With four games remaining in the regular season and the Bulldogs three points out of a playoff spot, Nick Deschenes ’03 did not want to end his season without one more chance to share a room on the road with teammate Denis Nam ’03.
“I joked with Denis that, seeing as how we were road roomies, we needed to win so we could get into the playoffs and go on another road trip,” said Deschenes, who had been out since February with a leg injury.
After wins over Harvard and Brown at home last weekend, Deschenes will get his wish as the men’s ice hockey team travels to No. 9 Cornell (21-6-2, 17-3-2 ECAC) this weekend for the first round of the ECAC playoffs. The Bulldogs (10-17-2, 9-11-2 ECAC), who occupy the 10th and final playoff spot, will play the first two games of a best-of-three series Friday and Saturday against the top-seeded Big Red. If the squads split the first two games, a decisive third game is set for Sunday at Lynah rink in Ithaca, N.Y.
The playoffs could not have come at a better time for the Sons of Eli, who are riding a four-game winning streak into the postseason.
“[The win streak] gives us huge momentum,” winger Spencer Rodgers ’02 said. “If you’re going to reach 10th place, I don’t think there’s a better way to do it.”
Last weekend’s victories also marked the return of Deschenes after being sidelined for eight games. With injured defenseman Bryan Freeman ’04 expected to make a return to the lineup this weekend, the Bulldogs will be at their healthiest since Deschenes’s injury.
“We feel pretty good about ourselves right now,” head coach Tim Taylor said. “Hopefully, we’ll get some of the bounces to go our way.”
Indeed, the Elis will need all the help they can get against a Cornell squad that finished with 36 points, nine points better than second-place Clarkson. Including Clarkson, the next nine teams in the ECAC are all within seven points of each other.
The Big Red finished the regular season with only three losses and two ties in conference play. One of those ties, however, came in a 1-1 deadlock with the Bulldogs Nov. 30. More recently, Cornell edged out Yale, 3-2, Feb. 9, scoring the game-winning goal with 16 seconds remaining in the third period.
“I think we scared them by tying them at our rink and almost beating them at their rink,” Rodgers said. “I think they have to be a little nervous.”
Winger Chris Higgins ’05 and captain Luke Earl ’02 will lead the Elis’ offensive efforts. Higgins, who leads the Elis in scoring with 29 points, was unanimously named Ivy League Rookie of the Year and first team All-Ivy. Earl, who is second on the team with 21 points, received second team All-Ivy honors.
But before the consensus Ivy League rookie of the year can find the back of the net, he will have to go through the consensus Ivy League player of the year, Cornell defenseman Doug Murray.
Murray was named to the first team All-Ivy squad, along with Big Red goaltender Matt Underhill. Underhill’s 1.52 goals-against average leads all ECAC goaltenders, while Murray ranks 10th in scoring with 21 points in ECAC play.
On the defensive end, Bulldogs goaltender Dan Lombard ’02 will face a top-ranked Cornell offense that averages 3.36 goals per game and a power play that is responsible for over 30 percent of the squad’s goals.
But with only seven total goals scored in the teams’ last two meetings, Taylor said offense cannot be a priority.
“It has to be a game where we put defense first and don’t give up many goals,” Taylor said. “We have to keep them off the power play, and it’s going to take a lot of discipline to do that.”
If the Bulldogs manage to stifle Cornell’s special teams, Deschenes and Nam could find themselves on yet another road trip to the semifinals in Lake Placid, N.Y. Last year, 10th seed University of Vermont bested top-seeded Clarkson in the first round.
“We know we’re the underdogs, and it’s not like we’re not used to playing in front of a big crowd,” Deschenes said. “We look forward to the challenge.”