Cornell Makes Its Move
Big Red Trying to Put the Pieces Together For March Run
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
PRINCETON, N.J. Cornell's current junior class was considered one of the top recruiting bounties, not just in the ECAC, but nationally, when it came to Ithaca two and a half years ago. Led by national program players and blue chippers like Brian Ferlin, Joakim Ryan, John McCarron, Joel Lowry and Cole Bardreau — four of the team's seven drafted players and one from the U.S. national program — expectations were set sky high.
That unit has yet to reach such lofty heights — and at Cornell, that means things like ECAC championships and Frozen Fours. Partly due to injuries each has suffered, partly due to their own inexperience, and partly to a variety of other factors, their tenure in Ithaca has been marked by some great highs and a lot of inconsistency, relatively speaking.
That could be changing if evidenced by Cornell's recent play. The signs are there that this group is — as the cliche goes — coming together at the right time. The Big Red are again seeing fruits of this season's labors, winning two straight, including last weekend at Quinnipiac and Princeton, to hold onto the fourth and final home ice spot for the ECAC quarterfinals.
"We're working on it," Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. "I was pretty pleased (against Princeton). We had a rough start after a big win (against Quinnipiac), but I thought we got going. ... How we were breaking out of our zone, I didn't think we were doing a good job. And about six minutes in we got it together and got it going."
Struggle is a relative term, and many programs would love to be where Cornell has been the last few years. But it hasn't dominated the way it used to, and the way that Union, Quinnipiac and Yale have been able to do. For a program that had long been the flag bearer for ECAC hockey — going to the Frozen Four in 2003 and within a whisker four other times since — it has perhaps been disconcerting see those other schools fly by.
Part of it, of course, is simply that the league has gotten much better, and in the long run, that's a very good thing for everyone. The rising tide lifts all boats, and Cornell now has new rivals to shoot for.
All of this is big picture stuff. For now, the team's focus is simply on this coming weekend — first things first.
In order to lock up a home-ice spot for the ECAC tournament, the Big Red need to win two games. The good news is, they are playing teams they should beat, at home — Dartmouth and Harvard. The bad news is, it hasn't always been that easy, and these are rivalry games.
But, Schafer believes that, being rivalry games helps Cornell avoid any potential complacency.
"I know our guys are going to be ready to play a really strong physical game at home," Schafer said. "And obviously Harvard is our rival. I don't think it could've worked out any better with what happened (at Dartmouth) at the end of the game up there, and then obviously our rival (Harvard)."
Schafer is referring to an incident at the end of a 1-1 tie at Dartmouth on Jan. 18, which lingers in the minds of Cornell players. Dartmouth's Eric Neiley took a shot at Cornell's Bardreau. Neiley was ultimately suspended for it, but Cornell is looking for its own form of punishment.
"It will be a physical hockey game, I guarantee it," Schafer said. "Our guys weren't happy with what he did to Cole at the end of the game. It's not NHL hockey where you can go out and go after the kid, but we'll hit him, and every kid on their team, every chance we can get. And we've got to come ready to battle. And we've been more physical our last four games, really stepping it up.
"This isn't NHL hockey where guys square off — you have to use that motivation to play strong and physical against every one one of their guys."
Cornell can finish as high as second place, but also has to watch out for Yale, just two points back in fifth.
"I don't think we think about it too much (getting home ice)," defenseman Jacob MacDonald said. "We just need as many wins as we can. Obviously we'd like to play at Lynah but I don't think it really matters. Any opponent, any night, we're going to be up for the challenge."
MacDonald, a 6-foot defenseman from Brighton, Mich., has been one member of that junior class who came in with less fanfare. But he has grown into his role and has gotten better and better each year, to the point where now he's getting power-play time and it's paying off. MacDonald had a goal last weekend against Princeton, ripping a point slapper top shelf.
"I've just been getting a lot more opportunities," he said. "I'm up on the play a lot more, active and it's been paying off."
It's the kind of role Schafer always believed he could fill.
"He scored a goal early in the year against Clarkson at home," Schafer said. "He was starting to doubt if he had the offensive ability. But you see him breaking up on the pinches and coming out of our own zone with speed and coming through the neutral zone."
MacDonald scored in the same game that defensive partner Clint Lewis, a 6-foot-2 product of the national program, scored his first collegiate goal. Considering it was only MacDonald's second of his career, it was an unlikely combination.
"Very, very slim — the odds of that happening again are probably zero," MacDonald joked. "It's good to see him succeed. I knew he was going to have a good weekend. He likes the physicality and he had a good week of practice. ... We're both stay-at-home so we can let each other go up and down as much as we can, and just be in support of each other at all times."
Lewis is part of a freshman class that is large, both in numbers and in stature. Though it didn't have the same fanfare as the current junior class, it has the chance to be a Cornell cornerstone, as the team went back to its roots, so to speak, to recruit eight players 6-foot or taller. That includes 6-2 forward Matt Buckles, a fourth-round pick of Florida, and 6-3 center Jeff Kubiak, who has been getting first-line minutes in the absence of senior Dustin Mowrey.
Mowrey's return should further solidify the roster for the postseason, and the team anticipates his return soon.
In general, Cornell has been trying to up its physical play, something that has been a staple of Big Red teams in Schafer's 19-year tenure. In recent years, it hasn't always been as dominating along the wall as Cornell teams of years past that swept through the league. But again, the league as a whole has gotten better, and the Big Red are building back in that direction. It's still something its current crop of big bodies is learning how to do effectively, but the progress is evident in players like 6-foot-6 sophomore Christian Hilbrich, who has eight goals this season.
There has been progress defensively, too, where 6-foot-4 sophomore Reece Wilcox, a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, is finally playing a more steady game. The same is true of defenseman Kiril Gotovets, a senior drafted by Tampa Bay who took three years to shake the kinks out of his game, but has been nothing short of fantastic for the Big Red this year.
"He's got great skating speed," Schafer said. "His senior year has been his best year. He's doing an outstanding job. Last year he was hurt a large part of the year and never really got a chance to see how he could play.
"It will be good to come down the stretch and finish his (college) career strong."
Big Red fans are hoping the entire team can finish the season strong. Potential is a curious word — it's easy to say but not easy to fulfill. But if all those things continue to come into place, March has the chance to be special for Cornell.