After taking advantage of a first round bye to rest and recover from a virus that infected many team members, the Red is back in action and prepared to start postseason hockey. No. 2-seeded Cornell hosts No. 9 Dartmouth for the ECAC Championship quarterfinal series this weekend. In this best-of-three series, the Ivy rivals will face off both Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m. at Lynah Rink. If necessary, a third deciding game will be played on Sunday at 7 p.m.
The Red is beginning to make the transition to playoff hockey — as it prepares for a match-up against the Green. Cornell defeated Dartmouth, 3-2, on the road on Nov. 12. In January, the Red emerged on top again with a 4-3 overtime win against the Green at Lynah.
“They are a good team, but any team we would have drawn would have been,” said senior defenseman and captain Keir Ross. “You know how our league is — anyone can kind of beat anyone on any given night. Regardless of who we are paying, we are going to have to be at the top of our game this weekend.”
Having already faced Dartmouth twice this season, the team has a better feel for what it can expect to see this weekend. Head coach Mike Schafer ’86 has been preparing his squad with that specific thought in mind.
“They’ve got a good group of forwards up front, that given time and space [are] going to make plays on you offensively,” he said. “They are just really skilled. They’ve got good sides up front too, so they can have that blend of being able to make some plays on the rush but also they are strong enough to cause you problems down low and bring some pucks to the net. You have to respect that size and strength and their ability, just like any other team. [We need to] create pressure on the backside to make sure they have to give up pucks, and being strong and patient defensively to control them.”
Some of the players Schafer referred to include Dartmouth senior center Doug Jones, Dartmouth’s leading scorer with 11 goals, who comes into the weekend on a six-game scoring streak. Sophomore left wing Eric Robinson has also played a stronger game as of late, recording seven points in his last six games.
The Red has used the extra week off not only to recover from injuries and sickness, but also to shift its focus toward playoff hockey, according to senior forward and alternate captain Sean Collins.
“The biggest thing we’ve worked on is probably special teams,” he said. “Obviously, that’s a huge part of the game in the playoffs, just trying to get pucks through to the net. We know their defense like to block a lot of shots, so just trying to find the right lane is probably going to be one of the biggest things on the rush. Neutral zone, we know they don’t like to step up and they are pretty passive so we can work around that … [our] coaches have done a good job preparing us we will be ready for the weekend.”
An important distinction about this ECAC quarterfinal round is that it is the only time this season that the Red could be seeing the same opponent three days in a row. According to Ross, the team has taken this into account as it has begun to prepare its strategy for the upcoming weekend.
“Knowing that we are going to play the same team two or three times in a row in our rink, it’s about coming up with a high tempo, high physicality,” he said. “Really hitting them, grinding them, just kind of making them want to quit.”
Schafer also emphasized the importance of physicality for his team, not just this weekend, but for the whole season.
“I think we play our best hockey when we play physical,” he said. “We weren’t very physical with them last time when we played here, and I don’t think we really turned that corner until later in the year where we actually picked up our physicality. So every hit has its benefits in a two-game series. You are the team that benefits from it; they don’t leave here and go somewhere else the next night. I really don’t think we played very physically against them [last time] … We need to be very physical in the first few minutes but be very disciplined, to kind of set the tone in our rink for how we want to play these two games.”
If the Red wins the best-of-three series this weekend, it will advance to the ECAC Hockey semifinals, which will be held on March 16 in Atlantic City, N.J.
“As a senior, it is always great to hopefully win a round to move onto Atlantic City for our last weekend at home,” Collins said.
Cornell has been the second seed in the ECAC tournament three times in the past four years. Two years ago, the Red won its twelfth ECAC championship in Albany, N.Y. The Red’s current veterans are carrying that memory into the postseason with them this year.
“[Last year’s ECAC championship win] was huge for us,” Collins said. “Just the feeling of being on a journey with 27 other guys and a coaching staff the whole year and to finish it off with a championship is huge. The Ivy League title means a lot to us, but the ECAC championship in the end is what every team in our league shoots for.”
That being said, the team recognizes that it has a long way to go before making it to New Jersey, and that starts with Friday night’s puck drop.
“Dartmouth just played last weekend,” Ross said. “They’ve played playoff hockey already and we are going to have to be ready for it. Everyone kind of ups their level during the playoffs — there is more at stake, your season is on the line. We have to be ready for that. We got them here at Lynah and our plan is just to really play physical and have a high tempo the whole game and just kind of break their will if we can.”