Things always seem to even out in the end. It was truly an unbelievable sequence of events this past weekend against Clarkson as the unthinkable occurred perhaps on many levels. But as the weekend culminated dramatically on Saturday night with Cornell's second consecutive double-overtime triumph, one could not help but think that justice was done in the end.
The most striking case of due justice was the overall result each night. Cornell thoroughly dominated Clarkson in both contests, though the scoreboard hardly indicated it. Clarkson netminder David Leggio put forth one of the most impressive goaltending displays in recent memory and was really the difference for the Knights. They battled hard each night and capitalized on their opportunities, but if not for Leggio, neither game would have been close. He was that good. There were several occasions this year where Cornell made opposing goalies look like superstars, getting a lot of shots on net, but not really garnering quality chances. On the other hand, Cornell generated more quality chances in the two games against Clarkson over the weekend than in any games the entire season.
With a full lineup for the first time since the beginning of the season, the Big Red looked like a newly energized team. In getting Ryan O'Byrne, Sasha Pokulok, and Doug Krantz back from injury as well as several other players healing over the two week "break," every aspect of Cornell's game had freshness to it. As well as Cornell was able to play defensively while shorthanded with injuries, their dominance in this area rose to a new level over the weekend. Clarkson barely got a sniff. They had maybe ten good scoring chances the entire weekend while Cornell had two or three periods where they were getting that many. The whole team was outstanding defensively. An area of concern was that Clarkson was able to capitalize on what few chances they were able to generate and just about all of them came as a result of Cornell miscues. However, it was clear that all three of the defensemen who returned from injury had some rust from not playing and that is to be expected. The point is that their near-perfect defense should theoretically only get better as those three defensemen get back into their respective comfort zones.
These are just sidebars to what really went on over this extraordinary weekend. Yes, Cornell dominated, but they still needed two overtimes each night to seal the victories. It goes back to the intangibles that were covered in so much depth last week in this space. There have been times where this team has shown a lack of character and a lack of leadership - even this weekend. On Friday night, the Big Red seemingly had the game in the bag, leading 3-1 headed into the third period. In the Schafer era, a lead going into the third period has been lights-out with the team having a nearly perfect record in those situations. It was alarming, to say the least, that Cornell could not hold that lead, especially when they only gave up a couple of chances, albeit golden ones. It was a tough situation to be in heading into overtime after blowing a comfortable two-goal lead on home ice. Whatever was lacking in the character department in that third period returned in spades for overtime as if it was a switch that could be turned on and off.
After Clarkson got a great chance in the first minute where a shot deflected off of David McKee and onto the crossbar, they never got another look for the rest of the game. The Big Red pushed and pushed and pushed and could not beat the impenetrable Leggio. Cornell's sporadically scarce offense this season could have easily been the reason, but not on this night. They were doing absolutely everything offensively, but could not solve the sophomore goaltender. Then in the final seconds of the period with all of Lynah groaning at the probability of a second overtime, Cornell capped their extraordinary pressure. The much-maligned captain, Matt Moulson, the owner of a paltry two even strength goals during the season (not including his empty-netter), took a Hail-Mary shot from the left half-boards that ricocheted from two parts of the iron and into the net. All of his struggles were history at that point as he catapulted Cornell to a much-deserved win. After all, he is the captain of this team and the player most responsible when the team's character and leadership comes into question as it did in the third period. Amazing what can be forgotten with just one enormous goal.
As abruptly as Moulson's shot went in during the closing milliseconds of the first overtime, so did Cornell's definitive victory. Perhaps "definitive" isn't the right word. It was damn close. We all love hindsight in sports and since referee Dave Hansen did not appear have a clue what to do, he incorrectly waved off the goal, ruling that time had expired. Again, hindsight is a beautiful thing, especially when attempting to tarnish a defenseless official. There was one-tenth of a second left on the clock and the goal should have counted. Of course this was not just any goal. This was something that could have ultimately been the difference in a National Championship for Cornell this year. That is how big that game was. But really, it was a near-impossible call to make on the spot. And what was going on inside the Cornell dressing room after that emotional rollercoaster, capped off with a near-brawl between the two teams at the conclusion of the overtime? This is a team that is clearly fragile emotionally, but for any team this was a tough one to get over. They were badly fatigued. The blueliners in particular were playing on fumes as a result of Dan Glover leaving the game in the third period with an injury, and having three defensemen short of game shape. They knew they had dominated the game and had deserved to win it, but the worst part was that they felt as if they had won it. Again, just a painful mix of emotions.
