After 22 league games, Colgate and Cornell were separated by just a point in the ECACHL standings.
On the season, the Red (20-7-4) has scored 2.97 goals per game, while the Raiders (20-11-6) have netted 3.00 per contest. Despite the fact that Cornell scores at a slightly less frequent pace than Colgate, the Red edges the Raiders on the other end of the ice, as it holds its opponents to 2.19 goals per game as compared to 2.38 for Colgate.
Cornell can also boast the advantage in head-to-head wins over the Raiders, as the Red swept Colgate in a home-and-home series in early February, earning a 4-1 win at Lynah Rink before a 3-2 win at Starr Rink the following night.
The Red also holds the edge in national prestige, as the squad is ranked at No. 7 in the country and is considered a lock for the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens this weekend, while the Raiders are at the 17th-ranked team in the nation, and are on the bubble for the national tournament.
Yet, Cornell head coach Mike Schafer ’86 and junior goaltender David McKee know that the previous contests and the rankings are not a good predictor of what may happen this weekend.
“We’ve had two tremendous games against [Colgate]. … And I’ve said this all year long, that when you look at the NCAA polls, I just don’t think that some of the teams in the league have gotten the respect they deserve,” Schafer said. “In respect to Colgate, they’re a team that, in the national scene, has been underrated for what they have done all year long.”
“I think it’s good for everyone’s morale, knowing we beat them twice,” McKee said. “But we know we can’t take them lightly.”
Therefore, it may be hard for fans and analysts alike to choose a winner for Friday night’s ECACHL semifinal between the No. 2 Raiders and No. 3 Cornell.
The difference in the game could come down to the one of the more cliche intangibles — experience.
“It’s really big for us to have experience [in the postseason],” McKee said. “We’ve been there before and we know what it’s about. It’s all about business.”
Since the six members of Class of 2006 arrived at Cornell, the squad has won a pair of ECACHL titles, played in two NCAA tournaments and made it to the Frozen Four in the 2002-03 season.
In addition, the top-12 scorers for the Red, along with McKee, have all tasted an ECACHL crown — something that no Raider can say.
While the five Colgate seniors have played a key role in turning around a program that went 17-19-4 in their freshman season, the group is still looking to get over the hump in postseason play.
In that 2002-03 campaign, the Raiders were bounced from the conference tournament after only two games against Dartmouth, falling by a combined 8-3 margin. A year later, the team ousted St. Lawrence in three games in the league quarterfinals, but got beat by Clarkson in Albany, N.Y. Last season, despite another semifinal loss (this time to Harvard in two overtimes), Colgate made the national tournament. However, the team remained without an NCAA tournament win since the 1989-90 national semifinal, as the Raiders fell to Colorado College, 6-5.
However, despite the recent disappointments, Colgate refuses to be burdened by the past.
“We don’t really put that kind of pressure on ourselves,” said Colgate head coach Don Vaughan.
This season, despite the bulk of the team being underclassmen, Colgate has had one of its best seasons in recent memory.
“We’re pretty young still, but we had a good year and I was pretty pleased with the effort our young guys put forward,” Vaughan said. “We graduated nine pretty good seniors off of last year’s team and we had some young guys step up.”
One of those young players who stepped up in place of a graduate is goaltender Mark Dekanich. The second-year player made just five appearances last season in place of then-senior starter Steve Silverthorn. This season, though, his goals against average in conference games was just 1.98 — better than McKee’s mark 2.15.
Another young star for the Raiders is a fellow sophomore, Jesse Winchester, who tallied six power-play goals against conference foes — the same as Cornell senior captain Matt Moulson.
While Colgate has senior leadership and talent in the form of assistant captain Kyle Wilson, the team’s leading scorer, and captain Jon Smyth, who has tallied 33 points on the season, the team would be lost without the contributions of Winchester and classmate Tyler Burton, who have combined for 76 points on the season.
Despite the relaxed vibes coming from Colgate, Vaughan did concede that this weekend was crucial for his squad — which means his young guns need to continue their impressive play.
“It looks, at least on the surface, like the only way that we’re going to get to the NCAA tournament is to win in Albany, so there may be a little added incentive there,” Vaughan said. “But we’re not putting that kind of pressure on our program, especially [with] a younger team like we have.”