Every Cornell hockey fan wants to see his team win something during his four short years on the hill. As much fun as it would be to travel to games as an alum, reconnect with fellow fans, and see the team succeed, I don't think the games would have the same importance to me.
I can't exaggerate the importance of Cornell hockey to my life over the last couple of years. As I traveled to 82 of the last 85 games, often driving hundreds of miles in one weekend, often alone, it became harder to keep my emotions from reflecting what was happening on the ice. As I missed friends' birthdays and parties, fraternity formals and pledge events, and everything else Cornell and Ithaca has to offer, the people I saw on the road -- the parents, the traveling townies and Faithful -- became a group of familiar faces whom I would look forward to seeing in Hanover, Estero, Grand Rapids, or anywhere else the team played.
I don't regret doing all the traveling, although it was in some ways a big relief when this season ended. Finally free from the burden of planning my life around the Cornell hockey schedule, I have more time to devote to finishing my senior thesis, planning for my future, and getting the most out of my final weeks in Ithaca.
I freely admit that I have been among the fortunate of the Lynah Faithful in that I've been a fan for some very good seasons. My first years of seriously rooting for Cornell hockey, in 2002 and 2003, featured some of the best teams to play at Lynah since the 1970s. I continued to follow the team in high school, agonizing over the close NCAA losses of 2005 and 2006, and traveling to upwards of 10 games a season as I neared the time at which I would become a legitimate Cornell student.
My own four years at Cornell have at times seemed almost scripted. As I adjusted to life as a freshman, the team struggled, ending the season at home with a playoff series sweep at the hands of ECAC newcomer Quinnipiac. The next year's team was a notch better, besting Dartmouth in a quarterfinal round series, sweeping Union in Schenectady, and making it to Albany.
Last year, by which point my fandom and willingness to travel had reached the point of obsession, the team took another step forward. Cornell made it all the way to the ECAC tournament final before losing to Yale, and then won a thrilling NCAA contest against Northeastern before falling to Bemidji State, one game short of the Frozen Four.
This year, my senior year, 2009-2010, was going to be the year. Sure, this team didn't have as much talent as the 2002-2003 team. And the ECAC has certainly gotten stronger since then, which makes it harder to run the table in conference play. But with the core of last year's team returning, it seemed likely that they could make it one game further than last year's team and get back to the Frozen Four for the first time in seven years. With Riley Nash, Colin Greening, and Justin Krueger, this year's team had three players with a legitimate chance of a establishing themselves in the NHL. Add goalie Ben Scrivens, who holds nearly every Cornell goaltending record, and a talented freshman class with John Esposito, Braden Birch, and Nick D'Agostino. Add Cornell's toughest non-conference schedule for many years, with games against BU, Colorado College, UNH, and North Dakota (twice), and everything seemed set for another strong run.
All of the yappity yap over on eLynah seems to be about whether the team met expectations, failed to meet expectations, or exceeded expectations. In my own view, the team met expectations prior to Friday's game. Everyone expected Cornell and Yale to fight over first place in the ECAC; Yale finished first, with Cornell a close second. Cornell continued to rank among the national leaders in defense and special teams.
In the ECAC tournament, a surprising early exit by Yale opened things up for the Big Red, who didn't look back en route to winning four games by a combined score of 11-1. The 2010 ECAC tournament title was the first for Cornell since 2005.
In the NCAA tournament, however, there is no doubt that Cornell performed below expectations. The game against UNH was, to be blunt, a total piece of shit. It was opposite day on the ice for the Big Red. Hobey Baker finalist Ben Scrivens gave up one goal and collapsed, reverting to the painful form we saw from him in big games against North Dakota, Yale, and Bemidji State during the 2008-2009 season. Scrivens would let in five goals total that night, most on the glove side, after giving up three goals in his six previous games.
Our highly regarded, productive top line of Nash, Greening, and Patrick Kennedy was nearly completely ineffective. Every pass seemed off by a few feet, our defense couldn't clear pucks, and we lost almost every battle around the boards. Meanwhile, Tyler Roeszler and Dan Nicholls -- who came into the game having scored a total of seven goals in their collegiate careers -- were the only ones who found the back of the net.
Why did nothing go right for Cornell? After the game, captain Greening seemed as confused as everyone else, admitting, "I can't for the life of me figure out why we didn't bring it tonight."
