Cornell’s history in the NCAA tournament is brief, dating back to only 2010. Its games in the tournament, however, have proven to be anything but brief.
Two years ago, the Big Red defeated Mercyhurst in overtime before losing the championship game to Minnnesota-Duluth in three overtimes.
Coach Doug Derraugh says that even if his team wins an NCAA title, it won’t fully erase the memory of that loss, because the losses remain with a coach longer than the big wins do.
Saturday, the Big Red were working far beyond regulation once more, playing 10 seconds less than two full games before Lauriane Rougeau scored the deciding goal in the third overtime to give Cornell an 8-7 decision over Boston University and its third straight trip to the Frozen Four.
“After that kind of a game, you’ve got to give them a little bit of a breather and let them rest their legs a bit, so we gave them Monday off and started up on Tuesday,” Derraugh says.
Senior forward Rebecca Johnston was not a part of Cornell’s first run to the Frozen Four two years ago, because she was off winning Olympic gold with Canada, so Saturday in her final game at home at Lynah Rink was her first opportunity to experience NCAA sudden-death action.
“I didn’t know how tired you’d be after that much, basically two games to play,” Johnston says. “I know what it felt like for that. I can almost feel like how devastating it would have been to lose in triple overtime. It’s kind of neat for me to have experienced that for my last game at [home at] Cornell University. It was pretty exciting, and I’ll definitely never forget that game.”
A game of that length takes more than just a physical toll on a player.
“It’s kind of a rollercoaster game,” Johnston says. “After the first, we’re down 3-1, and it definitely was back and forth. I think just mentally exhausting, because we had to be in the game and in the moment for so long, and you really couldn’t let your guard down. I think mentally and physically both were just really strenuous.”
At that stage of a game, the outcome hinges on many things. Senior Catherine White concedes that some luck is involved, but she feels that there is more to it than which team gets a bounce.
“Talent definitely helps, but whoever wants to block those shots, and work harder and out-battle the other team in the corners, I think that plays a huge role in how lucky you’re going to be,” White says. “If you’re willing to block that shot, who knows, that could have been a goal against your own team.”
None of the seniors balk from such a challenge. Each chose to attend Cornell at a time when it was not synonymous with being an ECAC power.
“We all wanted that challenge,” White says. “We all knew going to Cornell, we weren’t coming to a successful hockey program. But we saw the potential of the coaches, we saw the potential with the class that was ahead of us.”
Classmate Chelsea Karpenko feels the willingness to take on that challenge speaks highly of those on her team.
“I think it shows a test of character there, really showing how bad we all wanted to turn this thing around and how hard we’re willing to work,” Karpenko says. “It definitely taught us to appreciate things and not to take things for granted. We all came from strong programs, winning programs, and then to get here and almost have to start over.”
Even with the infusion of talent, the Big Red still finished with a losing record in the rookie season for White and Karpenko.
“We kind of knew what we were getting ourselves into, but it’s still almost a shock once you get here,” Karpenko says. “The last four years and having to work and really inch and claw at everything we got has taught us all to appreciate all the good things coming our way now, and really be proud of the foundation we built here. It’s something to be proud of for sure.”
A Frozen Four semifinal on Friday provides the team with an opportunity to build upon that foundation.
“You kind of prepare the same way you would for any game,” Johnston says. “This is just another game, another game we have to get through.”
On the immediate horizon is Minnesota of the WCHA, one of only three teams to win a national title hosted by the NCAA. Derraugh says that his team doesn’t feel any extra pressure in trying to be the first Eastern team to take the crown. Rather, he says they are just trying to win a championship for Cornell University.
By that measure, his team is facing an opponent that has even less championship experience than his own, as nobody from Minnesota’s current roster has played in the final game. Still, Derraugh points to a lot of positives for the Gophers.
“A lot of team speed, they move the puck really well, they’ve got a great goaltender — big defensemen too that can contribute both offensively and defensively, so we’re going to have to play a really smart, tough game,” he says.
Cornell could be described in much the same way.
“They’ve got a little bit more size on defense than we have,” Derraugh says. “I think any team that gets to this tournament has to have all of the components. You don’t get here without them.”
Minnesota coach Brad Frost can point to some attributes that set apart the Big Red, whom he calls a very formidable opponent.
“Cornell is a very fast team; they score in bunches,” Frost says. “Their first line, with Johnston, [Brianne] Jenner, and [Jillian] Saulnier is tremendous.”
However, he doesn’t expect that explosiveness to translate into another shootout like the Big Red experienced versus the Terriers.
“I don’t think we’re looking for an 8-7 game like Cornell played last weekend.”
Those in the Cornell camp agree that everyone taking to the Duluth ice this weekend will have plenty of talent. The difference in the Frozen Four games is likely to come elsewhere.
“You’ve got to have the talent to even get to this point,” Karpenko says. “I think it’s things like being a family and working hard and those little extra things that put you over the edge. I don’t really think talent is a question this weekend, it’s just a matter of will and trying to get it done in the other areas.”