ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Cornell’s junior defender Braden Birch and senior defender Sean Whitney collided off a third period face-off, giving up puck possession to Harvard. Birch — who had just been burned by senior forward Alex Killorn in a breakaway goal — struggled to catch up to a Crimson double breakaway that lit the torch for a sixth time on Cornell sophomore goaltender Andy Iles.
By this point in the March 16 contest, the 6-1 semifinal game had unravelled on the Red past a point of saving face. After travelling down to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, the Cornell squad (19-9-7, 12-4-6 ECAC Hockey) dropped its first game in the ECAC tournament to rival Harvard (13-10-11, 8-5-9). In its biggest loss of the season, Cornell gave up six goals for the first time this year, subsequently suspending the team’s chance for an NCAA at-large bid to the consolation game the following afternoon against Colgate (19-17-3, 11-10-1).
“As a head coach I take full responsibility for not having my team ready to play tonight. I didn’t push the right buttons in order to have them compete harder and overcome that kind of adversity,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86.
Harvard’s head coach Ted Donato defended Schafer, while carefully stepping around a question of whether Cornell was playing at its peak level of performance.
“They are one of the best coached programs in the league,” he said.
Harvard struck first with two goals in the first eight minutes — and never let the foot off the gas. Freshman defender Patrick McNalley made the best of a 1-on-1 situation by getting a shot off. Iles made an initial chest save, but McNalley was able to knock in the rebound at 4:38.
Next, Killorn scored his first of two goals in the game for the Crimson. Killorn leads his team with 46 points and 23 goals this season, at least 10 more than any of his teammates in both categories. Junior linemate Marshall Evanston matched Killorn’s twin goals and freshman winger Colin Blackwell helped the team to victory with three assists.
With about a minute remaining in the game, Red freshman forward Joel Lowry was left open in the slot. He received a pass from senior forward and alternate captain Sean Collins for an easy goal, robbing Girard of the playoff shutout. Freshman John McCarron also earned an assist on the play.
The Red attempted two times as many shots in the first period as its rival; however, the Crimson blocked an astounding 16-of-26 attempts, leaving just five on target. In total, Harvard protected sophomore goaltender Raphael Girard by blocking nearly half of all Cornell shot attempts.
Looking at team leadership, Cornell is graduating just four seniors of its 27 man roster, after beginning the season with nine fresh faces. Compared to Harvard, which has five seniors and five juniors on its offensive squad, Cornell has just two seniors and four juniors.
In the semifinal game, Cornell took several undisciplined penalties — a symptom of having little depth of playoff experience for the least penalized team in the ECAC regular season. Sophomore forward Armand de Swardt accounted for a third of the total penalties awarded to both teams.
“It was just embarrassing,” Schafer said.
Freshman accounted for 31 of the Red’s 93 goals, as of the the game’s end and have been an integral part of the team’s systems from the start of the season. Freshman defenseman Joakim Ryan and freshman forward Brian Ferlin can even be described as “stand-outs” on the roster.
“As a leader, it’s really disappointing not having mentored the younger guys the way we should have as a leadership group,” said senior defenseman and captain Keir Ross. “That’s the worst part of it — not that it’s my senior year or three other guys’ senior year, but that maybe we didn’t take charge the way we should have. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
The Red went on to beat Colgate, 3-0, the following Saturday in the tournament’s consolation game, as Harvard advanced on, but lost to Union in the ECAC Championship game. The Red’s team dynamic was surprisingly positive after its final win on the east coast this season.
“We’re asking our guys to have short term memory,” Schafer said.
Iles made 25 saves against the Raiders for a shut-out, his fourth of the season, in front of a sparse crowd in Boardwalk Hall. His best accomplishment of the weekend was shutting down star player senior forward Austin Smith, who left Atlantic City with only one assist and a fourth place finish.
After Colgate’s loss to Union in the other semifinal game, Smith was uncharacteristically emotional.
“I’ve never given up in a game before, ever. I always compete to the end,” he said. “When it hit 5-1, I was trying to hold tears back. The rest of the game I was just circling and I had a million things going on in my head I wasn’t very effective.”
Cornell’s forwards accounted for all three goals in the third game of the tournament. Scoring for the Red were forwards Collins, sophomore Dustin Mowrey and freshman John McCarron, respectively. Collins’ goal came from the low slot with just 25 seconds left in the first frame from senior forward Locke Jilson and freshman forwardCole Bardreau.
The Red scored twice more in the second, holding off the Raiders for a scoreless third. While the team was dissatisfied with a third place ECAC finish, players said that they were eager to enter the NCAA regionals ranked No. 13 pairwise out of 16 of the best Division I hockey teams in the nation.
The Red’s win against Colgate, an accomplishment considering its two regular season losses to the Raiders, was vital to earning Cornell a spot in the national competition.