Florida and the Florida College Hockey Classic long has been a wasteland for Cornell hockey. Great teams, championship teams, including the 2003, 2005, and 2010 teams, crumbled along the crags that Cornell's and Maine's tournament in the Sunshine state presented. That was not to be so this year. Cornell met New Hampshire for the first time in a non-rebuilding cycle since the Wildcats eliminated the Big Red in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
The rust that had corroded Cornell's game was apparent early. However, it was rust and only rust. New Hampshire dominated the first period. The first frame ended knotted. The carnelian and white shook off its oxidized shackles from exam week and regained most of its form in the second period. Cornell took a two-goal lead. The game was in hand. A wild bounce off of the back boards behind Iles found its way into the back of Cornell's net, but not even fate could deny the composed effort of Cornell's skaters in Florida. Bardreau on an empty net joined Ferlin, Ryan, and The Captain with a goal in the contest.
Maine stood as a familiar unknown. Cornell and Maine had met a year before in the Christmas tournament's title game. The Red skaters and the Black Bears totaled three meetings in the title game before the December 29, 2013 contest. Cornell had lost all of them. An exacerbating factor was that Red Gendron, formerly of Yale's and Shawn Walsh's national title-winning staffs, would stand as a head coach against Mike Schafer for the first time. This added an intriguing wrinkle.
Maine struck first in the 2013 contest. Devin Shore solved Iles in the last 61 seconds of the second period. A goal that would have otherwise been deflating that late and the period had little apparent effect as the Big Red retook the ice for what many believed would be the ultimate period.
Martin Ouellette, one of the five best goaltenders in the nation in terms of goals-against average and save percentage, seemed contented to make the lone marker count. Maine did not retreat into a defensive shell. Cornell roared to life with reasonable physicality and relentless pressure. Less than six minutes into the period, a grueling scrum yielded a Cornell goal that evened the score. At first it appeared that Brian Ferlin tipped the puck into the net, then review confirmed that Christian Hilbrich bested one of the nation's best netminders while Maine fans maintained that the puck was an effective own goal.
The teams remained even through regulation. A difference could not be found between them in overtime. Unexpectedly, overtime was when Cornell became the more aggressive and pressuring team; the Big Red would not settle for another loss in Estero in the title game. Maine appeared contented in the five-minute frame to defend a pairwise tie. Cornell outshot Maine three to one in overtime and the flow of the game reflected that well.
Andy Iles had proven he was Martin Ouellette's equal. There was no better way to prove himself the superior to Maine's goaltender than in a tête-à-tête contest where Iles would stare down Maine's best while Ouellette braved East Hill's most talented scorers. A five-frame shootout resulted.
Maine shot first. Devin Shore bested Iles. Undaunted Iles re-positioned himself, despite allowing the first shooter to find the back of the net, Cornell's starting goaltender knew, what he would confirm in post-game interviews, that he played the first shooter nearly perfectly. One of Iles's defenseman, freshman man of all trades, Patrick McCarron whistled a shot past Ouellette. Then, the following three frames would be Ouellette and Iles exchanging opportunities to up the ante.
Iles made a flawlessly executed save on Maine's fifth shooter. Then, it was as one would have scripted it, Florida native Brian Ferlin lined up at center ice. If the forward could best Maine's goalie, he would give Cornell its first tournament title in the Sunshine state in five years. It was not to be. The task would fall to Rodger Craig.
If it was not to be the usual suspects of Cornell goal scorers, then who else could the game-winning goal fall to other than clutch goal-scoring Craig? When WAFT previewed this season's seniors and captains, this writer stated that Rodger Craig would have a few more key goals in him during his senior season. He proved that correct. In a beautiful move and powerful snap of the stick, Craig gave Cornell the tournament-winning goal.
Only three Cornell teams before the 2013-14 team had won the Ned Harkness Cup on the ice of Germain Arena. It is a tremendous achievement. However, what did it prove? Would Cornell stumble when it returned back to Central New York?
Cornell has played only one game since it departed Florida with hardware in tow. That lone contest was an exhibition game against the Russian Red Stars. What was impressive about that game was less the gaudy 6-0 score and more the consistency and depth that it showed that this Cornell squad possesses individually and collectively.
