Cornell to Face Union in First Round of ECAC Playoffs
When these two teams met in Lake Placid for the ECAC semifinals last year, Cornell was a borderline NCAA tournament team who spent most of the season nationally ranked, while Union was about to embark on a dominating run through the tournament, leading to their first national championship.
However, this season was a different story. With the Big Red (11-12-6, 9-9-4) putting up inconsistent results, and with the Dutchmen (16-16-2, 8-13-1) losing several key players to graduation and the NHL, the two teams finished 7th and 10th respectively, leading to a matchup in the first round of the ECAC playoffs this weekend at Lynah Rink. The best-of-three series will begin Friday night at 7:00 pm, with game two on Saturday night, with a third game (if necessary) on Sunday night.
Cornell has been a model of inconsistency the whole year. After gaining only one win in their first six games of the season, they won four of their next five, including big wins over Penn State at Madison Square Garden, and nationally ranked Denver. However, starting with the Florida College Classic in December, they have been unable to sustain any sort of success. Since the semester started, the Big Red have not had a single four-point weekend, but neither have they had a zero-point weekend. They have often followed up dominating performances on Fridays with lackluster efforts on Saturdays, which can be a bad omen in a three-game series. If Cornell hopes to advance to the next round, they cannot have a mental lapse in any game, and must be confident in their own skills, rather than playing down to Union’s abilities.
The Big Red have struggled this year to score goals, ranking 54th out of 59 teams in the NCAA in scoring and averaging only 1.90 goal per game. Cole Bardreau leads the team in points, with a 5-16-21 line, while Christian Hilbrich has broken out this year to lead the team with nine goals. Joakim Ryan has also bounced back nicely after missing the first half of the season with a hand injury to put up a solid 1-12-13 line. However, even with the offense struggling, the power play has been improving since last season. With a decent 17% conversion rate on man advantages, Cornell has been able to consistently generate solid possessions and the results have shown. Cole Bardreau and Matt Buckles have each scored four power play goals this season to lead the rejuvenated unit.
But even with the offensive struggles, the Big Red are one of the best defensive teams in the country, giving up only 1.97 goals per game, good for fourth in the NCAA. They are led by sophomore goalie Mitch Gillam, who has a 1.77 GAA and .935 save percentage, both fourth in the country. He has put up these stellar numbers despite giving up three or more goals in four of the past six games, including last weekend vs. Brown when he was pulled in favor of Hayden Stewart in the first period. Cornell also enters this series with the top penalty-killing unit the country, killing off over 91% of opponent’s power plays this season. Aside from the superior play of Gillam, one of the main reasons the Big Red has been so successful on defense is their ability to block shots. Eight members of the team have more than 20 blocked shots, with Jacob MacDonald and Reece Wilcox leading the way with 39 and 37, respectively.
Union this season looked like a shell of the team that was a number one seed in the NCAA tournament last year and dominated perennial power Minnesota in the championship game. After losing star players such as Daniel Carr, Matthew Bodie and Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player Shayne Gostisbehere to the NHL, the team has regressed. After starting the season 5-0, they completely fell off, as the fine-tuned, high-scoring attack from last year seemed like a distant memory. Before finishing off the season by sweeping St. Lawrence and Clarkson this past weekend, they lost five straight, getting shut out in three of those games. This included a 2-1 loss to Cornell on senior night two weeks ago, where the Lynah Faithful was stunned by the sloppy play from a team whose fast-paced and disciplined play last year rivaled that of the old Soviet Union hockey teams.
However, even with the struggles, this is still a dangerous team. Senior forward Daniel Ciampini leads the nation in goals with 25, and is fourth in scoring (25-21-46). They are also getting solid seasons out of sophomore Mike Vecchione (16-27-43) and defenseman Jeff Taylor (4-24-28), as the Dutchmen are averaging a very solid 3.06 goals per game. Even so, they have struggled somewhat on defense. Senior goaltender Collin Stevens, who was first team all-ECAC last season, has been shaky at times, while putting up a relatively pedestrian 2.45 GAA and .915 save percentage. The team has also sometimes struggled with turnovers, a problem rarely seen with the elite puck possession abilities of last years’ team.
But despite Union’s regression from last year, they still have won three straight ECAC titles, a feat unmatched since Boston University in the 1970s. Their ability to score, coupled with Gillam’s recent struggles, could create problems for the Big Red. However, with their stellar defense and knack for scoring clutch goals, Cornell should have a decent shot in this series. If they wish to advance to the next round, they must continue to be defensively stout, while taking advantage of their offensive opportunities.