PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In a season where so much seemed to go wrong at just the wrong time, it all seemed to go right for the Cornell men's hockey team at just the right time on Saturday.
Second-period goals from senior Mitch Vanderlaan, sophomore Morgan Barron and freshman Michael Regushallowed the opportunistic Big Red to build a four-goal lead, then stave off Northeastern for a 5-1 victory in an NCAA East Region semifinal at Dunkin' Donuts Center. It was the first NCAA tournament win since 2012 for Cornell (21-10-4).
With the win, the Big Red will advance to the regional final against Providence at 4 p.m. Sunday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2. It marks Cornell's first trip to a regional final since 2012, when it used an overtime victory against Michigan to advance to a game against Ferris State in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The game against Northeastern (27-11-1) was essentially a redeeming effort after not only a devastating overtime loss to Clarkson last Saturday in the ECAC Hockey Championship, but following a tumultuous road all season. The program's third straight trip to the national tournament didn't come easy, with the Big Red enduring 89 man games lost to injury.
Perhaps the most visible has been the absence of all-ECAC Hockey selection Matthew Galajda, who was again forced out of the lineup on Saturday after a bizarre injury suffered last week after a goal cage he was defending in the ECAC Hockey title game was stuck on his back for six seconds.
But just as was the case when asked to step in during the middle of the season, sophomore Austin McGrathanswered the call. He made 20 saves to earn the victory his first start in over two months, including several key stops before Cornell grabbed the lead.
"I think everybody doubted whether we were able to get the thing done today, with losing (Galajda) and losing Jeff (Malott) up at Lake Placid, and it shows the resiliency of our hockey team," said Mike Schafer '86, the Jay R. Bloom '77 Head Coach of Men's Hockey at Cornell. "Being able to fight through what we did, shows you our leadership. … We had a saying last year 'only we know'. Only we know our teammates, and our team. We knew that Austin would rise to the challenge tonight and play well and do his part, and he did play well and the team played well."
This season marks just the second time in program history that Cornell has qualified for the NCAA tournament for a third straight year. And it just so happened to be the third straight year the Big Red found itself in a New England-based regional against a Hockey East champion. Northeastern entered the night a winner in 11 of its last 12 games, and the Big Red knew it would have its hands full defensively.
But in absorbing the occasional proverbial body blow, Cornell knew that it would generate its own share of chances on the counter attack. Facing one of the top goaltenders in the country in Cayden Primeau, opportunism was a must. That, and maybe a break or two.
Senior Beau Starrett got the Big Red going with his eighth goal of the season just 4:02 into the game. He won a faceoff in his own zone, and defensemen Yanni Kaldis and Alec McCrea worked the puck across the ice and up the left wall. The puck popped over a Northeastern player's stick in the neutral zone, and Starrett carried the puck in the offensive zone on a three-on-two. With freshman Michael Regush driving the slot, Starrett cut to the middle to find space and snapped a shot from the high slot that squeaked between the body and the right arms and the right ribs of Primeau.
"That came off the faceoff play, something that we want to work on throughout the week and we paid attention in our scouting report," said McCrea, who had three assists in a single contest for the first time in 136 collegiate games. "Beau did a great job, cutting across the front in the zone and put a good shot on them. … We got in front and we beat their guy and had strong sticks going to the net and that paid dividends for us. Just Beau getting that first one, it was good and we're able to use that momentum."
The penalty kill kept the momentum going. Though the Huskies finally broke through for a power-play goal late in the second period, Cornell already had three successful kills by the point and had built a 4-0 lead for the third time in its last five games.
Senior forward Mitch Vanderlaan scored the second goal just 54 seconds into the middle frame, faking out a defender on a two-on-two to find room in the slot before sniping a shot over Primeau's glove. Sophomore Morgan Barron potted his team-leading 15th strike of the year on an unassisted wraparound goal at the 9:47 mark, then freshman Michael Regush scored on a rebound a shade under three minutes later. Regush's tally was his sixth of the year on the power play and 12th overall.
Behind it all was McGrath, who was making his first start since Jan. 26. McGrath's efforts give Cornell two goaltenders with playoff victories in the same season for the first time in Schafer's 24 years at the helm.
"I think our 'D' did a great job today," McGrath said. "We know that they like to attack on the rush and try to generate like that. We had really good sticks, we kept them out wide, we didn't really give them too many opportunities in the way they like to play. So we kind of made them play our game rather than fighting and doing what they like to do."