ITHACA, N.Y. — Union’s effort against No. 2-ranked Cornell on Saturday was a big improvement over its poor performance Friday against Colgate.
After being frustrated most of the night, Cornell’s Mike Knoepfli tipped a Charlie Cook right-point shot past goalie Tim Roth with 5:21 left in the third period, snapping a 1-1 tie and lifting the ECAC-leading Big Red to a 3-1 victory at Lynah Rink.
“I thought they played very well,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer of the Dutchmen. “Give them a lot of credit. We had 17 shots blocked, 18 we missed the target. So they did a great job, and we didn’t do a great job hiting the net.”
Despite the loss, the Dutchmen (13-15-4, 9-9-2 ECAC) clinched its first ECAC Division I home-ice berth. With two games left in the regular season, the Dutchmen have a four-point lead over St. Lawrence and Vermont, who are tied for ninth place. The Dutchmen own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Saints, and they face Vermont next Friday at Achilles Rink. Even if Vermont were to win both games next weekend, Union, which won at Vermont last month, owns all the tiebreakers.
The Dutchmen trail Brown and Dartmouth, who are tied for fourth, by two points for the final first-round bye spot. They can finish from fourth to eighth.
Meanwhile, Cornell (22-4-1, 17-2-1) continues to roll right along, and is one win, or a Harvard tie or loss, from clinching its second consecutive ECAC regular-season crown. The win also marked the culmination of a perfect regular season at Lynah Rink — 13-0, including 11-0 in ECAC play — the first time that’s happened since 1970-71.
Union Kevin Sneddon lashed out as his team following its 5-1 loss against Colgate. He called it the Dutchmen’s worst game of the season.
Sneddon was in a much better mood Saturday. Union had a 1-0 lead after one period, and was tied, 1-1, after two periods.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” Sneddon said. “We came into one of the toughest rinks to play in against one of the toughest teams in the country, if not the best team, and for two periods, they did everything that I asked of them.”
Roth, making his first start since losing to Cornell, 6-0, Jan. 17 at Achilles Rink, made 27 saves and handled the traffic in front of him well.
“The team played a lot better in front of me,” Roth said. “I had a lot less work.”
Union played a masterful defensive game, slowed down the Big Red in the first period, and were leaps and bounds stronger down low from the manhandling it took in Schenectady five weeks ago. It paid off in a goal late in the first period.
Joel Beal took advantage of a collision between Cornell goalie David LeNeveu and defenseman Travis Bell behind the Big Red net to score the game’s first goal with 1:04 left in the first period.
LeNeveu and Bell both tried to clear the puck, but fell down. Beal got it, and stuffed it into the open net.
“That was just par for the course in the first period – bad communication between David and Travis and Mark [McRae],” Schafer said. “Someone’s got to be talking to David — either David’s not listening or they’re not talking. So it was just poor communication behind the net.”
It was the first time this season Cornell trailed after one period in a game at Lynah Rink. After Schafer gave his team a tough talking to, the Big Red came out much stronger in the second, and outshot Union, 12-5. In that was the tying goal, at 2:46, as Dan Pegoraro scored off of a scramble in front of the net.
“It’s the first time I’ve been disappointed with our effort and intensity in the first period in — I can’t remember the last time. I wasn’t very happy,” Schafer said. “We did all the preparation, the Xs and Os, but I said to them after the game, ‘You don’t come ready to play, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re just another run of the mill team.’
“Without that edge we have to play with, we’re just another team in college hockey, and what makes us different is we have to compete really hard, and we did that in the second and third period.”
Meanwhile, the Dutchmen’s offense was almost non-existent. Though they were credited with five shots on goal, they spent the majority of the period icing the puck.
“I think we panicked with the puck a little bit,” Sneddon said. “They were pressuring so hard.”
There was nothing Roth could do on the game-winner. The Dutchmen had just finished killing off Brent Booth’s slashing penalty, but were stuck with three defensemen and two forwards on the ice.
“We were tired,” Roth said. “We got it out of the zone, but they brought it right in. [Cook] shot it through a screen, and I think it hit a stick.”
Said Schafer, “We had talked about it as the game went on; we had to use our defense … because they were packing it in down low, our defense had to do a good job of getting the puck to the net, and that’s how we scored the game-winning goal.”
Cornell played without captain Doug Murray, who was nursing a slight muscle pull. It had its biggest affect on the power play, where Pegoraro replaced Murray on a top unit that’s been together for almost every game for three years. The Big Red power play was held to 0-for-4.
“The biggest thing is the lack of familiarity,” Schafer said. “Daniel [Pegoraro] can shoot the one-timer and he’s very, very gifted with the puck. So, obviously he’s not Doug, but at the same time, just not having any practice time to get guys familiar with each other. And there’s a certain trust factor too. I mean, Stephen [Baby has] been working with Doug for four years.
“I’m sure Doug will be ready to go for next weekend.”