The series victory was not preordained. Union dominated the opening period of the weekend. Cornell inched its way back into the initial contest. Strong goaltending from Mitch Gillam gave his team a chance to find its post-season confidence. It was unclear exactly when it arrived. Its presence was far from convoluted. The Big Red defended its home ice with a partially poised, sometimes improvised brilliance. Its crescendo was Matt Buckle's overtime winner.
The recent returner to the line-up, Buckles, bullied his way to the front of the net. Determined tower Christian Hilbrich delivered the puck. The junior forward slid the puck past Union's Alex Sakellaropoulos to send his team to parts as-of-then unknown. The goal that gave Cornell an extra day's rest headed into the 2016 ECAC Hockey Quarterfinal was equal parts grit and finesse. Its production was completely teamwork. It is the way Cornell hockey wins. It is the only way this team wins.
The next opponent on the docket? Quinnipiac. The Bobcats of Hamden. Rand Pecknold's g...gang.
This writer billed the first-round series as Hell in a Cell. He thinks that the series lived up to its marquee. What does he have to offer you in the way of lens for this coming weekend's series at High Point Solutions Arena?
Quinnipiac is neither Brock Lesnar nor The Undertaker. Were the Bobcats anyone from the WWE Universe, they would be the 21st victim of The Streak, not its conqueror. C. M. Punk of the overhyped, undeservedly confident, and bloated gimmick more accurately represents the hockey program of Quinnipiac. Always looking to bolt for a "better" promotion (Hockey East?). Whose fans would hit the road (say, Whitney Avenue) at the slightest sign of downturn, but still profess absolute loyalty.
Yeah, Quinnipiac is most closely C. M. Punk. The "C. M." may need to be redefined if Cornellians or Yalies are at Toad's. Even Punk has five titles in his promotion. For those reasons, this contributor offers a different lens for a different round.
I saw it and the path was a circle, round and round. So, I changed it.
Precedent, Part I
Uncommon success is banal for Cornell hockey. Cornell hockey counts two perfect seasons that led to national titles. No team ever will equal the achievement of the 1969-70 team that gave our sport its last perfect team. A total of 30 wins has belonged to no program of the Ivy League other than the 2002-03 team from East Hill. The inspiration of the 1910-11, 1969-70, and 2002-03 teams are not best suited for this team. The "1980 ECAC Champions" banner should hang in this team's mind.
The 1979-80 team did not enter the playoffs with an 8-8-6 record. It effectively did. Those Red skaters earned a 0.500 record, 11-11-0, over the course of the regular season. The eighth seed of the 1980 ECAC Hockey tournament was theirs.
What did that team get for its trouble? What many believed was a one-way ticket to test its timber at McHugh Forum.
First-seeded Boston College played host to playoff-decorated Cornell in the 1980 ECAC Hockey Quarterfinal. The Eagles were an overwhelming favorite, especially after the humbling that they perpetrated against the Lynah Faithful in their haven. Len Ceglarski's pupils catapulted themselves to a one-goal victory with a four-goal outburst. Over 35 years later another eventual first seed of the East used a four-goal run to secure a one-goal victory at Lynah Rink. In the East's tournament, the Eagles of 1980 were no less favored than these Bobcats of 2016.
Antecedent, Part I
For the first time during the tenure of Coach Schafer, Cornell tumbled to a seed that would not have earned his Ithacans a berth to ECAC Hockey's postseason in its original eight-team format. The Big Red began its pursuit of a second Whitelaw Cup for the Class of 2013 from the ninth seed. Those Cornellians righted the wrong of a regular-season sweep at the hands of Princeton in a road-series sweep in New Jersey. Cornell was the lone upset in the first round. It went to Quinnipiac.
Cornell fell behind early. Brian Ferlin's two goals and Madison Dias's game-tying tally allowed Cornell to cling to a 3-2 victory in the series opener. The second game unraveled quickly as the Big Red surrendered the first goal again. It would surrender a second unanswered tally by the end of the first period. Then, poor play and bad luck led to a Bobcat victory in what became a vicious display of poor sportsmanship and brutality. Game three was necessary.
Victory in the series's third game would have sent Cornell to its sixth consecutive championship weekend. The senior class took it upon itself to carry the carnelian banner to Atlantic City. Legacy was at stake.
Braden Birch scored four goals in his 127 games before the final game of the 2013 ECAC Hockey Quarterfinal. The stay-at-home defender corralled the puck off the third game's opening face-off. He charged in on an unsuspecting and unprepared Eric Hartzell. It took 48 seconds for Birch to break the deadlock. The intentions of these seniors were known. This season's seniors will need to be equally clear in their efforts if Cornell wishes to be successful in Hamden.
