Ahead of the Curve
Cornell Welcomes Raised Expectations Heading Into Stretch Drive
There was a sense entering this season that Cornell would be good again, but might still be a year away from doing something really special.
But it is funny how quickly a team can come together sometimes when it's least expected, and change the course of expectations. Now with the nation's longest unbeaten streak, 10 games, the Big Red have made a statement — they are here for not only the future, but the present, too.
During the 9-0-1 run, Cornell has outscored opponents 34-8. It has just two losses all season, to Clarkson and Miami, is No. 2 in the Pairwise, and is first in the ECAC with a 12-1-1 record. A rematch with Clarkson is looming for next Friday, a game that could go a long way in deciding a top seed in the NCAA tournament and the ECAC's Cleary Cup.
"I thought it had a chance (to all come together quick)," Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. "At the start of the year we had a lot of guys that did a great job as underclassmen, last year. I just knew that the guys coming in were going to continue giving us depth and speed.
"I thought if they could just adjust accordingly to college hockey, we could be in the top four. To have this kind of record, no I didn't think we would be this successful. We have gotten on a roll, we understand how to win, how to win on the road and how to play low-scoring games. It has been a team effort."
Playing low-scoring games is something that Schafer-led teams usually get accustomed to, since Schafer excels at teaching the game in a way that lends itself to them. But recruiting in recent years has emphasized getting more speed in the lineup. The game has evolved, as it always has, and Schafer recognized his lineup needed to evolve too. That doesn't mean their system is run-and-gun, but there have to be players in the lineup that can intimidate opponents with speed nowadays, and not just size.
As a result, while the defense is at an NCAA-best 1.43 goals allowed per game, the offense is also contributing 3.38 goals per game, which is ninth in the country. That's despite not having a player in the top 50 of points in the nation.
No skater is averaging more than a point a game and only two — junior Anthony Angello and senior Trevor Yates — have double-digit goals. Angello, in fact, a 6-foot-5 fifth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has exploded for seven goals in his last five games including a hat trick against Harvard on Friday night.
The size is still there, but the team is quicker, and the transition game is arguably the best it's had in recent memory.
"We have been trying to develop a more offensive team," said Angello. "We want to be able to play with the puck more in their end, play fast, keep the puck in the zone, get after teams using our size and our speed, play physical and break teams down. Obviously it is paying dividends at the end of games."
It has been a long process for Schafer, who has been trying to do this for the better part of a half decade. But the efforts may finally be coming to fruition.
"It was something we paid attention to a couple years ago," Schafer said. "You can't be physical and you just can't hit that much anymore. So we made the adjustment to get quicker. With all the young guys we have, this season has been a bit of a surprise. We just have to keep riding it."
That Cornell's lineup, with six freshmen playing regularly, would gel was never a matter of if but when. The Big Red added a ton of talent in the offseason with a strong recruiting class.
"We look for kids that are good all-around players," Schafer said. "All of them are just good hockey players. When you recruit them they might not be the sexiest but I think they are great kids, have great character and have a great hockey sense. Our assistants have done a great job putting this team together."
The most obviously beneficial newcomer, however, is the goaltender, freshman Matthew Galajda. Galajda currently leads college hockey with a 1.52 goals against average, and is fourth in save percentage (.938). Galajda had a shutout streak of 227 minutes, 11 seconds snapped in the first period against Dartmouth last Saturday. Replacing mainstay Mitch Gillam between the pipes was the biggest question for Cornell coming into the year and, as usual for Cornell, its goaltender turns out to be a strength.
Despite the influx of talented freshmen like Morgan Barron, Kyle Betts, Alex Green and Cam Donaldson, the lineup has a good leadership group as well. Angello and Yates have been key to the top line, and junior Mitch Vanderlaan has often played with them or the second line. The sophomore class has also made a quick development, which has allotted the depth necessary to be one of the top teams in the country.
"We have a lot of leaders," Schafer said. "All of our seniors, juniors and sophomores did great welcoming our freshmen and making sure they felt comfortable but they also made sure they made them understand in our tradition. We have 10 freshmen and they are part of the team. Those guys hang out among all members of the classes."
Cornell has big expectations and the fact that it hasn't won a Whitelaw Cup in eight years wears on the fan base. Although winning the tournament title is the bigger of the goals in Ithaca, it has also gone 13 seasons without winning a Cleary Cup as the ECAC regular-season champion.
The Big Red and Schafer had many great teams in the early 2000s. The 2002-03 team went to the Frozen Four and ended the year at 30-5-3. In 2004-05, it swept through the ECAC once more en route to a 27-5-3 record. Cornell came within a hair of Frozen Fours again in 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2012.
The ultimate prize with those teams eluded Schafer, but this one is certainly on the short list of contenders heading towards March.
"We have had some great teams, in '05 and 2010," said Schafer. "We have great opportunities over the years. We had a good team last year, made it to the (ECAC) championship game, and just didn't get it done. This is a good team. Where they can go, nobody knows. I like how they focus on one game at a time. A lot of great teams have letdowns, but this team just doesn't let that happen."