This team made us believe.
When Union finished off the Red last March, 7-0, most Cornell fans and players did not want to see Lynah Rink for a while. A decent season had ended on an extremely sour note with a first-round playoff exit.
The first inkling that the 2015-16 edition of Cornell men’s hockey would be different came just a week prior to the season. Coach Mike Schafer ’86 announced that all four seniors, Teemu Tiitinen, John Knisley, Christian Hilbrich and Reece Willcox, would serve as captains of the team. This sent a signal to the rest of the league that Cornell would play as a team, and that this senior class intended to lead by example. By then, we already knew the members of Cornell’s freshman class, many of whom would play an integral role in the season to come. One of these freshmen, Anthony Angello, let the Lynah Faithful know of his talent by scoring four times in one preseason game. Freshman defenseman Alec McCrea, another young standout, also notched a goal and an assist in that game against Laurentian.
Early on in the season, the Faithful saw Schafer stick to his promise at the end of the previous campaign. Schafer had emphasized that his teams had been playing hard-nosed, defensive Cornell hockey, but needed to take more shots. In the season’s first few weeks, Schafer had the perfect formula. When Cornell is scoring goals, it is almost impossible to stop the Red. Cornell put up seven or more goals in each of the season’s first three weekends, only losing one game in the process. Teams began to truly fear Lynah Rink like in years past. Quinnipiac would be the only team to beat Cornell at Lynah until late January.
Yes, there was a January and February swoon, but Schafer put the pieces back together and made Cornell a confident unit heading into the playoffs. Union was vanquished at home, exorcising the demons of last season. In the next playoff round, the Red wrestled with top-seeded Quinnipiac in their house, playing hard enough to steal game two, but the Bobcats were the better team and rightfully won the series. Then, the pieces just would not fall into place in order for Cornell to find its way back into the NCAA Tournament, ending a season that will go down in Cornell history as a year of what might have been.
This was a season of ups-downs and contradictions throughout. Cornell defeated the number one team in the country twice in five matchups this season. Yet, the men also suffered two straight zero-point weekends. Cornell swept out-of-conference opposition Merrimack and Niagara, but could not defeat Boston University at Madison Square Garden and embarrassingly lost 8-0 to Ohio State in Florida. Cornell tackled St. Lawrence and Clarkson at home, but fell to both in overtime on the road.
When a collegiate sporting season concludes, thoughts naturally turn to the seniors. Cornell men’s hockey’s seniors have worn the famous Red threads for four seasons and deserve to be remembered. Although their last two campaigns might not measure up to the lofty standards at Cornell, they have given their all for the team and have earned a chapter in Cornell hockey history.
Any discussion of Christian Hilbrich begins and ends with the man’s sheer size. At 6-foot-7, he is a trailblazer for this Cornell team on and off the ice. He also demonstrates noticeable skill and hands, especially for a player of his size. While this year he failed to post as many goals as his tally of ten last season, his leadership proves how invaluable he is, on and off the ice. He missed just two games all season and has been a large presence in Cornell’s lineup, in more ways than one.
On the other end of the vertical scale, John Knisley may be small, but he has shown a ferocious tenacity throughout his Cornell career. While Knisley was never a dependable scorer, he always seemed to pop up with odd goals at key moments when the big scorers were struggling. For example, he scored two goals at last year’s Frozen Apple and tallied additional goals versus Yale and Princeton this year. Knisley struggled with injuries at times, but he will always be remembered as a player who gave it all the moment he stepped on the ice.
Reece Willcox has been a dependable force on Cornell’s blueline for four straight seasons. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect has shown an incredible slapshot and an even better eye for an assist. He has been reliable on the defensive end as well and always played big minutes on the power play and penalty kill for Cornell. He will be sorely missed in the years to come.
Teemu Tiitinen knew his role at Cornell. He was never going to be the headlining, hat-trick scoring forward. He knew his job was to kill penalties and play defensive Cornell hockey, a role he excelled at in four years on East Hill. He chipped in with a pair of goals this season as well and was a tremendous leader for a promising class of freshmen. It will be hard for Schafer to find a player with Tiitinen’s expertise at this role next year.
Thank you to this entire Cornell hockey team for everything. Seniors, good luck in your future endeavors. Fellow Lynah Faithful, see you in the fall.
Up next, a whole new team is tasked with making us believe.