ITHACA, N.Y. — Both No. 6 Yale and No. 8 Cornell had done what they needed to do to make tonight’s ECAC heavyweight bout before the seventh consecutive sellout of 4,267 at Lynah Rink all it was supposed to be; they had each won on Friday night to carry their first-place tie into Saturday.
A Union loss at Harvard tonight added extra intrigue, as it meant this game in Ithaca would be for the outright conference lead as well. Neither team knew that until it was all over of course, but when the score from Allston was announced as the teams finished shaking hands, more than a few Yale players made celebratory gestures, knowing that first-place was theirs alone.
A win was all the more important for the visiting Bulldogs in the chase for the Cleary Cup because Cornell has a game in hand. Yale clinched the Ivy League crown and gained an ever-important tie-breaker over their hosts as they have now swept the season series with a pair of one-goal victories.
The way the Elis claimed victory in this one, on a goal with a little under two minutes to play in overtime after no one had scored since midway through the second period, was devastating for the Big Red and their followers.
At the same time, the Lynah faithful just as easily could have left the rink thinking how lucky they were this was not a 6-1 Yale win. In fact, the entire Cornell team saluted the Bulldogs after the game, rapping their stickblades against the ice until the last Bulldog had exited the rink and only then turning towards the stands to salute their fans.
“It was a brutal loss, really a tough one to swallow,” an utterly dejected Patrick Kennedy recounted as he sat shaking his head outside the locker room. “Just feel like it was right in the heart. I can’t really put words to it right now. I thought ‘Scrivs’ played really well, but there’s not a lot (of positives to take away).”
The game-winner came at 3:17 of the overtime on a play that Yale had tried several times already in the game. Jimmy Martin got the puck to Brian O’Neill on the left wing half-wall, where he spun off a defender and, with his back to the play, sent a centering pass to an unmarked Sean Backman, who was streaking through the slot. Backman immediately shot as Cornell goalie Ben Scrivens was sliding to get in position, beating Scrivens five-hole.
O’Neill and Backman said this was one of their go-to plays.
“It’s a play we work on a lot and it’s pretty successful,” said Backman. “It’s a quick play; you have to see the hole and get there as quick as you can.”
“We’ve been playing together almost two years now and that’s almost a set play for us; sometimes it looks like I’m a genius and sometimes it looks terrible,” O’Neill added. “A team like that, they’re going to wear down if you keep forechecking them. We’re that kind of team that wears other teams down and I think Scrivens got a little tired obviously from 50 shots. That’s the strength of our team. We’re a third period hockey team, we’re a highly skilled team, and our work ethic pushes us over the top.”
The Yale offense was the story all night. Well, that and Ben Scrivens. The senior netminder not only singlehandedly kept his team in the game, but sent a message to everyone that he is the frontrunner for the Ken Dryden Award. In the end, he made 52 saves, including 33 in the final two periods and seven in the overtime. No less than 40 of those were grade-’A’ scoring chances.
His teammates were powerless to help him though, as the Yale forecheck was so dominant that the Big Red rarely were able to get any kind of rhythm on offense because they struggled to break out of their own zone. Cornell had but 20 shots in the game and only eight came after the first period.
“When you play good teams like Yale, they are going to expose weaknesses and tendencies that you can’t get away with,” Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. “It was quite evident throughout the course of the game that our defensive zone coverage was exposed. They moved pucks and we didn’t stick with our checks. It will be a good lesson for our guys to number one move the puck a lot quicker than we did in the second and third period and number two to be an even better defensive team because if you can’t play defense, you never get the puck.”
“I thought in the first period, they looked pretty dangerous offensively,” Yale coach Keith Allain commented. “They are big, and strong, and fast when they get rolling and can certainly put you back on your heels. They scored early and they’ve got the big crowd. But I thought we were definitely quicker in the second period than we were in the first. I can’t imagine a better college hockey game. It’s as good as we’ve played (all season).”
Yale is a team that thrives on a fast-paced transition game and came in leading the nation with 4.12 goals per game, while Cornell prefers a slower pace where they can play stifling defense (second best in NCAA) that allows them to transition into setting up their offense. Cornell was forced to try and beat Yale at their own game, where speed is at a premium in generating good chances in transition, and were simply not equal to the task.
“We want to dictate the pace,” Backman said. “A couple times there, you saw them trying to slow it down and coach re-emphasized that.”
The first period was evenly matched, with each team trading momentum back and forth, though still mostly playing a run-and-gun style of hockey. Cornell made it work for them first when Colin Greening opened up the scoring at 6:49. Braden Birch put a lead pass from his own zone right on the stick of Kennedy as he crossed the Yale blue line with a jump on the defense. From there, the puck criss-crossed the ice on two touch passes, first Kennedy to Riley Nash and then right back across for Greening, which caught Yale backstop Billy Blase out of position in a desperate scramble and made it an easy goal for the Big Red captain.
That lead held up for the next 27 minutes of action until Yale got even 13:48 into the second. Kevin Peel cycled the puck low behind the net, where Denny Kearney won a battle for it on the forecheck and found Mark Arcobello right next to the crease for a one-timer past the glove of Scrivens.
Yale welcomes St. Lawrence and Clarkson to New Haven next weekend, with a 4 p.m. start on Saturday, while Cornell goes on the road for three games in five days beginning this Tuesday at Colgate and continuing on to Harvard and Dartmouth next weekend.