PRINCETON, N.J. — Although the coronation was not quite as grand as expected, No. 2 Cornell is the regular-season king of the ECAC.
The Big Red (23-4-1, 18-2-1 ECAC) turned in one of its worst performances of the season, but it still was good enough to slip by last-place Princeton (3-24-1, 2-18-1), 2-1, despite getting outshot by the Tigers at a sold-out Hobey Baker Rink.
“It was nice to finally clinch,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. “If you would have told me that it would have taken us until the second to last game of the regular season with only two losses … it just shows what a battle we were in.”
The win obviated the need to check the Harvard score as the Crimson went into overtime to ultimately tie Clarkson, 3-3. Cornell is now ahead of Harvard by four points with one game remaining. Cornell and Harvard had been battling all season for first place, but the Big Red won both regular-season matchups, including a 4-3 win on Feb. 15 in Cambridge.
“Two weeks ago, we went down to their building and I knew that would be the first-place game,” Schafer said. “We were up by one point at the time and then we went up by three and that gap held. Now it will be hard to get our team to focus on Yale tomorrow night when we can’t go up or down.”
While Cornell was the triumphant party, the mood was upbeat across the locker room as well. During the game, the Big Red committed an uncharacteristic number of turnovers and the Tigers had unexpected chances to steal at least one point from the second-ranked team in the country. Princeton held Cornell to just 18 shots on goal.
In the first period, the Big Red did not take its first shot until 9:37 remained, and in the third period the first shot that reached freshman goaltender Eric Leroux came with seven-plus minutes to go. The Tigers sent 24 shots at David LeNeveu.
“This was the Princeton hockey effort that I expect,” said Princeton coach Len Quesnelle. “I want this team to be playing its best hockey and tonight we took a huge step forward into playing our best hockey.”
Cornell took a 2-0 lead with a goal in each of the first two periods. Co-captain Doug Murray unleashed a cannon from the point on the power play at 19:32 of the first to open the scoring. Freshman forward Daniel Pegoraro notched his sixth of the season in a wild scramble in front of the net during which Leroux made several saves, before Pegoraro got a rebound to elude him.
Despite surrendering the two goals, Leroux played an outstanding game in a surprise start. This was just the eighth game of his college career, and although Cornell did not get many shots, they usually were high quality.
The Big Red’s first shot of the first period was a breakaway by senior Sam Paolini and Leroux closed the five hole. Displaying excellent balance and flexibility, Leroux robbed Mike Knoepfli and Paolini later in the first period in similar shots on rebounds to his left side. Completely stretched along the ice, Leroux stuck out his glove to catch the two Big Red forward attempts to lift the puck into the vacant top half of the net. For a goaltender with a 5.47 GAA and .870 save percentage entering the contest, it was a stunning performance.
“I found out that I was starting the day before the game,” Leroux said. “I tried not to think about the team I was playing in order to avoid mental exhaustion. My performance was particularly satisfying to me because I knew several players on Cornell, having played with them at previous levels.
“When you move up to the next level, it’s nice to play against familiar competition and prove to yourself that you can play.”
Leroux, however, did not receive the goal support needed to turn his effort into a victory. It was not for lack of hustle on Princeton’s part, however. The Tigers forced turnovers and tried to take the play to the Big Red as much as their talent permitted.
“We were able to keep the puck in the offensive zone more than we have been able to this year,” Quesnelle said. “That forced them to turn the puck over and give us our chances.”
Cornell’s sloppiness did not escape its coach.
“I’m obviously disappointed with the way we played tonight,” Schafer said. “We didn’t concentrate on doing all the things we want to do. We did not do a good job taking care of the puck the whole night.”
Neil Stevenson-Moore finally slipped a puck past LeNeveu at 17:27 of the second period, knocking home a rebound of a Seamus Young blast that clanged off the iron. The power-play goal drew the Tigers within one, but though they did not get the equalizer, it still was a good day at the rink for a team that has had little to hang its helmet on this year.
“Everyone in the locker room has something to be proud of tonight,” Quesnelle said. “We are going through the process of discovering what it takes to be a winning team. Our upperclassmen especially played well and Leroux gave us a chance to win.”
Princeton closes out its regular season hosting Colgate, while Cornell will face Yale at the Whale before heading into its bye week.