November 14, 2008

Experienced Red Will Compete for ECAC Title

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The passing of college hockey legend Ned Harkness brought up certain emotions in the Lynah Faithful. One of these may be respect for the consistency of the Cornell hockey tradition, largely established by Harkness himself.
Last year, the message of the men’s hockey team was simple: play 60 minutes.
A full 60 minutes.
The Red was searching for consistency from a group of talented, but relatively young, players. The experience as a team wasn’t there yet, and it showed.
The level of play of Harkness’ national championship teams may still be out of reach, but this year’s cohort of experienced upperclassmen and sophomores — including 17 returning lettermen — has developed the tools to lead another talented freshman class to Cornell’s first ECAC title since 2005.
“Having a lot of returning guys definitely helps,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “Last year we had a lot of new guys in new roles and it was a struggle in a sense to have to develop that through the first half of the season.”
Uncertainty plagued the Red at the start of last year. The starting netminder position was a question mark between then-sophomore Ben Scrivens and the previous season’s starter, Troy Davenport. While Cornell has four proven goalies on the roster this year, Scrivens is the definitive starter, at least as long as he continues to excel between the pipes.
Also, senior forward Tyler Mugford and classmate defenseman Taylor Davenport were injured last year for a time, and sophomore defenseman Brendon Nash missed the first eight games recovering from offseason knee surgery. This year, the Red has a healthy Nash from the start.
Many of the roles are set much earlier this year, as the Red returns three of its top-5 scorers from last year and six starters on the blue line. The penalty-killing unit, which fended off opponents at an 87.6 percent rate last season, returns all but one player.
The cohesiveness has paid off — both the media and coaches’ preseason polls picked the squad to finish third in ECAC Hockey, and Cornell toppled defending ECAC Hockey champ Princeton over last weekend.
“Anytime you have guys that are coming back who are used to the system and used to playing with each other, [it] is definitely a bonus,” Greening said. “We had a few lines that played together last year, so that definitely helps out. There’s more of a comfort level, so that’s definitely a good thing when you have a lot of guys coming back.”
Though it’s early in the season, the Red has more of an identity already in place. After changing up the lines several times last year, Schafer eventually settled on a few winning combinations that are carrying over, such as sophomore Riley Nash with junior co-captain Colin Greening.
Though senior co-alternate captain Tyler Mugford is replacing Chris Fontas ’08 at center, the co-alternate captain and junior Joe Scali were effective together last year on the all-important checking line.
“Every year there are seniors that graduate, and every year there are guys that step in and fill in their shoes,” Mugford said. “It presents a challenge, but it’s not a challenge that we’re unfamiliar with.”
Though the Red only lost four players to graduation, they will be tough to replace. Those players include last year’s captains and franchise faces, forwards Ray Sawada and Topher Scott. Cornell is also without veteran defenseman Doug Krantz and Fontas, a key cog in the Cornell checking line.
Though senior transfer Derek Punches and the six freshmen are adjusting quickly, according to Schafer, there is not as much immediate need for them to perform well as there was in the 2007-08 season.
“[It’s] different than last year,” Schafer said, “ [when] lots of guys were thrust into key roles as young guys. These guys … can be a little bit more of a supporting cast rather than trying to lead the class.”