The point was sweet not just because it came against Harvard and grave odds, but because the way the weekend unfolded as one continuous narrative. The Red stumbled out of the gate in spectacular fashion. Not since the atrocious affair at Appleton Arena had Cornell done so much to put itself down so quickly.
Dartmouth converted on a blown defensive assignment in front of Mitch Gillam just 19 seconds after the puck dropped. The Big Green's relentless effort was more to credit on the second tally than the Red's mistakes. Nevertheless, a team living in the shadow of scoring woes buried itself below a two-goal mountain in the first eight minutes and 11 seconds of a roadtrip.
Cornell did something unexpected. Something that floored even this writer. It shook my easy-onset pessimism. The Big Red went to the locker room with the game even. This Cornell hockey team, the same team that has scored fewer than two goals in ten of its previous contests, the very team that took 184:44 to find its third goal of the season, found a way to get two goals in just over seven minutes. It was unbelievable. It happened.
I am very bullish on this team when it plays its game. The game for this team has been one of patience, biding time, and pouncing in transition. Surrendering a two-goal lead sacrifices all of those stratagems. Cornell found a way to do what I did not think was possible with a gritty but low-scoring, defense-first game plan. With more parts grit and tenacity than garish reliance on talent, Cole Bardreau and Joakim Ryan (yes, be forewarned ECAC Hockey, the wonder from the Garden State has potted one) connected to each other on the Red's two-goals-in-just-over-seven-minutes effort.
No matter how valiant the first-period effort was. A foolishly tenacious choice to press late in the third period generated a mismatch that Dartmouth's Eric Neiley converted. No moral victory for the Big Red could wipe Bob Gaudet's near-emoji-like grin (he must not have forgotten about 1980).
With the moon's reflection still glinting off of Gaudet's smirk in the rear-view mirror, Cornell packed up for Cambridge. It was at Harvard that Cornell nearly perfected its lesson from the weekend. Cornell scored first. Harvard put the Ithacans in a deficit two times. Each time, Cornell found an answer in decreasingly less time. A win would have been divine. A tie was satisfying.
A hard-fought 3-2 losing effort and a 3-3 tie made this writer believe. Why? Some things new emerged. A vicious desperation that demands that the team does what is necessary to grapple in the contest. Problems found their solutions in short time. Cornell never quit in either contest. The errors of the previous evening were corrected at Harvard. Cornell found a way.
The second half of this season has seen the diversification of Cornell's game. An eerie soothing approach that lulls opponents into a false sense of security and time has been improved with an ECAC Hockey-leading power-play unit. Opponents are lured still to their own demise, but now Cornell has more means by which to mine victories. Four of the seven league contests from which Cornell has gotten points saw the Schaferian power play convert on at least one opportunity.
The Red power play is lethal, but Cornell has not become overly reliant on it. It can be depended upon, but it is not needed. It is sufficient, but not necessary to Cornell's success. Frame it however you wish. The same can be said of Cornell's scoring during its most recent stretch run.
Cornell played ten games over the last month. A player in a carnelian sweater found the back of the net for the first time this season in five of those contests. Harvard was lucky enough to be the opponent that ushered two players in one game to the right side of the scoring column on Saturday. Only four skaters on Cornell's roster have not scored a goal. Two of those goal-less players have suited up for fewer than ten contests.
As the playoffs approach, offense by committee has become more than a talking point. Madison Dias, for example, broke his goal-less performance this season at Union. He has added already a breakway goal against Princeton in the short time of a month. The East-Hill natives have become a dangerous team from top to bottom.
Last weekend was one of efforts rewarded. This writer identified the horror of Joakim Ryan's and Jared Fiegl's tipping on the verge of breaking their scoring droughts. The nightmare that might have come was that both would be so desperately close with all of their skill to scoring, but not find their touch until it was too late. You can hit the snooze button on that alarm. It is not too late. Ryan scored on a cross-ice connection from Bardreau, a play befitting of the nation's most talented defenseman, against Dartmouth. Meanwhile, Fiegl decided that dramatics may typify his scoring when he roofed a game-tying shot past Michalek at Bright-Landry. Both have been working hard and deserved to gouge out their goose eggs in the goal column.
