Coming into the weekend, No. 17 Cornell men’s hockey (12-7-4, 7-6-3 ECAC) desperately needed a strong showing in two road games to rebound from a four-game losing streak. The Red averaged one goal per game during the skid — a mark that simply isn’t up to par in the competitive East Coast Athletic Conference.
“We have to play faster and move pucks quicker into the offensive zone,” said associate head coach Ben Syer. “We also have to make poised plays once we get in there.”
Syer described the importance of sustaining net presence and getting pucks from low to high. Ideally, the puck is cycled down near the crease to drag defending forwards below the circles. The puck is then passed out to the points where defensemen can get open shots on net.
Positioning players in front of the net block the goaltender’s vision and sometimes create deflections that are difficult to stop. Cornell searched for this type of offensive execution Friday night to try and right their worsening record.
But snapping a losing streak on the road against No. 1 Quinnipiac (21-1-5, 12-0-4 ECAC) was no easy task. The Red faced an uphill battle, but the team produced a strong enough performance to snatch a point in a 2-2 tie.
“Going up against a number one team and having an opportunity as a group to come away with a point was big,” Syer said. “At the end of the day we were pretty pleased.”
It was a nice homecoming for Syer, who was associate head coach at Quinnipiac for 12 seasons prior to joining the Cornell coaching staff. Syer is currently filling in for head coach Mike Schafer ’86.
“It was a little emotional,” Syer said. “I spent a long time there and Coach Rand [Pecknold] is one of my mentors.”
Syer now has an NCAA career head coaching record of 5-0-1. He credited the team for a terrific all around performance and noted the impact of senior goalie Mitch Gillam.
“Mitch was a big reason why we had a good weekend points wise,” Syer said. “He understands the game, is competitive, tracks the puck well and gives our guys a great deal of confidence.”
On Friday night, Gillam knotted 39 saves against an impressive Quinnipiac offense. This sensational goaltending performance kept Cornell in a game in which it never led.
Offensively, the Red looked for equalizers looked for equalizers twice and came through on both attempts. After falling behind in the first period, junior forward Jeff Kubiak wrapped a shot around the post to tie the score early in the second.
But Quinnipiac responded quickly, scoring on a power play to regain the lead. Over 20 minutes of scoreless hockey ended when freshman forward Mitch Vanderlaan scored at the 17:31 mark, forcing overtime.
Both teams created chances in overtime, but strong goaltending prevented either team from sneaking away with a win.
On Saturday night, Cornell squared off against a much different opponent in Princeton (5-16-2, 2-11-2 ECAC). The Tigers sit in second to last place in the ECAC standings and are still developing. The Tigers are a young squad and lack the talent of a powerhouse like Quinnipiac.
Nonetheless, the Tigers played relatively mistake-free hockey for much of the night and actually gave Cornell problems at both ends of the ice. Still, only one error can prove fatal in the ECAC and such was the case on Saturday evening.
A pretty good Cornell shift midway through the second period had Princeton pinned in their zone. As both teams changed lines, a Princeton defenseman tried to clear the puck out. He did not see freshman defenseman Alec McCrea, who came off the bench for the Red and intercepted the puck at the blue line. A brilliant pass from McCrea hit senior forward John Knisley right in stride.
Knisley gathered the puck and ripped a long shot from just outside the left circle. It was not an entirely clean shot, which may have in fact helped the Red, as the puck fluttered wildly before sailing under the Princeton goalie’s left armpit.
It was fitting that the senior captain scored the decisive goal, as Cornell held on to win 1-0. Knisley has since returned to the lineup after battling injuries earlier in the season. He is a team leader both on and off the ice, and his perseverance is a constant motivator for younger players on the team battling adversity.
“The guys love him and he was voted a captain for a reason,” Syer said. “I thought tonight in particular he really gave our guys a spark.”
Syer praised Knisley’s ability to get above Princeton defenders and his great effort on the forecheck.
At a time in which the season is still very much up in the air, Cornell needs its leaders to step up and carry the team into playoff position. Only 16 teams make the national tournament, so Cornell will need move up at least one spot in the rankings to secure a spot.
It appears, at least for now, that the Red have survived their worst run of the season and are heading in the right direction. A win and a tie in two road games, one of which was against the No. 1 team in the country, is a very strong performance.
Cornell next faces Brown this Friday at 7 pm in Ithaca.