We'd seen this kind of team-wide, terrible hockey earlier in the season. It first surfaced in the Florida tournament over Winter Break. After losing the first game to Colorado College, I was talking to one of the most dedicated of the Lynah Faithful -- someone whom I'd never heard speak badly about the team. She was livid, and suggested that Coach Schafer switch in all of the reserves who'd sat out the first game, to send a message to the team. Well, Schafer didn't do that, and team played the same way against Princeton that next night, losing to the middling Tigers for the first of two times this season.
We saw the same awful hockey during the third period at Dartmouth, when a late-game lead evaporated after the team (including a shaky Scrivens) imploded.
We were able to shake off these previous performances with a little shrug of the shoulder. What happened in Florida? Oh, the team must have been out of shape from the long wait since their last game, and they certainly recovered nicely by beating UNH, 5-2, in Durham the following weekend. What happened at Dartmouth? Oh, just a fluke, and it didn't help that Dartmouth was playing on their senior night. In the end, everything worked out; with Cornell at #2 and Yale at #1, the Yalies had to face a hungry Brown team in the ECAC quarterfinal round. Everything was okay.
I fail to understand why some Cornell fans are so willing to write off Friday's debacle in similar fashion. This was the fucking NCAA tournament. Lose, and the team goes home. Win, and they're one game away from the Frozen Four. Okay, so maybe something goes wrong for Cornell. Perhaps Scrivens has a sub-par game. Maybe we lose a lot of faceoffs. Maybe some calls go the other way. Maybe UNH gets a couple of fortuitous bounces and steals a close game.
Everything went wrong on Friday.
Folks, this was not a close game. UNH out-played Cornell for the entire first period, and the Big Red were lucky that Roeszler put them ahead 1-0. Cornell had three shots on goal in the first 17 minutes. Cornell did show some signs of life early in the second period, and had a couple of very nice chances on the powerplay, but didn't score.
Once the UNH goal was reviewed and called a goal (the right decision), this Cornell hockey team folded like a deck of cards. Twenty-six seconds later, another goal. Then two more goals early in the third period.
This was not another close, hard-fought, respect-building loss for Cornell in the NCAA tournament. Remember all those compliments we got from Minnesota fans in 2005, and Wisconsin fans in 2006, about how much respect they had for the Big Red after Cornell nearly beat them in their home states? This loss was a blowout, and it hurt even more because it was to New Hampshire. This was the same UNH team which we beat in January on their home ice. And the same UNH team we'd lost to in 2002 and 2003 in the NCAA tournament.
Looking back on the season, it looks more like the ECAC tournament was a fluke performance. Yale was out of the way, Scrivens and the defense played out of their respective minds, and everything seemed to work. Before the ECAC tournament, we saw a devilishly inconsistent Big Red team which couldn't win four games in a row at any point during the season, and which lost big games to Yale (twice), Quinnipiac (when they were good), Colorado College, and BU (may as well have been a loss). After the ECAC tournament, Cornell followed up on its success by playing its worst game of the season during its most important game of the season.
Credit the team, the coaches, and everyone else involved, for winning another ECAC title. It will be great to be able to return to Lynah, point out the 2010 ECAC Tournament Champions banner, and talk about how I was there for that championship during my senior year. Cornell continues to have impressive success in the ECAC, and again, much credit is due for that.
But to end the season on such a pathetic note... I just don't know. It doesn't make sense. Almost all of these guys had been to the NCAA tournament before. Many of them were playing in their final game in a Cornell uniform. They had been playing so well recently. They had just won a championship on that ice surface six days earlier. Why the sudden shift? Why the terrible performance?
Was it a lack of motivation by the coaching staff? Had the players been fucking around for the whole week of vacation before the Friday game? It's maddening because because no explanation is evident.
Who knows what might have been. Thanks for the ECAC title, and all of the memories, but it hurts. It hurts to watch your team, to whom you have dedicated so much time, let themselves be embarrassed on the final game of your time at Cornell. I simply do not understand what happened on Friday. And as I leave in May, I will be clutching my ECAC Champions t-shirt, looking back fondly on the team's successes over these four years, and trying to forget how much they sucked during the last game of my time on the hill.