Any trip to Atlantic City, N.J. is bound to have its ups and downs, and for the Cornell men’s hockey team the final weekend of the ECAC playoffs at Boardwalk Hall was no exception. The Red advanced to the conference finals after blanking Dartmouth, 3-0, in the semifinals on Friday, March 18; however, an NCAA tournament-bound Yale squad proved too much for Cornell the following evening when the Bulldogs earned a decisive shutout win, 6-0.
The mood around the Cornell squad entering the weekend was relatively relaxed, as head coach Mike Schafer ’86 emphasized the lack of pressure his team had experienced all season long after losing several top players to the NHL after the 2009-10 campaign. Cornell’s chances at a spot in the NCAA tournament hinged on departing Atlantic City as champions of the ECAC, while Dartmouth was still in consideration for an at-large bid entering the weekend. After the Red’s semifinal victory, Schafer acknowledged how much of an impact the game could have on the postseason bracket, applauding his players for coming out on top against such a qualified opponent.
“We knew coming in that we would have to play really well,” he said. “[Dartmouth is] a team that could hopefully be NCAA-bound — a big strong hockey team — and we knew that we had to keep [applying pressure] once we had a 2-0 lead.”
Cornell arrived first on the scoreboard on Friday night on a goal from sophomore defenseman Sean Whitney late in the first period at 18:05. Whitney, who assisted senior forward and co-captain Joe Devin on the decisive game-winner against Quinnipiac a week prior, connected on his second goal of the season with assists from sophomore center Greg Miller and senior left wing Tyler Roeszler. While Whitney’s contributions on offense were a significant factor in the game, Schafer admitted that the team’s ability to keep the puck out of its own net was paramount to success down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs.
“We got embarrassed at Yale badly in the last game of the season, and we were really fortunate to get the home ice bye,” he explained. “We addressed some things about the way we needed to play if we we’re going to have any kind of success in the playoffs … The guys got recommitted to [playing good defense] and I’m happy for them to be playing the right way.”
The Cornell offense went right back to work just 24 seconds later when freshman right wing Armand de Swardt notched his first collegiate goal, assisted by junior center Sean Collins to extend the team’s lead entering the second period, 2-0.
Despite being assessed a total of 10 penalty minutes through the remaining 41 minutes, the Red — led by junior goalie Mike Garman’s 37-save performance — managed to hold off the Dartmouth offense, closing the game out on an empty netter from sophomore left wing John Esposito, 3-0.
“I just try and continue to play my game from the first minute to the last minute, and fortunately it went well [against Dartmouth],” Garman said after his shutout performance. “I think a lot of credit goes to the team … everyone played great in front of me and we really limited great scoring chances.”
“Armand — especially coming down the stretch here — he’s been a great player for us,” Joe Devin said when asked about de Swardt’s play late in the season. “He’s a young kid, big kid … and that’s his first goal of his career, and it’s unbelievable. We need that secondary scoring, and that’s huge for us.”
Perhaps most rewarding about the semifinal victory over Dartmouth was the struggles that this year’s team endured throughout the regular season, ultimately earning an ECAC playoff bye after ranking as low as 11th in the conference.
“It’s been a tremendous journey for us throughout the course of the year,” Schafer said. “We were in 11th place at Christmas time and went down to Florida and lost two games in overtime. It just shows you how far we’ve come … and it’s been a grind ever since.”
Unfortunately for Cornell, the road to a conference championship would have to go through a Yale squad that had ranked No. 1 in the nation at various points during the regular season. In the only two matchups between the two teams during the 2010-11 campaign the Bulldogs emerged victorious both times, outscoring Cornell in the process, 8-3.
The contest on Saturday March 19 was no exception, as Yale jumped out to an early lead on two first period goals from forward Kevin Limbert and rounded out the second period with four more scores, en route to blanking the Red, 6-0. Freshman net minder Andy Iles was overmatched by the top-scoring offense in the nation, allowing five goals on only 10 shots before giving way to Garman after 28 minutes of action.
In total the Red was assessed 10 penalties on Saturday, highlighted by a 10-minute game misconduct from forward Jordan Kary in his final game in a Cornell uniform — the junior will be graduating a year early this May. While the lack of discipline has plagued the Red throughout the season, this was not necessarily the case against Yale, as most of the infractions took place after the game was out of reach.
The men’s hockey team will return to the ice next season under Schafer’s direction without top-scorer Joe Devin, his brother senior defenseman Mike Devin, Roeszler, Kary, senior forward and co-captain Patrick Kennedy and senior forward Dan Nicholls. That group was a part of three consecutive teams that ultimately reached the ECAC final, with the two of those squads earning bids to the NCAA tournament.