Before the season got underway, senior captain and forward Jake Weidner knew the road-heavy start to the season would be a challenge, but seemed somewhat excited about the opportunity to bond with his teammates — and especially the new freshmen — so early in the year.
“Personally I love the road,” Weidner said before the season-opening 3-2 loss at Merrimack. “[It’s a chance] to build the team and get guys to know each other. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue for us. I think guys are just really excited to get going.”
Team bonding is an element hard to measure with numbers, so for now, game results is all that’s available is to measure success of Cornell’s young 2016-17 campaign. A 1-1 tie with Dartmouth and 4-3 loss at Harvard this past weekend give another glimpse into the status of a group head coach Mike Schafer ’86 has called “so far away from being a polished team.”
Against both Ivy foes, the team dug itself a ditch too deep to climb out of with sluggish play to begin each game. In Hanover N.H., Cornell was able to fight off poor play early to secure a tie in a rink associate head coach Ben Syer called “not the easiest place to play in.”
But at Harvard’s Bright-Landry Hockey Center — coined ‘Lynah East’ due to a consistently strong showing of Cornell fans — the Red could not overcome early struggles, allowing the Crimson to capture a hard-fought victory in the historic rivalry.
“They feel like it’s another home game,” Syer said of the Cornell fan presence in Cambridge. “Just from the get-go, when they announced our starting lineups, the newspapers were out and you can feel that presence. I think it goes a long way for our guys — they certainly enjoyed that.”
The dominant play from Harvard’s Lewis Zerter-Gossage was the story line for the Crimson. The sophomore netted three of Harvard’s goals, including the eventual game-winner as the second period began to wind down.
Linemate Ryan Donato added a goal and provided the assists on all of Zerter-Gossage’s goals. Along with Alexander Kerfoot, Harvard’s top line proved too much for the Red to handle.
It seemed that each time Cornell was poised to surmount sustained pressure, Harvard’s premier line was back up the ice and giving hell to senior goalie Mitch Gillam.
“I think that line was outstanding. That whole line really got things going,” Syer said. “They obviously really gel and show some pretty good chemistry. When you give skilled players time and space, which they had on their first two goals, they make you pay and that’s what happened tonight.”
Cornell had its own consistent point-getter of the night, too. Freshman defenseman Yanni Kaldis finished the night with an assist on all three of the Red’s goals. In an already-depleted blue line, Kaldis’ play — especially on the power play — is a welcome sight to the coaching staff.
“He sees the ice extremely well and keeps the seams on the power play and that’s what he did,” Syer said of the freshman. “Obviously he got the puck moving there on the first goal that [junior forward] Trevor [Yates] scored. Certainly [sophomore forward Anthony] Angello’s goal was a great goal. [Kaldis] didn’t hold it, moved it right away to him so Angello could one-time it. He did almost the same exact thing but on the opposite side of the ice on the third goal.”
Dartmouth was a similar game in terms of the Red’s pattern of play. The Red gave up six power plays to the Green, three of which came in the first period.
However, the Red successfully killed off all six disadvantages and the team’s only goal came shorthanded. Sophomore forward Mitch Vanderlaan’s unassisted goal found its way through a screened Devin Buffalo and was his second goal in as many games.
Syer credits penalty killing success to an enhanced preparation during practices.
“We spent a lot of time practicing on it, just with the way that the game is being called,” he said. “I think there is an awareness and an alertness amongst our team. We had some great clears both nights and most important, some outstanding blocks. You need those. If you keep pucks in front of you, you get a chance to clear. We need those blocks for sure.”
Special teams has undoubtably become a centerpiece in the college hockey world, given that games have been more strictly officiated. Through three games this season, Cornell has given up 16 power plays and has been awarded 17 of its own. At this point last year, those numbers were nine and 11, respectively.
Cornell’s power play went zero-for-five against Dartmouth, but it cashed in on three-of-six opportunities at Harvard.
“[I liked] the puck movement,” Syer said about power plays against Harvard. “All the guys on both units that we used tonight got the puck moving very quickly and that’s what led to them having success rather than them holding onto the puck.”
So far it does not seem that the team’s confidence has dimmed in three games. In both games this weekend, Cornell had the opportunity to come out on top, but their flurries of opportunities came too late and a one-point weekend was the result.
“We just kept putting pucks toward the net, funneling them in that way and hopefully we’d get a bounce, but we didn’t tonight,” Vanderlaan said. “The guys were intense — they didn’t quit. It was a good last push there for us.”
Injuries, too, have played a major role in Cornell’s winless start thus far. Senior alternate captain and forward Jeff Kubiak — last year’s leading point getter — was sidelined during the offseason, and, although he made a quick recovery to play at Merrimack, he was kept out for the two-game ECAC slate. Sophomore forward Dwyer Tschantz also did not play this weekend.
Two integral contributors to the Red’s blueline — juniors Dan Wedman and Ryan Bliss — have yet to appear in a game this season and the defensive weight has fallen to more inexperienced underclassmen along with senior Patrick McCarron.
“It’s never easy,” Syer admitted. “Those are some key guys that are not in our lineup right now, so you just try and manage some minutes and hope other guys step up.”
Despite calling it “a strain on [the] team,” Syer also noted it has been “an opportunity for other guys to see more ice time or be put in different positions … but that’s why you have a big team and hope the other guys step up for you.”
With that goal in mind, a one-point weekend against two of the ECAC’s best may not be all that disappointing for the Red.
Schafer noted the difficulties and said every point matters when it comes to determining the playoff picture come March.
“We’re going to have to find ways like this to get points on the road early in the year, survive and keep plugging away and do the best we can,” he said.