Cornell and Quinnipiac exchanged blows in the second period. The Bobcats scored. Brian Ferlin for the Big Red responded just over a minute later. Then, a regrettable rewrite was enacted. The most hackneyed and worst executed of all rewrites that not even the greatest of fan-fora heroes can defend. Cornell buckled down. It was determined to defend a 2-1 lead all the way to Atlantic City rather than try to balloon its margin. Such a tactic is always risky. It is all but damning against Quinnipiac.
Disappointment, Part I
The victory over Providence in December felt so good for the Lynah Faithful, coaching staff, and team because the Friars were the top-ranked team in the nation and undefeated. Opportunity for a statement ripened in the heat of Florida. Similar opportunity wilted in Upstate New York in November when the highly ranked Bobcats visited Lynah Rink.
Quinnipiac had not allowed a power-play goal through its first one-fifth of the regular season. The video scouting skills of Topher Scott saw to the end of that. It took the Big Red's power-play unit just 27 seconds to deconstruct the previously unblemished. Then, it did it again. And again. Three power-play goals gave Cornell a lead that historically has proven insurmountable for opponents of Cornell's championship teams. Of championship quality, this team was not yet.
The Bobcats scored. Mitch Vanderlaan responded with help from Anthony Angello and Jeff Kubiak. It seemed safe to try to defend a restored three-goal lead with less than half the game remaining. It wasn't.
Three unanswered goals from Lynah Rink's visitors and a scoreless third period followed. A psychological miscue, a penalty that carried over into overtime, fed the Bobcats. The penalty was killed. The damage was done. Connor Clifton chose the doubtful punctuation mark to Cornell's query: Are we better?
Custom dictates that games between Cornell and Quinnipiac are stalemates with intermittent action. The contest of November may be the lone exception to that rule in recent memory. The February contest was true to this mold.
The better part of a period expired before the riddle of either goaltender was solved. The Bobcats took the lead off of a power-play tally from Landon Smith. Jeff Kubiak yeomanly maneuvered around the net positioned at the opposite end of the ice a period later to tighten the knot of the Bobcats's noose. The opportunism of the Big Red's first goal was striking.
Quinnipiac retrenched to a defensive shell. This was not the Bobcats team that controlled play and relentlessly attacked its way to 20 victories. Whether it was because Quinnipiac viewed genuine conservatism as the best tactic when facing a disciplined game plan, or Hamden skaters and fans loathe only Yale more than Cornell (true story, read their fora), Rand Pecknold's team resolved to defend a 1-0 lead for more than three-quarters of an hour. Ithaca's hard-working forward from the Land of Lincoln wheeled and dealt with the space afforded him against a team only half-heartedly executing a trap.
Sam Anas did what one would expect Sam Anas to do when given a two-man advantage. Quinnipiac did not slumber after it upped the ante at the contest's midpoint as it had when it gained a 1-0 lead. Cornell was undeterred.
Generation of the Red's second goal resembled that of the first. Patrick McCarron served as the conduit instead of a break-out play. The junior defender with a scorer's touch dumped the puck onto the stick of Jeff Kubiak. Kubiak did what the Lynah Faithful have come to expect of him this season. He took the puck to the net. Instead of depositing it himself, he flipped a pass up ice to Mitch Vanderlaan who converted for the game-tying goal.
Overtime was even. Quinnipiac outshot Cornell by one shot in the extra five minutes. Cornell's quality chances were ever-so-slightly better. The game was a fitting deadlock.
Cornell rifled 33.3% more shots on Michael Garteig than it had in its own building. Stalwart defense kept the chances for the Bobcats to perimeter opportunities in Hamden. It was of little import that Quinnipiac directed eight more shots toward Mitch Gillam. Solid defense reduced the Bobcats' scoring efficiency by 67.8% from the teams's meeting in Ithaca.
Quinnipiac converted on only 4.88% of its shots on its home ice against the skater's of New York's land-grant university. The Bobcats average a shooting efficiency of 10.7%. Yes, a Cornell team then-lacking confidence from a seven-game slide managed to reduce the lethality of the Bobcats' shots by more than 50%. This success allowed the Big Red to leave Hamden as one of only five teams that did so not licking wounds of defeat. Cornell was one of only two teams to take the ice of High Point Solutions Arena after the midpoint of the season and leave with a point. It did this while insecure.
It remains to be seen if the confidence of a sweep in the first round will give this team the boost that it needs to finish the job twice in Hamden or inspire hubris that may cause a dip in defensive effort that will make this weekend its last.
