ALBANY, N.Y. — No one was surprised at the style of game played between Colgate and Cornell on Friday night. And few should be surprised to see Cornell meet Harvard Saturday night for the ECACHL championship.
The Big Red battled to a tight 2-0 victory over the Raiders, setting up its fourth meeting with the Crimson in the league championship game in the last five years.
The game, essentially a 1-0 victory save for Daniel Pegoraro’s empty-net tally with 12 seconds remaining, featured few open looks, a paucity of rebound shots, and an absolute dearth of odd-man rushes. Fans were treated to a ton of excitement and solid hockey, however, as Cornell’s suffocating defense and single power-play breakthrough proved enough.
“Cornell’s a very stingy team defensively, and they were again tonight,” said Colgate head coach Don Vaughan. “There were no surprises. That’s what you get when you play Cornell.”
Despite the lack of shots, the first period featured several quality chances. Colgate nearly scored twice on a power play with six minutes remaining in the frame, but Cornell was saved by the iron and its goaltender to keep the game tied at 0-0. Raider defenseman Mike Campaner floated a shot through traffic that rang off the right pipe and bounded away to safety. Just seconds later, Jon Smyth received an excellent post-to-post pass but was denied by a diving David McKee.
“In the first period, both teams were feeling each other out,” explained Cornell head coach Mike Schafer. “The best chances they got came on their first power play. They’ve got some of the best forwards in the league, and we knew that our guys had to play solid to keep them in check.”
Cornell nearly scored a power-play goal of its own in the opening minute of the second period when a long Chris Abbott shot sailed through traffic and trickled through the pads of Colgate goalie Mark Dekanich. The rubber rolled just wide of the left post, however.
Four minutes later, Cornell registered a post shot of its own. Sneaking behind the Raider defense unchecked on an up-ice rush, defenseman Ryan O’Byrne received a pass at the top of the right circle and walked in on Dekanich. The junior snapped a shot looking for the top right corner, but caught iron instead.
The Big Red cracked the scoreboard first seven minutes into the second period on the power play. After working the puck around the perimeter, Cornell slowly crept in on the collapsing Colgate defense. Matt Moulson, who was a force throughout the contest, fed an open Byron Bitz cutting through the high slot. The junior ticketed a shot for the top right corner past a helplessly screened Dekanich.
“I turned around and looked at the net and couldn’t believe there wasn’t anyone in front of me,” said Bitz. “I thought about passing it first, but I turned and shot it and luckily it went in.”
Following a fairly even opening 20 minutes, Cornell controlled much of the play in the second period. One key to the Big Red’s territorial domination was its success in the faceoff circle. Cornell out-drew Colgate, 17-4, in the middle frame, with Pegoraro winning six of seven faceoffs and Chris Abbott winning all five of his draws.
“If there was one area that we would have liked to do better on, it was clearly faceoffs,” said Vaughan. “It wasn’t always their centermen winning them. Their wingers won a lot of those draws. We talk about team faceoff wins, and they did a better job than we did.”
Cornell buckled down in the third period and rode solid defense to its championship appearance. The Big Red penalty-kill was flawless in the final 20 minutes, holding the Raiders without a shot on their first two chances with the man-advantage.
“The PK was unbelievable tonight,” said McKee. “We took some penalties that we had to make up for, and the guys worked extremely hard. [The shutout] couldn’t have been possible without my teammates playing so well.”
The third Colgate power play of the period, which came with less than five minutes to play, finally tested McKee, and he passed with flying colors.
Colgate’s best chance came when a slow backhand shot rolled to the right side of the net where ECACHL First-Teamer Tyler Burton was parked. McKee slid quickly to his left and gloved Burton’s backhand try, however.
McKee, who was left off the ECACHL First Team, Second Team and honorable mention lists, set a record with his third ECACHL tournament shutout.
“He’s one of the best goaltenders in the league,” said Schafer. “I was disappointed when I saw that he didn’t even make third, second or best goaltender in our league. Give Dave a lot of credit. We’ve talked about winning hockey games, and that’s what he does.”
Referee John Murphy awarded Colgate another power play with less than two minutes remaining. But the best chance came to Cornell, as Tyler Mugford muscled his way towards the front of the Colgate net and forced Dekanich to make an acrobatic cover. Another faceoff win in their own zone with 24 seconds remaining, and the Big Red were on their way to an 8 p.m. date with Harvard.
“Right at the very end, on the penalty kill, Dan Pegoraro didn’t win it outright but he stuck with it and won it back,” said Schafer. “[Faceoffs were] a big key at the end, especially on the penalty kills.”
Colgate, meanwhile, watched its NCAA tournament hopes slip away, and plays in the consolation game for the third straight year. The Raiders will face Dartmouth at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“It’s a big disappointment,” said senior Jon Smyth, a member of the winningest class in school history. “I know a lot of teams that would be dying to sit where we are right now, but to sit in the same spot three times in a row is really disappointing. We need to take some steps forward and realize that it doesn’t end when we get here.”
Meanwhile, Cornell sets its sights on its second straight ECACHL tournament championship. When asked about Harvard having scored 18 goals in its last two games, Schafer smiled and joked, “I’m hoping they’ve used them all up.”
Cornell netminder McKee replied with a far steelier glare and tone.
“They’re playing us tomorrow.”