Cornell Continues to Move Forward: Is This The Year?
This spring marks the 50-year anniversary of the 1969-70 Cornell team that finished 29-0-0 under Ned Harkness — the last unblemished record in college hockey history. It was also the last time Cornell won the national championship.
Twenty-five years later (and thus 25 years ago), a then-32 year old Mike Schafer took over as head coach at his alma mater in Ithaca, N.Y. — indeed, a town whose name itself conjures an epic classic literary tale of a long-awaited homecoming.
The Big Red have been close to that grand homecoming before. Like Odysseus (or Ulysses, if you prefer), it’s taking longer than some may have hoped. But Schafer has led Cornell to five NCAA quarterfinal appearances since its last Frozen Four trip in 2003, and the Big Red are certainly moving forward to another NCAA run.
Cornell entered 2020 with the best winning percentage in the nation for the second time in the last three years. A 10-0-0 start was the best in the country. Ranked second in the nation in team defense, Cornell was also the last team to allow more than two goals in a game this season, until allowing three in a 3-3 tie with Union on Saturday.
So is this the year to end the half-century wait?
One step at a time, of course, but Cornell bolstered its resume recently with a trip to the Fortress Invitational in Las Vegas, earning a 5-2 win over Ohio State, followed by a 2-2 tie against Providence. The tie came after New York Rangers prospect Morgan Barron scored his second goal of the game late in the third period — the first time, actually, that the Big Red had scored in an extra-attacker situation in 114 games.
And they did it playing a Friars team, coached by Nate Leaman, that plays similar to Cornell in many ways.
“It’s going to be great video for us,” Schafer said after the tournament. “It’s only the second time we’ve been down this year in the third period, and they do some great things — being above you, and it’s very difficult to generate offense. Getting back to watching the video, it’ll be an outstanding opportunity to teach.
“‘Here are some things we did well, here are some things that we can work on.'”
Schafer — a 57-year old veteran now — has seen plenty during his quarter-century standing in the center of the Cornell bench. Naturally more professorial than in his younger days, he speaks of teachable moments often. He might even be able to teach the Odyssey itself.
And with a team featuring only three seniors — and starting three rookie defensemen in a system known for its defense — there’s still plenty to learn. A 2-1 loss to Dartmouth to end the first half of the season felt like an uncharacteristic letdown following an emotional win at rival Harvard a night earlier. Even in Las Vegas, following the game against Providence that featured some questionable penalty calls at best, Schafer spoke of needing to hold his team accountable for the penalties that they did take.
Calling the tournament “great preparation” leads now to great expectations. Those expectations were met Friday, in a 3-0 manhandling of Rensselaer. Saturday, bad habits crept in, leading to three goals, though Cornell did score twice in the third period to tie on each occasion, which is a good sign.
Most strange, however, is the continued issues with the penalty kill. Cornell is reliably a top five penalty kill team, nationally. But this season, it ranks 58th of 60, which is somewhat inexplicable given its otherwise air-tight defense and excellent goaltending. Against Union, the Big Red gave up two power-play goals on three chances.
“Our guys fought back and got the tie after going down twice and did a good job there,” Schafer said. “But I think that overall, we just made some technical mistakes we’ve got to correct and get back to work.”
It’s a young team, but arguably one of the more balanced — strength, speed, transition, and more — in Schafer’s tenure. Five times since 2003, Cornell was a win away from another Frozen Four, and four of those times, came down to the thinnest of blips. One of these days, it’s bound to happen again, no?
“If you had told me at the start of the year that we’re going to play (11) of our first (15) away from Lynah Rink and we’d be that (12-1-2), I’d say I’ll take it. I’d be really happy,” Schafer said. “But I think it’s just a game-by-game (process) of analyzing things. We did some things that we didn’t do right (Friday) night, and that carried over (against Union). Now we’ve got a chance to get home and get it rectified and back to where we need to go to.”
Going forward, what’s the evidence that this Cornell team can be the one to bring home the hardware? Well, simply, the Big Red are frontrunners. In its 12 wins (out of 15 games played), Cornell has trailed for only 16 minutes, 5 seconds. Cornell is scoring almost two goals per game … in the second period alone. And Schafer has his team ranked in the top five in both team offense and team defense. Again, the only team that can claim the same is North Dakota.
“Teams think that Providence and ourselves and Ohio State are really good defensive teams,” Schafer said, referring to a misconception that has surrounded Cornell for well over a decade now. “But what people miss the boat on is that we can be very good in transition.”
It’s helped to have fast, puck-moving defensemen like Yanni Kaldis, Alex Green and Sam Malinski. And behind them, there’s junior goaltender Matthew Galajda, who has allowed only nine even-strength goals through 15 games — back on pace to be a Hobey Baker finalist again.
“You’ve got to fight for every inch,” Schafer said, of playing teams like Providence.
And perhaps that’s the biggest lesson going forward. It’s only January, and there’s a lot more inches to fight for between now and the Frozen Four in Detroit this April. Will Cornell be there at the end, like it was 50 years ago?
Time will tell.
Originally published at https://www.collegehockeynews.com/news/2020/01/13_A-Test,-of-Time.php