Nobody knew what to expect heading into the second overtime. The fans were infuriated, feeling as if they had the game stolen by incompetent officials. Surely the players felt something similar. Nobody in attendance could tell by the way they played after that, however. Maybe to some it was a no-brainer, but they poured it on even thicker from the opening faceoff. There were some tense moments, but a minute into that second overtime, Cornell had not just kept up their play. They somehow elevated it through everything that had gone on. It was remarkable to watch. Quickly, the confidence in the players and the fans returned to the point where victory was imminent. And what happened next? Cornell won the game. They deserved to win it even before the disallowed goal. After that happened, it just seemed like the biggest hoax in the history of sports. Deserving to win a game doesn't mean a thing and neither did the disallowed goal. The Big Red somehow came to that realization during the fifteen-minute intermission because when they came out for the second overtime, they came out to win. Again. And win they did, albeit for a second time on the night.
So if that were the story of the weekend, it would have been quite the tale, but as it turned out, it was only the first part of a greater sequence with even larger meaning. Just like the previous two years, the Saturday night game proved to be even more of a battle as Clarkson's season was on the line. When a team in any sport sees that end in sight, the entire dynamic changes. Desperation becomes not just a strategy, but a style. Everything hinges upon surviving to fight another day. If one had seen the shot total mid-way through the first period, it is unlikely that "desperate" would have been the best adjective to describe Clarkson. They were beaten up mentally and physically and were hanging on by a fingernail. After scoring early on in the first period, Cornell continued to pile on the offense, but just like the night before, Leggio was not to be beaten. Shot after shot, chance after chance and he just kept turning them away, seeming cool as a cucumber. On the other side of the ice, David McKee was not even coming close to being tested. As a result, he allowed a shot from center ice that tied the game up for Clarkson. The shots were 22-3, the scoring chances about 15-0, and the score was 1-1. It was just not believable. Clarkson did not really seem to care how they got there, only that they were there in a tie game after one period of getting absolutely dominated. Cornell, on the other hand, seemed to be in collective disbelief and almost confusion as to how the Golden Knights were still in the game and, in turn, the series.
As a result of this anomaly, Clarkson generated their first and only momentum of the weekend. They were the decisively better team in the second period and when they went up 2-1 a few minutes in, there was a lot of concern that the dreaded 2004 series was creeping its way back into the picture. And wouldn't you know it, while playing from behind, the ultimate underdog player, Topher Scott, tied the game while lying on his stomach. Cornell was the team that actually felt fortuitous to get out of the period with a tie game on their hands. No, they were not dominated the way Clarkson was in the first period, but they were on their heels for a large portion of the period and were lucky to have drawn even.
Even at this point, so much more was to come. When Cornell failed to score on four third-period powerplays, including a two-man advantage, there was a growing feeling that this was just not their night. As a whole, Clarkson had played better. They had to, being a team on the brink of elimination from playing hockey. Even though this put overtime squarely in Cornell's favor, it did not seem to matter as Leggio continued to perform brilliantly. When Cornell failed on yet another powerplay in the first overtime, you just had to think that all those missed opportunities were going to come back and bite them. At least in terms of penalties, the other shoe dropped. When Hansen whistled off a Cornell player and a Clarkson player for coincidental minors late in the first overtime, it is unlikely that he had any inkling that those calls would have a large impact. Cornell took another penalty to put Clarkson on a four-on-three powerplay. Just moments into that powerplay, Ryan O'Byrne absolutely railed a Clarkson player into the boards from behind to further complicate the situation. For some reason, the referee did not make the call but it was a no-brainer major. A linesman saw it and was making the call, however. Clarkson coach George Roll did not see the linesman's arm up and he threw his clipboard onto the ice and actually came over the boards in protest of the play that had already been ruled a penalty.
