LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — It was a textbook Cornell win: Disciplined, aggressive, strong forechecking, solid defense and goaltending, an opportunistic offense and a strong special teams.
The Big Red have written the manual this season, and it has just one more chapter left.
Matt Underhill, the ECAC’s Goaltender of the Year, stopped 21 shots and recorded his third shutuot of the season as Cornell defeated Rensselaer, 3-0, to advance to the ECAC tournament final Saturday against Harvard.
“It was a very typical game for us,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. “We had real good balance from all four lines, from people who don’t get a lot of headlines. That’s been a story for us all season, a team that doesn’t have to depend on one or two guys all season.”
The offensive hero was an unlikely source, freshman defenseman Charlie Cook, who scored the first two goals of his collegiate career, one in each of the first two periods, to stake the Big Red to a 2-0 lead.
Of course, with Cornell, there aren’t too many “likely sources,” considering how balanced its scoring is, and how the forecheck comes at you in waves.
“You could put one name on the back of every one of their jerseys, and that’s how consistent they are,” said RPI coach Dan Fridgen. “The only difference you’ve got is size. And you can do the same with the goaltender if you want. … They execute [and] they capitalize on their opportunities when they have them.”
Underhill wasn’t tested very often, but when he was, he was sharp. His best save of the night came when he robbed Steve Munn on a point-blank shot from between the circles, late in the second period when it was still 2-0. He shot out the glove hand and picked the puck that was targeted for the top corner.
“Sometimes I just need to be there for one save at the right time,” said Underhill. “That was one of the few Grade ‘A’ chances, and it felt good.”
Munn knew that was a chance to get his team back in the game, but also knew there was nothing more he could’ve done.
“Matt made a great play to give me a good look,” said Munn. “I just wanted to get a good shot. But give [Underhill] credit. There’s a reason he’s the goalie of the year.”
In the third period, Cornell kept the Engineers away from the net, and the Engineers mustered just a few shots from the outside.
But this game was not about RPI playing poorly — not at all — it was about Cornell playing at the top of its game.
“It might get frustrating from a player’s perspectiuve, but in no way did I sense a letdown on the bench with regards to our work ethic or with regards to guys continuing to dig down,” said Fridgen. “There were times when we did put a lot of pressure on them offensively, they just find a way to [hold off] that pressure.”
RPI dug a hole early when Andrew McPherson was called for holding at 2:56. Cook eventually capitalized with 14 seconds left on the man advantage.
While Cornell plays physical, it is also disciplined, and with its strong special teams, even one early penalty can be a big factor, because you may not get many chances to return the favor.
“When you play a team like that, to give yourself an opportunity to win, you have to play a very disciplined hockey game,” said Fridgen. “Not just disciplined in regard to penalties, but in regard to systems and all over the ice.”
Cornell had three more power plays, and although it didn’t score on it again, it didn’t give up a power-play opportunity until late in the third period, when the game was all-but decided.
“It’s been a secret to our success this year,” said Schafer. “We were very disciplined, and I thought that was a real critical factor, not allowing them to get on the power play.”
Cook’s second goal came right off a clean faceoff win by David Kozier in the second period.
“I’ve been around the net all year,” Cook said. “I wasn’t getting too many breaks. Mike [Knoepfli] made a pretty good pass on the first one, and Kozy [Kozier] put it on a silver platter for the second one.”
The Big Red continued to bottle up 22-goal scorers Matt Murley and Marc Cavosie the rest of the way. Cornell’s first penalty of any sort came at 5:25 of the third, when Knoepfli was whistled for a coincidental minor with Carson Butterwick.
But instead of RPI taking advantage of the extra space, it was Cornell that pressured the Engineers’ defense and caused a couple of turnovers that eventually led to a goal from Sam Paolini. That, more or less, ended RPI’s hopes.
“It came down to not being able to capitalize on the opportunities that we had,” Fridgen said. “We did an excellent job on the penalty kill, and we had enough opportunities. It just came down to breaking that bubble. If you get one, you can get them back on their heels. But if you don’t, they really feed off that.”
Underhill faced only outside the rest of the way. Most goalies like to see a lot of shots, but Underhill is used to having to stay ready for the rare opportunity.
“You just gotta stay focused and be there when you need to be,” Underhill said. “A lot of goalies have to come up with a big game or need a big period to keep their teams in the game. With myself, sometimes it’s only one save, or a good five minutes — rarely a period, and almost never a game.
“The last two years, the shot totals against for our team have been some of the lowest in the country. We’ve got a great defense, and the forwards take care of their own end first before anything. Guys are in the shot lane better than anyone I’ve ever seen, we don’t let teams get a lot of shots off.”
Underhill’s shutout was the third of the season, the first time that’s happened for Cornell since John VanDerMark had three in 1975-76. It was also the Big Red’s fifth shutout of the season overall.
Cornell’s win sets up the first all-Ivy League final since the Big Red defeated Harvard, 2-1, in 1996, and just the third in the last 23 championships.