by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
In the summer of '06, Cornell's Lynah Rink, one of college hockey's most hallowed edifices, underwent a facelift, adding seats and locker room space to the building that was erected over 50 years ago.
Unfortunately for the Big Red, that was not the only rebuilding that took place, as three coveted underclassmen left early for the pros.
But not many teams can go through a so-called "rebuilding year" and still finish in the top four in their league, as Cornell has done this season. And while a 14-11-4 record (10-8-4 ECAC) may not be up to the standards Cornell has set for itself in recent years, it still isn't that bad, considering ...
Last season, Cornell suffered a dramatic 1-0 triple overtime loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA Regional Final — one of the more memorable NCAA playoff games in recent memory. That was followed by a mass exodus of junior class members to the pros — first, goaltender and former Hobey Baker finalist David McKee, and then stalwart defensemen Ryan O'Byrne and Sasha Pokulok.
Suddenly, Mike Schafer's Big Red team was without a clear No. 1 goaltender for the first time since All-Americans Matt Underhill and Dave LeNeveu split time during the 2001-2002 season, and the defensive corps was reduced to a skeleton of what it had been during the previous few years.
Over time, Cornell has developed a reputation for being very stingy defensively, and for being big and physical, for opening up offensive opportunities by cycling the puck at will down low. And despite their aforementioned losses in the offseason, the Big Red is tied for second in the conference with 2.50 goals allowed per game.
After Cornell fell to its archrival Harvard in the final game of the regular season, Crimson coach Ted Donato said of the Big Red, "I don't think there needs to be a lot of great pregame speeches when Cornell's on the menu. Most times when we play them, it's a matchup of speed versus size. For a long time, they've been the flag bearer for our league."
And as the flag bearer, Cornell seemed to direct the entire league to a more physical style of play — with the idea that, eventually, any team could be worn down during the course of a game.
But now, when the Big Red take the ice, something is visibly different. Simply put, they're ... smaller.
"A lot of times, it's been unfair for them," said Schafer about his talented freshman class. "What I mean by that is, you walk into a program with all the success we've had, and to have to carry the load in a lot of different situations, it's been a lot of responsibility."
Indeed, the rookies for the Big Red leads the team in scoring by class. And frequently this season, Schafer has even used a power play featuring four freshmen on the ice at one time.
All this for a team that, each of the last two seasons, found itself a mere overtime goal away from the Frozen Four.
Rookie Colin Greening is tied for the team lead in goals with 10, and plus-minus, with a plus-10 rating. He and classmate Justin Krueger are two of only five Big Red players to appear in all 29 games so far this season.
And fellow freshmen Tony Romano, Blake Gallagher and Brendan Nash have been productive mainstays in the lineup all year. Romano, in particular, has used his skill and speed to lead his class in scoring — and he may seem to represent the new direction that Cornell hockey is taking.
Four of the five freshman forwards — Romano included — are no taller than 6-feet.
When asked if he feels like his team has taken a slightly different approach with more skilled players, Schafer said, "There's no question. I really have to believe that college hockey is going to go towards what the NHL is playing. So you want to have guys who can really get around the ice."
Continued Schafer, regarding the much-publicized crackdown by ECAC officials earlier in the season, "I thought our league was going towards [the NHL style of play] earlier in the year, but we've kind of pulled back and gone in a different direction. I hope we go back to the direction we were going at the start of the year — a lot less holding and a lot less stick work. I think it'll give a lot better pace to the game."
This weekend, Schafer hopes that his rested team — coming off a bye week — will be able to control the pace of the game against Rand Pecknold's Quinnipiac Bobcats, who will visit Lynah Rink for a best-of-three quarterfinal series with a trip to the ECAC Championship Weekend in Albany N.Y. on the line. And while the Big Red still boasts veteran leadership from players like Topher Scott, Byron Bitz and Mark McCutcheon, their ticket to Albany may rest on how productive the quickly maturing class of 2010 can be.
"They haven't made any excuses," said Schafer, "and they've played hard and learned a lot through the course of the year. They're going to be good players down the road."
Schafer paused, and continued, "Well, they're good players right now."
And this weekend, as the march towards a league championship and an NCAA berth continues, they have the chance to turn this "rebuilding year" into something much more.