This is not to slander Roll, but his actions may have cost Clarkson the hockey game. He only received a two-minute minor for his behavior (although he should have received two for throwing the clipboard and an additional two for going onto the ice, as well as a possible disqualification), but that penalty proved costly to the Golden Knights. Already on the powerplay, the major would have put Clarkson on an extended 5-on-3. That is not to say that Cornell was incapable of killing it off, but the odds were definitely in favor of a desperate team needing to win converting on a long two-man advantage on fresh ice to begin the second overtime. But Roll's penalty kept that two-man advantage from ever becoming lengthy so it turned out to be just an extended penalty kill for the Red. Like every other penalty on the weekend, Cornell killed it off with ease. When they killed it off in the second overtime, you just knew the momentum was going to swing Cornell's way. It took a couple of minutes but by the six-minute mark, the Big Red was back on the offensive, cycling with vigor and seeming to be the fresher of the two clubs. After four minutes of physical dominance, the newly-formed top line moved in for the kill just past the mid-way point of the second overtime. After cleanly winning a draw back to Jared Seminoff, he wired the puck to the net and Bitz deflected it. Whether he deflected the shot with a high stick was insignificant because Leggio made the save before any Cornell player touched the puck, thus negating a stoppage for high-sticking. After Leggio made the save, the tightly-covered Moulson found position on the Clarkson defender. He gobbled up the rebound and buried it, redeeming himself, Hansen, Cornell, and fate.
It was a tough regular season for Moulson. It sure seemed as if fate was against him and his team just a day earlier when the goal was disallowed. But Cornell made their own fate and Moulson led the way. It was his goal, his redemption, and he was going to get it no matter what it took. That is how he played and that is how the team played. They were decidedly better for the entire weekend and only Leggio kept it close. But it does not matter how an outcome of a game is determined; all that matters is the outcome itself and the fact that Clarkson was one shot away from winning each of the games very much personifies this concept. It may sound like a broken record, but Cornell found a way to win, overcoming whatever obstacles were in their path.
If that were not enough, Cornell and Harvard are each one win away from a fourth ECACHL Championship meeting in the last five years. Looking closely at the PairWise rankings, this year's Big Red are likely to stay east for the NCAA Tournament, as odd as that seems. As amazing as last year's team was after January 1st, they ended up getting the worst-case scenario in the NCAA Tournament. This year's team has not done nearly as well, has battled injuries and inconsistency, and yet they appear to have more say in their final ranking, either getting a number one seed or a number two seed and staying east in either scenario. Funny how things work out.
This week, all of the players who truly elevated their games during the nine periods of hockey played needed to be recognized.
1. Topher Scott
Nobody came close. He was the best player on the ice in both games and there was no question about it whatsoever. In case there was any doubt, Scott is a big game player. He was moved up to the top line for the majority of the weekend and he really seemed to make that line go. The energy and intensity that he brought was contagious and he was flat out extraordinary. Despite going pointless in Friday night's game, he was still a threat every time he was on the ice. He followed that up Saturday night playing just as well, but showed up on the score sheet, tallying a goal and an assist. His goal was of particular importance, tying the game up late in the second period where Clarkson had been the better team.
2. Jon Gleed
It was expected by some that the love-in with Gleed over the last month would have ended with the returns of Sasha Pokulok and Ryan O'Byrne. The only thing that ended was the enormous icetime he was logging during their absence. With Gleed's minutes coming back down to earth, he was able to do more with the playing time he got. Gleed was the number one reason Clarkson generated so few chances. Maybe his best play of the weekend came in the third period of the second game when Clarkson had a clear-cut two-on-one. Gleed played it perfectly and forced the puck carrier wide, eventually poke-checking the puck off of his stick.
3. Byron Bitz
It is safe to say that Bitz has arrived. He put together another spectacular weekend. Although he went pointless the first night, he was still one of the better offensive players for Cornell. Saturday night, he elevated his game yet another notch, scoring the opening goal and assisting on the game-winning goal. The biggest difference in his play over the last few weeks has been the edge he has brought. He is playing with a chip on his shoulder and getting physically and emotionally involved in games. As a result, his effectiveness has increased dramatically.
4. Raymond Sawada
The goal he scored on Friday night personified his tremendous impact during the weekend. The style of the playoffs favors the big, rugged forwards and Sawada is certainly no exception. Clarkson's defensemen just could not handle Sawada down low, particularly in the overtime periods of each game when they became tired. He kept driving hard to the net, finishing his checks throughout each game, and was a force all over the ice. Sawada is another player who has brought his game to a higher level over the last few weeks and is blooming as a force at the college level. With the style Sawada plays, his value and effectiveness should only increase as the playoffs progress.
