 season. The astounding performance of every member of the 2002-03 team led Cornell to the winningest season in the history of the program.
Sam Paolini became the first Cornell hockey player in program history to be recognized with an individual award after the 2002-03 season. Paolini won the Hockey Humanitarian Award for his civic services and community outreach. He was involved extensively with the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance and helped establish Power Play for Prevention that committed donors to contributing money for cancer prevention projects for each power-play goal that Cornell scored during the 2002-03 season.
Cornell outscored its opponents 12 goals to four goals during the 2003 ECAC Tournament. Sam Paolini bested Harvard's Dov Grumet-Morris during overtime for Cornell's championship-winning goal against the Crimson. Dave LeNeveu produced a goals-against average of 1.00 and a save percentage of 0.945 during the 2003 ECAC Tournament. Cornell had won its tenth Whitelaw Cup that evening in Albany on March 22, 2003, but it had done so much more. It had claimed redemption and confidence for the program over an incredible season.
Cam Abbott, Chris Abbott, Stephen Bâby (C), Travis Bell, Louis Chabot (G), Charlie Cook, Jeremy Downs, Jon Gleed, Greg Hornby, Kelly Hughes, Shane Hynes, Mike Iggulden, Mike Knoepfli, Scott Krahn, Dave LeNeveu (G), Todd Marr (G), Mark McRae, Matt McRae, Matt Moulson, Doug Murray (C), Shane Palahicky, Sam Paolini, Dan Pegoraro,
Paul Varteressian, Ryan Vesce, Ben Wallace
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