Disappointment, Part II
Cornell returned to play after defeating the Friars with a vanity. It wanted people to think it was better. It did not think it of itself necessarily. It certainly did little to prove it through the month of January. This hubris gave rise to a long stretch of disappointment where the plurality of games, no matter result, manifested a certain lethargic indifference unbefitting Cornell.
A huge win on the national scale became a loss for this team's season. The loss to Quinnipiac was quite the opposite. The setback inspired the Big Red to win five of its remaining contests and settle for a tie twice before the break. Christian Hilbrich enunciated the lesson most starkly after losing to his brother's program, "we've just got to run them out of the building."
It was this "run them out of the building" mindset that fueled positive results against Boston University, Clarkson, Colgate, and St. Lawrence. The lesson was learned. Was it re-learned in the 2016 ECAC Hockey First Round? Cornell gave Union little and exacted just enough to survive and advance. The Big Red generated a great deal. Did it run the Dutchmen out of the building?
Venue is irrelevant. This team needs to pursue victory with no quarter whether a contest is tied 0-0, 1-1, 2-2, or 3-3, or if the Red is up by one, two, three, four, or five goals. This is vital against a pride of Bobcats known for ferocious comebacks. When leads are offered or able to be expanded, finishing is of the utmost. Cornell needs to harness its inner Mortal Kombat.
Quinnipiac has the second-best defense in ECAC Hockey. This did not stop Cornell from averaging three goals per game against Quinnipiac during the regular season. The Big Red scored 157% of the average goals that the Bobcats surrender in those two meetings. Cornell produced above Quinnipiac's goals-against average in both meetings.
The means of Quinnipiac's offensive success against Cornell in the regular season were obvious. The Bobcats scored seven goals on the Big Red. Four of them came on the power play. That total includes all goals that Quinnipiac scored at home. That total excludes the overtime winner that Quinnipiac scored at Lynah Rink the moment a penalty expired.
Cornell was 34.5% more productive against the natives of Mount Carmel than it was on average. Cornell produced the second-greatest rate of goals for per game of teams that played Quinnipiac more than once. Only Dartmouth averaged more goals over its series with Quinnipiac. The Big Green rendered unto the Bobcats nearly twice as many goals as did the Big Red.
Coach Schafer and his staff discerned a way to remedy their team's on-again, off-again scoring woes against Quinnipiac. This fact needs to be proven a trend for Cornell to run the Bobcats out of their building and advance to Lake Placid.
Antecedent, Part II
Rand Pecknold hailed Eric Hartzell to the bench. The netminder listened. One minute and four seconds were what separated the 2012-13 edition of Cornell hockey from an appearance in ECAC Hockey's championship weekend. 1:04. 64 seconds.
Quinnipiac found the equalizer. The Bobcats outshot their forlorn challengers by more than three to one in the overtime periods. Yes, Andy Iles continued to give his team a chance to win. He registered 60 saves before the evening was complete. Nearly half of them, 28 saves, came in less than 35 minutes of overtime.
It did not matter that three bad calls went the home team's way. Two tips off of high sticks and a disallowed goal for Cornell were of no consequence. Any correct call advanced Cornell. It gave no solace. Cornell's season ended on Hamden's ice.
The careers of legends ended there.
Leave nothing to chance. That is the clear message of the 2013 ECAC Hockey Quarterfinal. The mantra is the same as that of Christian Hilbrich from November. When the opportunities to win or insure is present, one must take them. This team will have to shrug off cosmic misfortune at some point if it wants to leave the town near New Haven with two wins.
Again, turn to the sage words of Christian Hilbrich, "that team always finds a way to score on us in the last minute of the game." Cornell has gone 1-4-1 against the Bobcats since the 2013 post-season. The Red succumbed to defeat in either the last two minutes of regulation or overtime in three of those losses. Half of the contests have gone to overtime.
Hilbrich is right. Last-ditch pushes and what seems like ill-gotten good luck to outsiders will need mitigation.
Precedent, Part II
This was Cornell hockey. This was the time when Cornell hockey won. The Heights of Boston College on the topic of the series lamented, "it's about this time of year that the frigid onshore winds from the water of Lake Cayuga breathe a demand upon Big Red icemen to uphold the glorious Cornell hockey tradition." The call was sounded. It was answered.
