ITHACA, N.Y. — In the entire 46-year history of Lynah, Cornell had lost two whole playoff games entering the weekend, including one to Clarkson in 1988 and one to Providence in 1978. And Clarkson hadn’t won in Lynah Rink in over five years.
Not only did Clarkson win once, but Sunday, the Golden Knights made it two straight, doubling the all-time Big Red playoff losses at home, and taking the best-of-three ECAC quarterfinal series with a stunning 5-1 victory.
The Golden Knights did it by scoring in every which way — power play, shorthand, wacky bounces, off legs — and did it by dominating Cornell for large stretches of the game. Once mired in a six-game losing streak that threatened to wreck their season, the Golden Knights have gotten off the deck to win two straight playoff series on the road, and will go to the ECAC semifinals to face top seed Colgate on Friday, a team Clarkson recently defeated, 1-0, in the last week of the regular season.
“It was pretty exciting. We’ve had an up and down year,” said Clarkson coach George Roll. “They fought through the adversity. The six-game losing streak … they really turned it around. I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys.”
Clarkson lost Matt Nickerson, who was checked hard, shoulder-to-shoulder, by Cornell’s Shane Hynes late in the second period. Nickerson, the freshman who broke the ECAC single-season record for penalty minutes on Saturday, suffered a separated shoulder and his status is questionable for next weekend. But the rugged defenseman, who logs tons of minutes for the Golden Knights, was still able to discuss afterwards how Clarkson turned things around this weekend after getting walloped in Game 1 of the series, 5-1.
“Just relentless hard work and chipping the puck,” said Nickerson. “Doing all the little things right, playing physical.”
Meanwhile, Cornell played without senior captain Ryan Vesce for the second straight game. Vesce, the team’s best faceoff man and an integral part of their special teams, suffered a concussion Friday night and saw his career come to an unfortunate end as he watched from behind one of the nets.
“He’s devastated,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. “As a player and a person, to end his great four-year career like that. The seniors have only known championship games. For four years they’ve had their [ECAC] seasons end with either a championship game win or loss. It’s a bitter pill to lose on home ice, especially for Ryan. We lost him and we never recovered.”
For the second straight night, Clarkson took the early lead. After Cornell could not do much with its first power play, Clarkson got one and immediately took advantage. Jay Latulippe fed Chris Blight in the left-wing circle, and Blight blasted a one-timer past Cornell goalie David McKee. It was the first period’s only goal.
“It’s so important to get the lead,” said Roll. “We didn’t on Friday. They got ahead of us and we never regrouped. In the next two games, we kept the lead and never gave it up. I think that’s the most important thing when you play Cornell, never to let them get ahead.”
Neither team was that sharp in the first, but Cornell stayed that way in the second, while Clarkson took control of play. The Golden Knights outshot the Red, 12-6, in the second, and maintained the one-goal lead throughout most of the period. Late in the period, with Cornell on a power play and with a seemingly good opportunity to even things up going into the third, it was Clarkson that took advantage of bad giveaway that sprang Mac Faulkner for a partial breakaway. Faulkner’s initial backhander was stopped by McKee, but Faulkner put in the rebound for a huge shorthanded goal.
“They executed on special teams and we didn’t. They had a 4-on-3 goal, a shorthanded goal, and that was all she wrote,” said Schafer, whose team was 1-for-6 on the power play. Clarkson was 1-for-3.
“We had a lack of poise and execution on the power play. And to give up at home a shorthanded goal in a big game …”
Cornell was struggling to find a spark in the third when things got worse. With the Big Red pressing, Clarkson took advantage, sending a 3-on-1 the other way. Tristan Lush then found Jamie McKinven on the back door, as the puck went off McKinven’s leg and in. The officials conferred briefly, and ruled that it was not intentionally kicked, and allowed the goal to stand for a 3-0 lead.
The Big Red finally broke through with a power-play goal from Cam Abbott at 9:33, but just as the crowd started buzzing in hope of a comeback, the wind was taken out of the sails. Just 36 seconds later, a puck came out from behind the Cornell net and dribbled towards McKee, but he didn’t see it as it kicked off the side of the net, off his pad and sat between his legs. Trevor Edwards scooted in and poked it home for a backbreaking goal.
“It was a tough lesson to learn,” said Schafer. “When you have a team down, you can’t let up. Not taking anything away from Clarkson. They forced the issue and came out ready to play at a high level on Saturday. And we could never match it. … And it started to snowball from there.”
Faulkner added a shorthanded empty netter.
“It’s unbelievable,” Blight said. “We haven’t won here in five years. We knew we could do it. We knew if we play our game that we could beat them. It was a huge boost to our confidence to win [Saturday] night.”
Said Roll, “It’s pretty obvious anyone can win in this league in any building. It’s happened all year. There’s a lot of parity.”