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The hunt for a Big Red April

by Bob Snow
The 58 NCAA teams begin the hunt in October; one remains standing each April.

The stretch run to the NCAA championship game in Detroit at Ford Field on April 10 begins this week with the puck version of March madness. Three of the six leagues ended regular-season play last weekend: Atlantic Hockey, CCHA and the ECAC Hockey League. The other three end this weekend: CHA, Hockey East and WCHA.

All six leagues enter various forms of tournament play over the next three weekends.

In upstate Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University ended its 110th regular season with a weekend win and tie against Union and Rensselaer, respectively. The three points secured Cornell's second-place finish in the ECACHL -- one point behind Yale.

More importantly, their current No. 9 power ranking gives Cornell a likely lock for one of the 10 at-large invites among the 16 teams in the four NCAA regionals the weekend of March 25-27. The winner of each regional advances to the Frozen Four in Detroit.

Winning the league tournament March 20 eliminates any on-the-bubble questions for Big Red, with the six automatic invites that go to each league's tournament champion.  

Either route will mark Cornell's 17th trip to the postseason. Eight resulted in playing in the Frozen Four, and twice -- 1967 and 1970 -- the Big Red won it all.

Across the NCAA landscape, one name is most associated with Cornell hockey history -- Ken Dryden, who backboned Big Red to three NCAA appearances, including the '67 title in his first NCAA season, before his successful NHL career. 

The league's annual Ken Dryden Award is given to the best goaltender.

For Cornell to win its first national title in 40 years -- and the league's first since Harvard in 1989 -- they will have to rely on one of the nation's most stifling defenses, and a goaltender with skimpy stats named Ben Scrivens, who is a lock for the Dryden Award. 

"I've had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Dryden on a couple of occasions," said Scrivens. "When he comes up to Cornell, he's a pretty hot commodity."

So is Scrivens, who finished the regular season with a 1.99 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 29 games. He was third nationally in both categories, behind Miami's Cody Reichard and Denver's Marc Cheverie.

"Personal accolades will come with team success," said Scrivens, one of six seniors. "I'm focused on getting this team deep into the playoffs. Sometimes people pump your tires for no reason, but the players and teams that have the most success never get too high and they never get too low."

"When the guys see him focused and ready to go, they know they'll get a real good performance out of him," said Big Red coach Mike Schafer, in his 15th year, about his stellar goalie. "We're not senior top-heavy, which is good. We've got three forwards, two defensemen and a goalie. If you could script it, that's what you'd want every year."

Senior forwards Ben Gallagher and captain Colin Greening lead the team in scoring; Brendan Nash and Justin Krueger are a pair of senior pillars on defense. Joe Scali rounds out Schafer's graduating class with Scrivens.

At Cornell, "graduating" is the operative goal.

"We look at our academic standards and we don't offer scholarships," said Schafer. "But Yale is in the top 10 (nationally), we're in the top 10. It's difficult to get to the Frozen Four. When you look at teams that have their pick of the litter in recruits, it's easier for them with full scholarships and being in a hockey hotbed like Minnesota or Michigan."

"I remember feeling like, 'Oh, we're playing a Colorado College or New Hampshire,'" said Florida Panthers forward Byron Bitz, who left Cornell in 2007 with a business degree and two trips to the NCAA Tournament. "You hear about these programs historically. Then you go out there and play against them and you realize, 'Hey, they're pretty good, but we're just as good as them.'"

Cornell has beaten North Dakota and New Hampshire this season and tied national champion Boston University in Madison Square Garden en route to a 17-8-4 record.

"If you look across the country," said Schafer, "we know we can compete with anyone. The question is: Have we learned the lessons about playing with poise in big events? We've shown we have and we haven't, so are we going to do it when it counts the most?"

Two close regular-season losses -- 4-2 and 2-1 to Yale -- prompt that question most.

The other major question is a catch-22: Does the Big Red's historic emphasis on defense stifle the ability to generate enough offense to win big games?

Cornell has scored just two goals in its last three losing efforts in regional finals with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line, and two goals in 2003 with a lost opportunity to play for it all in a 3-2 loss to New Hampshire in a national semifinal.

And the score of that game last Saturday night with a share of the league title on the line? 1-1 in OT.

"Defense and special teams are biggest," Schafer said in response to that history. "You look at NHL stats and the big college teams and you have to have at least that. You need to smother the other team and not give them any hope."

"I think the systems got us there pretty consistently," said Bitz. "But it's just having that balance or whatever to get there. I don't think the system keeps it back, but maybe that balance or break. Just a matter of finding a way to get that key goal."

"We lost to Minnesota in OT (2005, 2-1) to not get (to the Frozen Four); lost to Wisconsin in triple OT (2006, 1-0) to not get there, and last year to Bemidji (4-1)," said Schafer. "We keep knocking on the door."

Scrivens will be posting that one-line lyric across his crease the next few weeks: "I hear you knockin', but you can't come in."

"It's a matter of guys in the dressing room saying, 'We gotta buckle down,'" said the undrafted NHL free agent. "Everyone is a key piece of the puzzle. All I can do is go out and try to stop the puck."

If Scrivens stops enough pucks in March -- while his teammates score a few more postseason goals -- Ken Dryden will be mentioned a lot in April.  

So will Scrivens and his Big Red teammates.

"Just to be mentioned in the same sentence with that name is a huge honor," said Scrivens. "His hallmark was that pose; hopefully, we'll be remembered for something else."

On Campus Clips -- Western Michigan coach Jim Culhane will step down after 11 seasons behind the Broncos bench, effective the final game of the season. "After a very diligent evaluation of our hockey program, we have made the decision to move toward a new direction in terms of the leadership of Bronco hockey," Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard said in a recent news release. Culhane will be reassigned to the school's office of development … The other two regular-season champions ending league play last weekend were no-contest finishes: RIT ahead of Sacred Heart by 10 points in Atlantic Hockey, and the Miami RedHawks by a whopping 20 points ahead of Michigan State in the CCHA … First-round league tournament play begins this weekend in the ECACHL, Atlantic Hockey and the CCHA.

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