Poise, Pride, and Depth Propel Cornell to Strong Start
Cornell head coach Mike Schafer has spent nearly a third of a century in Ithaca, N.Y.
In his 23 years as head coach of his alma mater, Cornell has earned five ECAC tournament titles (out of the program's record 12 all-time crowns) and has appeared in the NCAA tournament 10 times, including last season — ending a four-year drought in that regard. But despite a 21-win campaign, Cornell was 0-3 last season against archrival Harvard and lost handily, 5-0, to Mass.-Lowell in the NCAA tourney's first round.
So, while fans of a program like Cornell may always have hope, expectations at famed Lynah Rink before this season were, perhaps, appropriately measured — especially within a conference landscape that has changed tremendously during Schafer's tenure, with two ECAC teams (Yale and Union) winning national championships since Cornell's last NCAA Frozen Four appearance 15 seasons ago.
Despite all of it, with Schafer still guiding the way, Cornell has responded.
Entering the year as arguably the most under-the-radar 20-win team from last season, the Big Red finished its first half with the second-best winning percentage in the nation (10-2-0), trailing only St. Cloud State. Cornell is also No. 5 in the early Pairwise, with a resume boasting wins against Harvard, Quinnipiac, Boston University, and Miami thus far.
"Everyone knows. Everyone looks at the Pairwise and stuff like that, but it's not something we really focus on," said Cornell senior forward Trevor Yates. "We're not looking at it and saying, 'Oh if we lose this game, it might affect us down the road.' We just try to approach every game as the most important game of the year. It doesn't matter who it's against. It could be against No. 1 or No. 55 in the country — in the league or out of the league.
"We just have to have the same effort every night, and compete every night to win that game."
As for the hot start?
"I wouldn't say we anticipated it or expected it, but we knew we had a good team," the senior forward said. "We got a lot of good experience last year, and we've risen to the occasion. We got off to a hot start, and have kept growing."
Yates leads the Big Red with eight goals and 13 points. He's the only player on the team averaging over a point per game, and Cornell is the only team in the top five of the Pairwise without a player among the nation's top 15 scorers.
In fact, there's no Cornell player in the top 35.
And that, says Yates, is actually part of the game plan — with Cornell complementing the nation's second-best statistical defense with a balanced offense that's averaging over 3.4 goals per game.
"Our team is very deep," Yates said of a roster that includes six NHL draft picks. "We roll four lines, and every line has the ability to score, and that's been huge for us. Some teams try to match lines, and for us, I think it's hard for them to do that."
Cornell welcomed 10 freshmen into the fold this season, including goaltender Matthew Galajda, who had started every game until last Saturday's road win at Miami (a 4-0 shutout with senior Hayden Stewart in net). Yates described offseason team building as a means to acclimate the rookies, but the real adjustment has seemingly come on the ice — with Cornell demonstrating a mature ability to overcome in-game deficits.
On three occasions — at Princeton and in home games against Harvard and Niagara — Cornell has rallied from a two-goal deficit, on each occasion scoring three unanswered goals to win.
"When you get down a few goals, your real character comes out," said Yates. "I think we're a tight team, and I think that helps when we get down a couple of goals. We have the confidence to come back and score goals to get back into the game. That's something that's big for us early on. We're playing a little bit of a different style this year — a little quicker, a little faster."
Yates, too, has developed into a player who's quicker and faster — and that's been by design. After a slow start to his college career, with 4 points as a freshman and 13 as a sophomore, the Beaconsfield, Quebec, native decided to make a change.
"After my sophomore year, I thought I was a little too slow," Yates said. "So I lost 10 pounds in the summer and tried to focus on getting quicker and faster. That helped me a lot last year, and continuing to do that this year has been huge for me, taking that next step. A lot of it happened off the ice — just growing up, becoming more mature."
At the end of November, Yates scored at Madison Square Garden for the third consecutive season — this time, in a 4-3 win in Cornell's biennial matchup with age-old rival Boston University.
"I don't think I've met anyone who doesn't like to score at MSG," quipped Yates.
Including the win against the Terriers, Cornell is 5-1 in one-goal games thus far.
"It shows that we have a lot of poise, and we're able to step up to the challenge, to shut other teams down when they put the goalie and whatnot," Yates said. "We've done a great job with our 6-on-5 guys to block shots and all that. That's something that's important to our team. Cornell's always been known for our defense, and we take pride in that, and that helps us when we're up a goal — to stop them from scoring in the last couple of minutes."
Yates admits — as presumably his teammates would, too — that Cornell's season-ending loss to Mass.-Lowell last season didn't represent the team's best effort. Now, effort hasn't been much of an issue at all — heading into an extended break for end-of-semester exams next week before beginning the season's stretch run after the holidays.
For now, the pieces are certainly in place for another run to the NCAA tournament, but again, that's several months away. Schafer has been through this before. And though with limited experience comparatively, so have Yates and a small senior class tasked with leading a team that's already displayed character, poise, and depth in this season's first half.
Now, as 2018 approaches, the Big Red's expectations continue to evolve. And they aren't under the radar anymore.