ITHACA, N.Y. — Friday night in front of a raucous “sea of red” sellout crowd at Lynah Rink, No. 3 Cornell scored five goals, all on special teams, en route to a dominating 5-0 victory over Clarkson in Game 1 of their ECACHL quarterfinal series.
“Our guys played solid,” said Cornell head coach Mike Schafer. “We didn’t need anything special from any one or two guys. What we needed was a solid effort from everybody, and I thought we got that tonight.”
Cornell is no stranger to Clarkson in the playoffs. In fact, one of their more memorable postseason meetings came in 1970, when Cornell defeated Clarkson 6-4 to win the national championship. More recently, however, the Golden Knights stunned Cornell last season to eliminate the Big Red from the ECACHL tournament. After winning Game 1, Cornell lost the next two and failed to reach the ECACHL Final Four in Albany.
This year’s Big Red squad, the top seed in the ECACHL tournament, is determined not let history repeat itself.
“We’re a much more focused hockey team right now than we were last year,” said Schafer. “Things are different. This team is focused on the job at hand, and that’s to get to Albany.”
Sophomore goaltender David McKee, starting for the 62nd consecutive game, stopped 20 shots to earn his ninth shutout of the season and 14th of his career. With the shutout, McKee passed the legendary Ken Dryden on Cornell’s all-time career shutout list.
A humble McKee was quick to note that his focus is not on records, but on winning.
“I want to win,” declared McKee, whose nation-best 1.23 goals-against-average should help make him one of the favorites for the Hobey Baker Award. “The last two weeks, we’ve been working really hard and focusing on what we need to focus on to be successful in this game. The guys really came out with a high level of intensity and got the job done.”
“Obviously that’s quite an honor to break that record,” said Schafer. “Very elite company. For long periods of time, he didn’t have much to do tonight, but when he was called upon, he made some great saves. He earns his shutouts. He did a great job covering up rebounds and not giving up a whole lot of second chances.”
On the offensive end, Cornell (23-4-3) dominated special-teams play, scoring three power-play goals and two shorthanders as to add to its nation-best 15-game unbeaten streak. The Big Red power play, which went 3-for-9 on Friday, leads the nation with a 25.3 percent conversion rate, while the penalty kill is tops in the country as well, at 89 percent.
The scoring began at 7:46 of the first period, when Cornell’s Jon Gleed, Mike Iggulden, and captain Mike Knoepfli flew up ice on a shorthanded 3-on-2 rush. After Iggulden threw the puck towards the net, Knoepfli was all alone in front to fire the rebound past Clarkson goaltender Dustin Traylen, who was out of position.
“It was a great way to kick-start our game,” said Knoepfli, who stretched his point-scoring streak to nine games with the goal. “Iggs made a great play. He was working really hard, and I just got a rebound. Mike [Iggulden] did all the work.”
Later in the first, the Big Red struck on its own man-advantage, with sophomore Byron Bitz receiving a cross-ice feed from leading scorer Matt Moulson and firing a shot past Traylen, who couldn’t slide across the crease in time.
“I got a nice pass from Moulson and one-timed it,” said Bitz. “I got it up in the air, which was important. I knew I had to get it up, and I was fortunate for it to go in.”
Cornell added to the lead midway through the second period. On the power play again, freshman forward Topher Scott skated behind the Golden Knights net and slid the puck out front to junior Shane Hynes, who was alone at the top of the crease. Hynes simply tapped the puck past Traylen stick-side to give the Big Red a 3-0 advantage.
Less than three minutes later, following a Clarkson timeout, the Big Red penalty killers struck again, as Mike Iggulden scored his nation-leading fourth shorthanded goal of the season. It was also the team’s eighth shorthander overall.
“We had been trapped in our own end for a while, and the puck just popped up to the slot,” described Iggulden. “I saw their defenseman stepping up on me. I was able to use my speed and get around him. I made an early pass to Pegoraro, and he just made an unbelievable pass right back to me. I had the whole net to put it in. Great play by Pegoraro.”
“Our special teams in general have been huge for us this year,” added Knoepfli. “Whenever you get a shorthanded goal, it’s always a big boost, and to get two tonight was huge for our team. It got us really pumped up, and then our power play stepped up and won the game for us.”
Both head coaches also commented on the Big Red’s impressive shorthanded play.
“Every time they get the chance, they jump,” noted Clarkson head coach George Roll. “Their D will jump into the rush. Tonight, we got caught twice, and they made really nice plays on both [shorthanded goals.]”
“It goes along with confidence,” added Schafer. “The guys on the penalty kill sense it now. When they get an opportunity, they don’t just dump [the puck] down the ice. They sense the opportunity, and they’re going to force the issue.”
After Iggulden’s goal, Traylen was replaced in net by sophomore Kyle McNulty, who allowed the fifth and final Cornell goal of the evening, another power-play goal by Bitz, less than a minute after entering the game.
“Dustin played very well tonight,” said Roll, who mentioned that Traylen will start Saturday night. “It had nothing to do with Dustin when I pulled him. It’s just that we weren’t going to win tonight. We were down 4-0, and you’re not going to come back against [Cornell] when you’re down 4-0.”
While Cornell proved superior in the special-teams department, Clarkson (13-22-3) went 0-6 on the power play. Roll knows his team must improve its special teams if they want to pull off the upset.
“In the third period, we competed hard, but they dominated play obviously in the first and second periods,” said Roll. “We were very undisciplined, and against Cornell, you can’t do that. [Saturday] we have to be disciplined. We have to stay out of the box, and we have to do a better job on the power play.
“It’s an area that’s critical for us to have any success against them. We were in this position last year, and we battled back. We went back, watched the tape, and came with a different game plan. We’ll try to do the same thing tomorrow.”
“It’s not a one-game series,” added Clarkson senior captain Mac Faulkner. “We were selfish and undisciplined tonight, and [Cornell] capitalized on that. We’ll learn from our mistakes, and tomorrow will be a much different game.”
The Big Red players, instead of waiting at center ice for their customary salute to the fans, skated off immediately after the game to get ready for tomorrow.
“It just shows you that our guys our focused,” said Schafer. “The job’s halfway done. We came in here to win the weekend, and we’re only half way there.”
“We know we’re going to have our hands full tomorrow with a team that’s going to battle for every inch of the ice, and we’re going to be up to that challenge.”