Cornell Finds Its Game
Rout of Michigan at MSG Sets Big Red Back on Course
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
NEW YORK With only 29 regular-season games, the margin of error for Ivy League teams is slim. That's why, in a season filled with high expectations, there was just cause for concern after Cornell's 0-3-2 stretch heading into this past weekend.
But the Big Red, which showed signs of turning things around the previous week, put it all together against a Michigan team that came in with similar struggles. But beyond that, it did so on a grand stage, winning 5-1 in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, the team's first win in four tries in the recent span of special one-off Thanksgiving weekend games.
"It was nice to finally win down here," Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. "It was a great opportunity to come back down to New York City — our team had been struggling a bit — and to come into this kind of stage with all the distractions. I'm very proud of their effort. ... (We've) been working hard the last few weeks to turn this around. This is the first step."
Whether Cornell builds from here remains to be seen, but it showed what it could do when clicking on all cylinders. The team was winning battles, getting pucks to the net, and cycling like Cornell cycles when it's playing well.
"We're working hard to get the ship in the right direction with all facets of our play. I think we corrected the most basic fundamental issue, which was our compete level," Schafer said.
"We wanted to have better offensive habits, hitting nets, winning battles in front of the net. Hockey is a funny game that way. The last couple games we played, we had a tremendous amount of offensive opportunities but didn't capitalize."
Last year, Cornell eked out an overtime win over Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, then fell one goal short of the Frozen Four, losing to Ferris State. With most of its team returning, including goaltender Andy Iles, the Big Red and its fans felt confident that another big year was in the making.
Things certainly started out that way, when Cornell, kicking off an ambitious non-league schedule, won two games at home against Colorado College. Of those 29 regular-season games, 22 are league games, and the other seven are CC (2), Michigan, Denver (2) and the holiday tournament, that includes Maine, Ferris State and Minnesota-Duluth.
But for whatever reason, Cornell went into a funk. It didn't play great in a win over Colgate, and the teams tied the next night. Cornell was unable to shake it off the next week, and looked poor at times in losing to both Princeton and Quinnipiac.
"Regardless of talent, I think some of our most talented guys weren't working very hard in a small sample size of two, three, four games," Schafer said. "We learned our lesson. We might've been only a game from the Frozen Four (last year), but so were a lot of other teams, and it's a matter of getting back that workmanlike mentality."
Coming back home, the team felt like it started to turn a corner in practice, and outshot rival Harvard, but lost 4-1. The next night was a 1-1 tie with Dartmouth.
Said assistant coach Ben Syer, "As a coach, you hope you learn your lesson. The opening weekend, we thought the effort level was where we felt we thought it needed to be. I don't know if it was the guys thought, 'Hey, this is going to be easy,' or what exactly the mindset was. Even against Colgate, we didn't play as hungry. It's been a lesson the last few weekends. We need to be at the highest level compete wise and leave nothing to chance. Not everyone is at their best night every night. But if you're consistent you're going to play well, and bide your time until things really get going, so to speak."
The players seemed to have gotten the message. A particular standout was Brian Ferlin, a phenom as a freshman last season until an injury cut it short. He still hasn't scored a goal yet this season, but he made his presence felt in ways he did all of last year, and he made the play that set up the first goal.
"We came together as a team, which was great to see," said senior forward Greg Miller, who scored twice against Michigan, and set up the first career goal for freshman Teemu Tiitinen. "We knew we were under fire, and knew we weren't performing up to standards. But all that mattered were the guys in the room and we knew we had to stick together. We've been working hard to turn this ship around, and it was fun that it finally paid off. But we're back to work Monday. This is only a stepping stone."
Cornell will continue to play these games at Madison Square Garden. The last three meetings, spread over five seasons, were against Boston University, an old-time rival whose similarly passionate and large New York City-area fan base made for a natural opponent. But BU only committed to every other year, and Cornell was looking for something every year.
Michigan was its first attempt to slot in another team. It was again a natural fit, with Michigan alumni very strong in the New York area and hockey passion high among them. In previous years, Michigan was tied up with the now defunct College Hockey Showcase with Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Like the games with BU, the crowd seemed to be about a 65-35 split in favor of Cornell. And loud.
"You see the pride people have for our university," Schafer said. "We attract brilliant young men willing to invest in their education, much like the alumni out there tonight. There's a special bond at Cornell between the hockey program, alumni, faculty and townspeople. And there's not a greater place to put it on display than Madison Square Garden."
After BU comes back to MSG next season, Cornell will again be looking for another opponent in 2014. It could go back to Michigan, but Notre Dame has also been discussed, another school with a huge New York alumni base. Another natural, down the road, could be Penn State, but probably not in 2014. MSG officials also mentioned other possibilities, but wouldn't reveal them.