Team of the Week: Cornell
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ITHACA, N.Y. The last time Cornell was unbeaten through the first eight league games was ... 1969-70.
Yes, astute observers, that is the year the Big Red posted the only perfect season of the modern era.
But, while Cornell — after a couple of seasons taking a step back from the lofty standards it had previously set for itself — is again thinking NCAAs and beyond, it's far from making romantic correlations to 39 years ago.
"The consistency from period to period is something we can improve on, but we're not surprised where we are," said Cornell goalie Ben Scrivens. "The hard work is paying off and we're going to keep rolling with it."
On the one hand, it can be said that enthusiasm should be tempered given how difficult it is for ECAC teams just to win an NCAA game. Since Mike Schafer took over as Cornell coach in 1995-96, only three other ECAC teams have won an NCAA game — one or two — Clarkson (1996, 2008), Vermont (1996) and St. Lawrence (2000).
Then again, at Cornell, things are different. The Big Red have won six NCAA games in that span. And each season becomes based around wondering whether this team has what it takes to match — at least — those teams from 2005 and 2006. Such is what happens when a program has that kind of recent success. In both of those seasons, the Big Red came within a whisker of making the Frozen Four, losing the NCAA Regional Final in overtime in what were essentially road games. That's just after the 2003 team actually made the Frozen Four.
This season is shaping up to be a battle royale in the ECAC with Princeton. Others will be pesky throughout the season, no doubt, as St. Lawrence proved this past weekend at Lynah Rink. But the Big Red and Tigers are legit NCAA hopefuls.
Still, it will be out-of-conference games that provide the true gauge for Cornell. So far, that's gone OK, with a split of a weekend series at North Dakota under its belt.
Coming up are the always-huge holiday tournament games, with St. Cloud State in the opener, followed by either Maine or Colgate. Winning that tournament would be enormous to Cornell's NCAA prospects, but it comes after a three-week layoff.
"This year's layoff is the smallest layoff we've had since I've been here," Schafer said. "Last year we were almost 32 days. It was a long, long time. I think you get some guys healthy. It will go by fast. ... That tournament is always hectic down there. Every tournament across the country, the guys disappear across the country, they come back, it's hodge-podge hockey. You fly by the seat of your pants."
Cornell senior Michael Kennedy said the onus will be on the players.
"We split up once exams start, but our focus is to stay in good shape over the break," Kennedy said. "And once you taste this kind of success, you want more.
"You gotta take care of the body. We're going to be put through intense workouts here early on, but once the guys go home, it's up to them. Stay in good condition, eat well, get rest, get on the ice, so when you come to the Florida tournament, you're not rusty.
"We've paid for it in previous years of the tournament."
Of course, there will be plenty of ECAC tests too, and that's good.
Clarkson is having a down year, and Cornell was able to bottle up the Knights on Friday with some textbook Big Red defense. They limited Clarkson to 14 shots in a 4-1 win.
Saturday was different. After dominating the first period, but coming away scoreless, Cornell finally got on the board in a more even second period, on Colin Greening's power-play goal.
The third period, however, belonged to St. Lawrence. In particular, there were three straight penalties against the Big Red in the closing minutes, creating a frenzy of power-play chances for the Saints. Thanks to numerous blocked shots, key saves, and two spectacular Ben Scrivens saves in particular, the Big Red held on.
"I was not very happy with the way we came out in the third," Schafer said. "They made adjustments with the way they were pinching up on the puck, but I thought we were a little bit lazy in our own zone in terms of getting back to pucks, moving our feet, and making crisp passes to exit the zone."
Scrivens stopped an initial shot by getting quickly across the crease, then stopped a rebound that was ticketed for the top shelf with a great glove save.
"It's a bang-bang play, it's all reactions. If I could tell exactly how to do it, I'd probably be out of a job pretty quick," Scrivens said. "It's just practice habits. ... I got pretty luck and tried to cover the bottom part of the net."
Scrivens' late-game heroics were perhaps his shining moment in a Big Red uniform so far. And Cornell fans hope it's a portent of things to come.
Right now, his save percentage is above .950, which puts the junior at a level he had previously not attained. Whether he can sustain it or not will determine whether he takes his rightful place in the pantheon of Cornell goaltenders, including recent Hobey finalists David LeNeveu and David McKee.
"I'm not going to compare myslf to the McKees, the LeNeveus the (Matt) Underhills — all the great guys that came before me," Scrivens said. "If I'm lucky enough that guys are going to look at me after, and say 'Wow, he put up decent numbers,' OK. Right now we're trying to win hockey games.
"I'm lucky enough to be on a team where defense comes first. It could the like the '80s Oilers where you're winning a game 7-6. Grant Fuhr (was) a phenomenal goalie. He only had to make 10 saves and they'd win 6-5, but they won games and that's the important thing. We want to win a championship.
"It's a great honor to play for Cornell because of the legacy, but I'm not going to compare myself to those guys, because they've done a lot more in their career to date than I have."
Cornell could get a lift after Christmas if freshman defenseman Keir Ross returns from an injury. He had quickly established himself as a top four defenseman for the Big Red.
"We still have a ways to go, and the guys know that," Schafer said. "There's a calm in there that we got away with one (against St. Lawrence), but training camp is around the corner when we get back from exams and back from Christmas. It's three weeks of intense practices, then we back off the rest of the year.
"For a team that we've wanted to see if they could learn how to win, they've done it in all ways, shape and form."