The Cornell roster was credited with six goals during that exhibition contest. Players who had not scored goals in a Cornell uniform before tallied one third of them. No player who was playing in his first game ended the contest with a +/- rating of less than plus one.
Players such as Cole Bardreau, Brian Ferlin, and Joel Lowry continued to produce gaudy point totals with eight of Cornell's credited 16 points. Matt Buckles and Jeff Kubiak showed signs of possibly heating up during the second half. The latter scored his first collegiate goal. The former tallied two goals and an assist in his first multiple point game of his young Cornell career. If the maturation of point-producing freshmen like Buckles, Freschi, Kubiak, McCarron, and Weidner continues, then from top to bottom this Cornell team will be wielding potent offensive might when Cornell's time of year arrives.
The highlights of the game against the Russian Red Stars were those that occurred away from the more alluring scoring. The Lynah Faithful were sent into a frenzy when hometown and Lynah Faithful favorite Craig Esposito wrapped a shot from down low on the crease past Volkov in the Red Stars's net. It was Craig Esposito's first hockey game in the carnelian and white. There are few figures in recent memory who are as devoted to the success of Cornell hockey than Craig Esposito who works behind the scenes, in practices and other contexts, to help the program as it needs. It was great to see the reward of Craig Esposito celebrating with his team mates as the Lynah Faithful earned an appropriate moment to show their appreciation for the senior who dons number four. It was the highlight of the game.
Two other players behind the blue line who have gotten to enjoy the limelight somewhat less than expected are freshman defensemen Holden Anderson and Eric Sade. Both suited up for the exhibition contest against the Russian Red Stars. During the first period, Holden Anderson stood out with his impressive offensive abilities and his responsibility behind the blue line. He continued to impress throughout the contest. Eric Sade warmed up in the second. His game continued from his junior days to demonstrate a near-uncanny seamlessness in transitioning from high-paced offensive rushes to blocking shots in the Red's own end.
This neglects the fact that Cornell earned a shutout against the Red Stars. Mitch Gillam was the netminder who for 55 minutes of the contest had answers for every salvo from the Eastern European challengers. Ryan Coon did the same for the balance of the contest. Not impressed? No other team during the Red Stars's North American journey shut out the all-star team. That trip included contests against Yale, Harvard, and Colgate. The Raiders of Colgate that recently defeated Minnesota and Ferris State in the Mariucci Classic nearly lost to the Red Stars. Cornell's impressive shutout stands as a testament to what degree this season's Cornell team has bought into Schafer's traditional and newly modified systems.
The second half of the season is always the proving ground for Cornell hockey teams. It is when playoff runs begin and Cornell's tradition is defended. Cornell will have its eyes on earning a high playoff seed. What have the last few weeks taught us? The first is that Cornell is incredibly deep. Using players who had not seen much or any ice time, Cornell outcompeted a better practiced team that competed with and nearly upended numerous other collegiate teams with their starters. Furthermore, it indicates that as Cornell makes a run to the playoffs that it has the depth to fill voids that are opened from injuries that occur during that run.
Experience engenders confidence. When the ECAC Hockey Tournament begins, this Cornell team will begin the playoffs knowing that it had won a tournament and a tournament trophy with back-to-back efforts and tournament wins. No player on this season's roster had won a tournament championship. This experience cannot be overstated. Yes, there will be no banner hung in Lynah Rink's rafters from the championship win. But, it was an exciting experience to watch and, based upon the players's reactions, it was an exhilarating one to achieve. The experience prepares them for success in tournaments like those of the ECAC Hockey Tournament first rounds, ECAC Hockey Championships, and NCAA regionals during which back-to-back efforts are needed to advance.
Cornell will be rested before this weekend. All injuries should be things of the past. The Big Red will not have played an opponent for two weeks before Cornell takes the ice of Lynah East. There is the usual concern that skaters need to play against real opponents to be ready for games. This is axiomatically true. However, the week between Cornell's cancelled but scheduled game and its next game to be played is not a typical week. It is Harvard Week. Focus will not falter and intensity will not wane because Schafer and Cornell always can get focused for Cornell's archrival.
Let's enjoy the success of a midseason tournament championship and await a contest against Cornell's most hated foe.