Re-Energized Cornell Charges Into Postseason
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ITHACA, N.Y. Cornell being Cornell, after missing the NCAAs last season, no one expected it to be out of the national scene for long.
And sure enough, with a stellar recruiting class coming in, and enough coming back, the Big Red have been in the mix all season.
But it was also expected that Cornell would take a year to mold these fresh faces to their style of play — whip them into Big Red shape, if you will. Maybe next year, it stood to reason, would be the big one the team is building towards.
And that has played out that way too.
But that aside, this year has developed into one with its own possibilities. Certainly it's been an up and down season in many ways, at least by Cornell standards. But here it is, a couple wins away from another ECAC championship and a very high NCAA seed.
"We feel we have a good hockey team," Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. "We thought we played really well against BU in Madison Square Garden when they had all their players. We played well at CC. We think we have the ability to play with everybody in the country and there's probably 20 teams that feel that way. The parity has increased. It's about staying healthy and plugging away and getting your opportunity."
Cornell would already be firmly entrenched into a high NCAA seed, were it not for a heartbreaking OT loss to Boston University at Madison Square Garden in November, and a couple of other third-period leads that crumbled away. Instead, a bad weekend in Atlantic City, and the Big Red may be shut out of the NCAAs entirely.
Cornell's third period issues in mid-season were notable — not because it was all that bad compared to most teams, but because it was so unusual for Cornell. The Big Red have set the standard in the Schafer era for clamping down on leads.
"People forget, we got those leads," Schafer said. "We played pretty well to get them. Sure we'd love to be sitting here saying we're 21-4, but we played well.
"There was a real short period of time I thought we didn't do a good job, a couple of games. It's gonna happen once in a while, it hits three people and goes in the back of the net on you. But our team fought through it because the media tabbed us as giving up leads. But after a couple of those happened, we played pretty well in the third, against Union for example, and St. Lawrence, where they tied the game but had only two shots."
That whole thing, however, is only indicative of the larger point — how Cornell's coaching staff needed this season to whip the young talent into shape.
"That's the fun part of coaching in college, making guys understand there's a way to play," Schafer said. "We're still talking about all kinds of different things that we want everyone to pick up on. That's what makes college coaching fun. It's a new journey every year. And some years it's rewarding, some it's frustrating, and sometimes it's both."
Coming out of the New Year, Cornell got a win and tie at Colorado College. As things turned to February, the Big Red went through a five-game stretch without a win, including three ties. But things came back around again, with the only loss since Jan. 28 coming in the last regular-season game, to RPI, in overtime.
"Understanding how to play aggressive and make good smart decisions. Every team goes through that," Schafer said. "It's not like pro hockey where everyone returns every year and they understand, and you teach it and they experience it. This year was different guys learning responsibilities and not making good decisions and other teams capitalizing. But we got it together."
Adding to the complexity of molding a new group was the large turnover to Cornell's coaching staff. Gone was Casey Jones, to become head coach at Clarkson, and gone was Scott Garrow, to take the associate head coaching position at Princeton.
The pair left behind, however, a recruiting class as good as any that has come to Ithaca. And in their place was Cornell looked to alum Topher Scott and former Quinnipiac assistant Ben Syer as its new assistants.
Having to work with new coaches turned out to be somewhat of a blessing for Schafer, coming as it did amid trying to instill the correct habits into an extremely talented, but raw, group of freshmen.
"I think that by having two new assistants, we could look back and evaluate what we do and why we do it, and explain it not just to the new guys, but to the new coaches," Schafer said. "Topher was pretty easy (to coach) from a playing standpoint, but now he knows why we do different things. And Ben's a great coach. But it makes you evaluate things when you have to explain to coaches why we practice this way, why we do that.
"So it's been great. We're re-enegerized. We miss Casey and Scott a lot, but we're happy to have those two. And (volunteer goaltender coach) Kris Mayotte too. Coaches across the country would be crazy not to get him on board."
The biggest loss this season turned out to be not the assistant coaches, but power forward Brian Ferlin. Despite being just a freshman, Ferlin, a Boston Bruins pick who was a late cut to the U.S. World Junior Team, was dominating games through the first half of the season. An injury incurred in mid-February required season-ending surgery.
"He's been a big loss. He's just a horse," Schafer said. "He can change a game in a shift. He was playing physical, he was playing better defensively. He can create offense by himself. So losing him (hurt), but getting Johnny Esposito back was huge. We missed Johnny for almost 5-6 weeks. He was one of our top offensive guys. But losing Brian has been piecing it together."
The pieces are coming together, in ways that still make Cornell a formidable contender this weekend and perhaps beyond. This is, after all, a program that's been a standard bearer for the ECAC, with seven NCAA wins in Schafer's tenure. No other ECAC team has more than two in that span.
"We'd love to have Brian — it would give us three awesome offensive lines. Right now we're missing a little piece of the puzzle, but we gotta do it," Schafer said.