For three straight years, the Cornell men’s hockey team has met Union in the ECAC playoffs. For two of the three post-season matchups, the Dutchmen have gotten the better of the Red, but last year, Cornell finally edged its interstate rival.
However, a loss to then-No.1 Quinnipiac in the ECAC quarterfinals would pause the the men’s celebrations that were eventually halted when they learned they just missed out on an NCAA tournament bid.
Despite this, team believes last year’s series win over Union and skating well with the nation’s top team — going so far as to steal a game away from the Bobcats — is emblematic of the progress they have made, especially heading into the 2016-17 season.
“We were knocking on that doorstep with the last team to get knocked out out of the NCAAs last year [in Quinnipiac],” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “We don’t want to be that team this year. That means getting one extra win or one extra tie, but these guys all understand that importance because they are an experienced group and understand it takes one time to knock you out.”
The 2015-16 campaign was a roller coaster of a season for Cornell. The men started off remarkably well, losing only twice in 13 games — once to its eventually doombringer in Quinnipiac and once in a uncharacteristic loss to an unranked Ohio State, 8-0, in the Florida College Classic.
Within those 13 games, the team knocked off the undefeated and No.1 ranked team at the time, Providence, and was an overtime goal away from beating Quinnipiac after going up 4-1 early.
Yet, as the season progressed, the team went on to finish its last 14 games with only two wins, a stretch Schafer characterized as “falling off pace.”
“We may have gotten ahead of ourselves last year after we went on that hot start,” said senior captain and forward Jake Weidner. “I think we’re going to need to hold each other more accountable in practice and be ready for every single opponent each night to be more consistent each night.”
Replicating last year’s fast start will undoubtedly be much more difficult this season, as the team plays only four of its first 16 games at home. Not being able to play in front of the “best home ice advantage in college hockey,” according to senior alternate captain and defenseman Patrick McCarron, who will be a noticeable absence on the team to begin the season.
Injuries, too, have plagued the club already although no games have been played. Senior alternate captain and forward Jeff Kubiak, along with junior defenseman Dan Wedman will be out four weeks maximum, according to Schafer. Junior defenseman Ryan Bliss will also be out “indefinitely.”
Sophomore defenseman Alec McCrea — who shined in his first season with the Red — also broke his arm during a development camp this summer, and while Schafer said it stunted his progression throughout the summer, he’s “full go now.”
Senior goaltender Mitch Gillam caught the injury bug at the end of last year, suffering a concussion in the first game of the ECAC quarterfinals against the Bobcats, but still went on to start the entire series.
“[Gillam] suffered a little bit of a concussion — in one of those things where the athlete didn’t let us know,” Schafer said.
So where does a team turn in order to fill some of its biggest voids due to injury?
Gillam’s healthy return is a welcome sign for any Cornell fan. While he is expected to start this season, junior netminder Hayden Stewart has impressed this offseason and Schafer alluded that he may contend for the starting job.
“[Gillam] had a great year, now we just want to talk about taking that one extra step to take us from a good team to a great team,” Schafer said. “It’s just not turning over the reins to him automatically. The two of them have got to battle, but Mitch has obviously got a hold on that position right now and he’s gotta show that he can keep it going forward.”
Schafer also said he hopes that a freshman class of five, along with an emerging group of sophomores, can pick up the slack left by injuries.
Last year’s most effective line — coined the “JAM line” — consisted of Kubiak, along with sophomores Mitch Vanderlaan and Anthony Angello. All three of whom led the way in points last season.
But Schafer is not looking only for players like Angello, Vanderlaan and McCrea to step up again. In the sophomore class of eight skaters, only the three aforementioned and Beau Starrett appeared on a somewhat consistent basis their first year. He said he would love for that number to increase this season.
“It’s more about the four guys who are sophomores that played last year sparingly and their development,” Schafer said. “They have a year of experience of knowing what it means to play Division I hockey and we are looking for them to raise their level this year.”
Taking the place of last year’s now-graduated seniors is a freshman class of five skaters, who Schafer lauded for their speed and skill with the puck.
“One thing we definitely want to do is increase our speed up front offensively and we think we accomplish that,” he said of the freshman class back in August.
Perhaps no freshman is poised to more of a direct impact on the team than Quebec-native Yanni Kaldis — the lone defender in the new class.
Given the injuries and uncertainty with Bliss and Wedman, only seven healthy defensemen remain on the roster. With six dressing every night, Kaldis is bound to receive ample playing time and Schafer is confident in his recruit who “comes from a great pedigree being one of the first-team all-stars in his league.”
On campus for just a couple months, Kaldis already seems to have become acquainted with campus and the Cornell hockey mantra. He said he knows he has to play at his best day-in and day-out.
“It’s faster,” Kaldis said of his experience so playing far. “Everyone here is elite, there’s no weak links, that’s for sure. The puck moves a lot quicker and you just have to do things a lot quicker.”
Kaldis also mentioned that having a team packed with leaders has made his transition to Ithaca much smoother and has instilled a “team before yourself” mentality.
“I’ve had great captains but [Weidner’s] been really great so far leading the way for the freshmen and even some of the older guys,” Kaldis added. “He’s putting everyone in their place and going through the team guidelines and team rules so everything is clear so far.”
Going into the 2016-17 season, Weidner said he has last year on his mind and knows that while change is necessary for success, it is just as much about putting the pieces together from last year.
“I think we have a lot of character in the room, a lot of experience,” he said. “We’re returning a lot of guys who have played a lot of games and I think the freshman group is ready to jump in and contribute right away so I think just a lot of guys who are ready to take the next step and win a lot of games and hopefully win a championship too.”
Schafer agreed that this year will prove to be much more worthwhile for the boys in Red, citing high expectations within the team as a major driving force.
The team was ranked No. 5/6 in the ECAC media and coaches polls, respectively, but players say they do not like to define themselves by that ranking.
“Our expectations are not to be middle of the pack,” Schafer said. “Our expectations are to challenge for a championship. Sitting here looking around at all the banners all our expectations are a lot greater than what we were picked. There have been plenty of years where we have been picked to finish seventh or eighth and won the league. These guys came here wanting to be a team that carries on that Cornell tradition of excellence of winning and playing in front of the best fans in college hockey.”