PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Call it the Big Red redemption.
A week after a frustrating loss in the ECAC Hockey Championship game following a controversial no call, Cornell erupted for three second-period goals en route to a 5-1 win over Northeastern in the NCAA East regional semifinals Saturday at the Dunkin Donuts Center.
Five different players scored for the Big Red, while Alec McCrea had three assists. Austin McGrath made 20 saves for second-seeded Cornell, who will face No. 4 Providence Sunday at 4 p.m. in the regional final. It was the first NCAA tournament win for the Big Red since 2012 when it defeated Michigan 3-2 in overtime in the Midwest Regional semifinal in Green Bay.
McGrath got the start after he replaced Matthew Galajda last Saturday in the conference title game following an odd play where the Cornell sophomore was injured when the net came dislodged and fell on top of him.
The play was never blown dead, and Galajda was hurt trying to lift the goal off his back. McGrath took over and allowed the game-winning goal on the second shot he faced.
“It just shows the resiliency our hockey team to fight through what we did,” said Cornell coach Mike Schaefer, whose team was also playing without forward Jeff Malott, who is out for the season after getting hurt in the loss against Clarkson last week. “We had a saying last year; ‘Only we know.’ We knew that Austin would rise to the challenge tonight and play well and do his part.”
This isn’t the first time that McGrath has helped out the Big Red this season. The sophomore made five straight starts after Galajda was hurt in late November. Cornell went 3-1-1 over that span, a stretch that helped the team reverse its early-season struggles. McGrath will be back in goal against the Friars Sunday, as Galajda was ruled out for the regional earlier in the week.
“Saturday night I put that behind me knowing that there was a chance I would be playing this weekend,” McGrath said. “Matty and I have a great relationship; we live together at school. He was encouraging and had my back the whole week.”
Cornell took a 1-0 lead on Beau Starrett’s goal at 4:02 in the first. The Big Red senior skated to the high slot and snapped a shot past Cayden Primeau and into the back of the net to give Cornell an early lead.
Cornell went up 2-0 in the opening minute of the second period when captain Mitch Vanderlaan skated around the Huskies’ Ryan Shea and snapped a shot past Primeau (14 saves) at 0:54.
Morgan Barron’s wraparound goal made it 3-0 Big Red at 9:47, while Michael Regush crashed the net and put home a rebound with the Big Red on the power play to make it 4-0 at 12:46 in the second.
Liam Pecararo’s power-play goal pulled the Huskies to within three goals later in the period, but Brenden Locke scored 4:24 into the third to restore Cornell’s four-goal lead.
“We’ve been behind before and first periods haven’t been our greatest periods for us during the season, so we were in a pretty good spot,” Huskies coach Jim Madigan said. “Then they got one quick in the second and they protect leads really well. We just couldn’t get things going; it just snowballed the other way against us.”
Cornell made it difficult for Northeastern to generate much offense by blocking shots and doing a good job denying the Huskies space to work with whenever they entered the Big Red zone.
“Our game is competitive. We work hard,” Schafer said. “We’re a pretty basic hockey team when it gets down to it. We’re not trying to trick you. ”
Despite the loss, it was a banner season for Northeastern. The Huskies won a program-record 27 games, including the Beanpot and Hockey East championship, and made the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. The senior class also graduates with three national tournament appearances and a program-record 90 wins.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Huskies sophomore Zach Solow said. “But looking back on it, we’re the greatest team to wear the Husky logo and that’s a going to be a feeling that will last a lifetime.”