5. Matt Moulson
Yes, he scored the biggest goal of his career to get the playoff monkey off his back, but Moulson's play even before the goal was impressive. Not known for his grit, Moulson reformed his game to the playoff climate by getting his nose dirty. He battled hard out there and was rewarded with the should-have-been overtime winner on Friday night and the actual overtime winner on Saturday. He picked himself up and led the team in a difficult situation and absolutely deserved his goal on Saturday night. It was not your typical Moulson goal. He was covered tightly in front of the net, but he forced his way to get position on the defender and get loose to put home the winner. That sequence was very representative of the transformation his game underwent during the course of the weekend. Do not expect his production to stop there.
Which regional will Cornell end up in?
Here we go again. On one level, we praise NCAA Hockey for lacking the subjectivity in their tournament selection that NCAA Basketball has. But another level, we sometimes wish that they would have just a little. Anything can happen and the most-desired situation for any team and its fans is to stay closest to home. For Cornell, a trip to Albany would give them close to home-ice advantage. It is unlikely anybody would be upset about going to Worcester either. Going to North Dakota or Wisconsin would flat-out suck, particularly for the fans. Unlike last year, it is actually possible Cornell could get shut out of the tournament altogether, although that is highly unlikely. The good thing about this year as opposed to last is that it seems Cornell has a greater say in their destiny. Should they win the ECACHL Championship, the chances of them staying east improve dramatically.
How did Ryan O'Byrne perform on his return to the lineup?
O'Byrne had missed a lot of time due to injury and had not seen game action in three weeks. It sporadically showed but he got better as the weekend progressed. He still was not at his best by the end of the weekend, but again, he was making a great deal of headway. It was tough for him to get the major in overtime, but it was a warranted call. The powerplay struggled as it took on a new system and O'Byrne re-familiarized himself with it. All in all, he played pretty well, however. There were a few mistakes, but he logged a ton of ice time and should theoretically back to his normal level of play on Friday.
How did Sasha Pokulok perform on his return to the lineup?
After struggling badly on Friday night, Pokulok simplified his game on Saturday and improved. Pokulok is clearly a player who needs to find his groove if he is to perform to his potential. It is particularly tough for a defenseman to just step back into the lineup and play a ton of important minutes and so it was for Pokulok. Like O'Byrne, the two games were a good opportunity to get back with everything and the expectation is that he will be playing at his highest level on Friday.
How did Doug Krantz perform on his return to the lineup?
Yet another defenseman who had not played in three weeks, Krantz's rust was arguably the least noticeable of the three. He turned over the puck leading to Clarkson's second goal on Saturday night, but other than that, Krantz turned in two really strong performances, perhaps even his two best of the season. He was very effective skating the puck and was very solid coming out of the defensive zone. It's nice to see from a guy who was barely holding onto his lineup spot in November. Krantz has some potential that is often overlooked, but he definitely has a high upside. He played his best hockey last season in the playoffs and appears poised to do the same again this season.
It is really tough to call as four relatively even teams take to the ice this coming weekend in Albany. As important as Xs and Os are, they take a backseat to experience and heart at this time of year, particularly when you have even teams. Because of that, one has to give the nod to Harvard and Cornell as favorites even though they are the lower seeds. These are the two best teams in the conference, contrary to what the regular season standings indicated. There is a reason that they are far higher in the PairWise Rankings than both Dartmouth and Colgate. That being said, a hot goaltender could trump everything else at this time of year, especially in a one-game playoff. Colgate goaltender Mark Dekanich has proven his value in this regard and has to be considered the best ECACHL goaltender this year. Therefore, Colgate cannot be counted out. Working in Dartmouth's favor is that they have the most talent and depth out of these teams. However, they are the only team of the four which was not in Albany last year and they have the biggest question mark between the pipes of the four as well. Really, anything can happen, but if you are a betting man, go with the guys who have been there before and expect a fourth Championship matchup in the last five years between Cornell and Harvard on Saturday night.
Semifinal 1: Harvard 4 -Dartmouth 3
Semifinal 2: Cornell 2 - Colgate 1
Consolation: Colgate 3 - Dartmouth 2
Championship: Harvard 1 - Cornell 3