ITHACA, N.Y. — The crowd was in its typical Lynah Rink frenzy, the bench was standing in tribute to the six seniors on the ice, anticipating the post-game celebration.
So, OK, Yale scored a goal with two seconds left. It did nothing to put the slightest dent in anyone’s celebratory mood.
Two seconds later, Cornell finalized a 4-2 win and the completion of a sweep of its first-round ECAC playoff series against Yale. It was as much a relief as anything, for a team that dominated the ECAC regular season and has much loftier hopes than just getting to Lake Placid.
“We had a great regular season, and we were very anxious last night,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer about his team’s 2-1 win in Game 1. “Tonight, we came out and were strong from start to finish.
“We went and made a couple adjustments. We saw things on video that we wanted to change. I thought our ‘D’ did a great job getting it out of the zone. They were more relaxed.”
Senior defenseman Brian McMeekin was one of those who stepped up.
“The first night we were so anxious to get out and win,” McMeekin said. “Tonight we played a lot calmer.”
Yale came into the series with coach Tim Taylor calling his squad the best 10th-place team ever, and there’s no doubt the Bulldogs comported themselves well. But in the end, it was just too much; too much physical play, too much great defense, too much pressure from all four lines; too much … well … too much Cornell.
“Cornell was the model of consistency for six periods,” said Taylor, not as much in frustration, but appreciation. “We had chances, but we were jittery. We can skate with Cornell, we might be quicker to the spot, but they have such a size advantage.”
Schafer was equally as complimentary in return.
“Yale gives us the kind of preparation we need going to Lake Placid,” he said. “They battled us tooth and nail. I have a lot of respect for them. They are a disciplined, hard-working team. I don’t understand why more teams can’t play as disciplined as they do. So many teams get into all that extra-curricular stuff.”
The game was relatively close the whole way, but it always seemed in Cornell’s control. Finally, up 3-1 entering the third period, the Big Red put the clamps down, allowing just four shots until a flurry in the final minute.
Cornell was penalized with 1:27 remaining, giving Yale one last gasp. Sensing the desperation, and knowing his team wasn’t getting far offensively as it was, Taylor pulled his goalie to create a 6-on-4.
In retrospect, it wasn’t such a good idea, since Cornell quickly iced the game with an empty-net goal. Travis Bell, shorthanded and thus unafraid of an icing call, launched a clear from his own zone that took forever to get down the ice before finally sliding in the open net.
“I was just trying to get it down the ice,” Bell said.
Of course, it’s hard to blame Taylor for wanting to have the extra skater on in that spot.
“I second-guessed myself,” he said. “[But] we might as well [pull the goalie]. It’s hard to get a goal here.”
With a minute to go and the game in hand, Schafer gave a nod to his six seniors, putting them out there for the final shift and allowing them to soak in the platitudes of the highly-appreciative and exuberant crowd. In addition to the goalie, Matt Underhill, there was Krzysztof Wieckowski, Denis Ladouceur, David Francis, David Kozier and McMeekin.
Sure, the Big Red already celebrated Senior Night during the last regular-season home game, but this one was more special.
“This was the real senior night,” Schafer said.
Said Bell, “It was a nice moment. They’ve worked so hard for us. They’ve given great leadersip.”
Cornell came out determined not to let the jitters get in the way, as it did the night before. Indeed, the Big Red came out and took control, scoring early on when Greg Hornby deflected in a shot from Bell.
“[Shane] Palahicky made a great hit on the boards to get it, and it just came to me,” said Bell. “I let it go, and it just hit Hornby.”
But Yale did not wilt under the pressure, coming right back with a goal from Jason Noe at the five-minute mark. And for a stretch of the first period, Yale was using its speed to pester Cornell.
Cornell reasserted itself late in the period, and a nice play by Mike Knoepfli set up the goal that put the Red up for good with just 1:52 left in the period. Knoepfli came strong through the neutral zone, then dumped the puck in for himself. He went in deep, and dug it away from two defenders before setting up Francis in front, and Francis shoveled it in the top right corner for a 2-1 lead.
“The goal at the end of the period was a killer,” said Taylor. “I always think of weathering the storm, getting through the Lynah Rink surge, and keeping our feet on the ground. We were a minute away from doing that.”
Yale was back on its heals for much of the second, but holding on, before a penalty, one of only two in the game against the Bulldogs, led to a Matt McRae power-play goal.
“That power-play goal put us in a crater too big to get out of,” said Taylor.
The Yale coach knew, at 3-1, his team was up against it.
“When it was 2-1, I told the guys the next one’s gotta be ours,” Taylor said. “You gotta play great ‘D’ against them. They’re a pressing team. There’s no one superstar on offense, but they come at you with such great depth.”
Yale could do little to penetrate the Cornell defense in the third, until the power-play goal with two seconds left.
“Last night, we did just we wanted, but we came out on the short end. Tonight, what broke our back was that third goal,” Taylor said.
Following the game, as is tradition at Lynah Rink, the crowd was let out on the ice to celebrate with the team. It’s a moment unique to Cornell, and something the players cherish.
“Just being on the ice, knowing the fans will be coming over,” said McMeekin. “I don’t know how to describe it. It makes it the best place to play hockey, and to be out there with the five other seniors, it makes it more special.”
Fans used to jump over the plexi-glass in spontaneous celebration, but now it’s more orderly, for safety reasons, and the rink crew lets everyone out through the zamboni doors.
“It’s a great tradition,” said Schafer. “It’s one of the first things I did when I came here in 1996, I showed the guys a clip of ’86 of the fans coming over. … There’s no better experience. The seniors had a great time tonight.”
“We have amazing fans,” Bell said. “You can’t see a better place to play in the country.”
Cornell heads to Lake Placid once again, as the clear favorite in the tournament.
Still, the Big Red have not yet officially sealed an at-large bid to the NCAAs, while, at the same time, they are still in contention for a first-round bye. Obviously, though it’s a relief to get past this first round, there’s still a lot at stake in Lake Placid.
Cornell will play the winner of the Dartmouth-RPI play-in game on Thursday. The Big Green are the only team to defeat Cornell twice this year.
“I’d like to see Dartmouth and take a shot at them again,” said McMeekin. “A lot of guys feel we owe them something.”
While no one is counting their chickens, should Cornell make the NCAAs, Taylor likes its chances to represent the ECAC well.
“They’re big and strong, and a well-coached, polished college hockey team,” said Taylor. “If they get the right bounces … it’s a single-elimination tournament. They’re the best team to come out of the ECAC in a while.”