Underclassmen took it upon themselves to lead the team on that night in Chestnut Hill. Credit was given for 12 Cornell points. Only two of those points were attributed to a senior. Brian Marrett was that senior. His two second-period goals were crucial not in retrospect but in the moment. The Big Red needed a buffer against a four-goal run from Boston College like it unleashed at Lynah Rink. Cornell had that buffer in a five-goal lead with 18:41 unexpired in the contest. Cornell opened that lead early.
Cornell made better of early four-on-four play. The Big Red cycled and found sophomore defenseman Joe Gallant perched atop the left point. Gallant put ECAC Hockey's eighth seed on top for good in the 1980 ECAC Hockey Quarterfinal. That late-game rally that Cornell feared from Boston College never materialized.
Dependable star Brock Tredway doubled the Red's lead before the first intermission. Months later he became Cornell's all-time leading goal scorer. The star of that day was another underclassman. Freshman netminder Darren Eliot cohered with his defense. They were unbeatably in sync. Team victory was all that matter.
Darren Eliot, familiar with the NHL's large scale and big victories, recalls the 1980 ECAC Hockey Quarterfinal as the best game of which he was part. He was no small part of Cornell's upset over highly ranked, first-seeded Boston College. He begs to differ. He recalls today that the Eagles's lone goal in the last 13 seconds deprived not him, but his team, of their shutout.
This character is the essence of Cornell hockey. Cornell continued its run to the 1980 Whitelaw Cup through the next two rounds. The feat is unequaled. Cornell is the only program where an eighth seed has won the Eastern championship. That season's triumph began with defeating 25-win Boston College on the road in the quarterfinals.
This season's Cornell team faces another 25-win ensemble. Cornellians are uniquely able to draw from the "1980 ECAC Champions" banner tales of inspiration and adversity overcome. The 1980 ECAC Hockey Quarterfinal is immortal to those who played it and the alumni who experienced it. Is immortality on the horizon?
Most recently, Quinnipiac would not have defeated Cornell without the benefit of the power play. Those power-play opportunities were deserved. The Bobcats did not convert on any opportunities outside of those generated with the man advantage when the teams last met.
Any lack of discipline that gives Quinnipiac gratuitous power-play chances will send the Bobcats to Lake Placid. A focused effort with few mental lapses that commits infractions only when necessary will give Cornell an ample chance to win. The Big Red's penalty killing against Union was confident and composed. This will need to continue against a team that scored statistically about 60%, defensibly 71.4%, of its regular-season goals against Cornell on the power play.
Game two of the first round tested Cornell's ability to deal with cosmic injustice, a necessary component of surviving a playoff series in Hamden. Questionable calls about goals went both ways in the series at Lynah Rink. Cornell and Union both had goals waived. The Red showed that it was ready for rapier-like execution with scoring what looked like a second goal 31 seconds after its first on Saturday. The goal was waived. This team was undaunted. Psychological endurance is a necessity.
Christian Hilbrich, John Knisley, Teemu Tiitinen, and Reece Willcox have the chance to finish something started that was never resolved properly. The first season of their careers in carnelian and white ended on the ice of High Point Solutions Arena. It was an end. It was also a beginning. This team and its seniors can help write a better ending than the one that these four seniors who just gave an entire graduating class back senior night endured in their first quarterfinal series.
The loop of Quinnipiac's beating Cornell late or in overtime is what begs for severance in the Red's favor. Two images from last weekend illustrate the character of this Cornell team. They came courtesy of Ryan Bliss and Jake Weidner.
In the opening game of the series, Cornell had the puck pinned deep in Union's zone. The rubber disc bounced out to the left face-off circle. A Union forward charged directly at Ryan Bliss. Bliss was determined dually to prevent a break-out play and to keep the Dutchmen hemmed into their end. The sophomore blueliner conceded size to the Union skater. Bliss was unmoved. The collision showed like few first-period plays of the series: This is Cornell's house. The Red will not be pushed around.
Jake Weidner was Cornell's best penalty killer last weekend. It was not that any of Cornell's other mainstays got worse. Trust this writer, they did not. What was impressive was how great Weidner was in crucial moments.
Seconds remained on Union's critical power play in the waning minutes of game two. Jake Weidner slid to the ice to block a passing lane. He just missed the puck, his intended target. Almost prone, the junior forward telescoped his stick. Sheer determination alone jettisoned the puck from the zone for regulation's final clear. A situation was defused.
If these hallmarks of sacrifice and hard work continue, the bad tracks of the past with Quinnipiac will be disjointed. The series in Hamden comes at the confluence of four distinct moments in Cornell hockey history. On March 11, 2016, 36 years to the day after eighth-seeded Cornell grounded the first-seeded Eagles of Boston College in another New-England community, Cornell will show the world on which loop it is.