Fiegl was not the only one rewarded for tremendous efforts this season. Since the first period of the Frozen Apple against Penn State, Jeff Kubiak has generated considerable offense and contributed to the wearing down of opponents. It was Kubiak, not John Knisley, John McCarron, nor Joel Lowry, who first instilled fear in the hearts of the Nittany Lions. The Illinois native has been no less integral since Madison Square Garden. He deserved more obvious recognition for the new level of his game. He found his reward in the slot at Lynah East. A five-hole tally against Harvard is undeniable.
Keep an eye on Kubiak. His game is much improved from last season. He does the little things almost every shift that give Cornell the edge with which it wins. As good as Kubiak's play is, he is not the somewhat unexpected standout star of this team right now. From Chicago, one would need to traverse the paths of four Great Lakes to find this star's hometown.
Cole Bardreau is the standout of this team. The second half of the season has been his play thing. He has tallied four goals in eight games since he answered the goal of his former World-Juniors teammate on January 23. Bardreau has contributed at least a point in eight of the Big Red's 12 games since it resumed ECAC Hockey play. Half of those have been multiple-point outings for Cornell's yeoman.
Bardreau's pace places him among the eight highest point earners in ECAC Hockey in the second half. No player's style nor career fits better the mentality of this team. Cole Bardreau epitomizes grit and swagger. He plays with a chip. He outworks opponents. Having battled what could have been a life-threatening injury during his sophomore season, he has become a senior standout who shoulders a workload that few would have predicted him to carry early in his career.
None of his offensive improvement has come at the expense of his defensive-forward game that gained international attention at the 2013 World Juniors. Bardreau blocks shots and kills penalties like few forwards in college hockey. Like most of the great forwards in Cornell hockey history, his defensive game is as sound as his offensive game. His play on special teams has an added flash as he is tied for the team's lead in power-play goals and leads ECAC Hockey in number of second-half power-play goals. In other words, like this team over the season, Bardreau adapted his game to find success.
RPI and Union are two teams that most have written off undeservedly. The outing at Houston Field House proved why Cornell needs to afford the Engineers an abundance of respect. They are a fast, skilled team that can gel at any moment. Lapses that last mere shifts could spell the unraveling of a team if surrendered against RPI. Seth Appert's squad has not engineered a victory since demolishing Cornell. We all know how much cherry despises carnelian. It is about as much as Jason Kasdorf loves Lynah Rink. Give Troy's Winnipegger a great Lynah reunion.
The Dutchmen are on a three-game skid. Oddly, their slide is half as long as the one on the other side of the Hudson. However, Union cannot be taken lightly. The Dutchmen are the defending national champions. A team like Union whose roster knows only post-season success cannot be trusted to remain down. Union will be looking to play spoiler over its last four contests in anticipation of trying to mount a playoff defense of its three consecutive Whitelaw Cups.
Union will click at some point. Its roster foretells it. Union is the only ECAC Hockey team with five of the league's top-20 points-per-game producers. RPI and Union are tough opponents for the last weekend of the regular season at Lynah Rink. Friday is Pink The Rink. The Engineers should feel no less awkward and uncomfortable than they do in Lynah's carnelian glow. Saturday is Senior Night. The seniors deserve a character win before the festivities. Union will test resolve.
Last weekend proved one thing clearly. This team is ready to win. It will gnash and claw to claim victory. It did not even consider quitting when it collapsed behind a two-goal margin early at Dartmouth or gave Harvard two leads. Patience is a potent force for this team. It waits for its opponents to make mistakes. That is this team's default setting.
This writer learned something that he did not expect last weekend; something that Mike Schafer did not even expect. This team adapts even when playing with desperation. When forced out of its preferred style, Cornell erased three different leads in two days. Half of Cornell's wins this season have come after Cornell surrendered the initial goal. However, until last weekend, two in-game sequences began the drudging march to defeat: a deficit greater than one goal or surrendering a late third-period lead.
Those situations no longer relegate this team to disappointment. The energy with which this team relentlessly pursued victory was invigorating. Neither the length of the season nor hours less rest from a moved face-off time stifled the fire of this team. This team knows what it wants to do and what it needs to do to do it. It seems unfazed and unfatigued. Desperation and adaptability have become it. No wager against this team is safe.