At this point last year, things were looking up for Cornell men’s hockey. With an 11-2-2 record, the team was ranked No. 9 in the country and poised to finish the regular season with the NCAA tournament around the corner.
Then the team took a nosedive. Following a sweep against Merrimack on the road, the Red failed to secure a win in seven consecutive tries and ultimately finished just shy of the NCAA tournament come decision time.
With another trip — and win — at Merrimack last weekend fresh in the team’s mind, avoiding the same second-half fate will be crucial to extend its season.
“One big thing is making sure everyone realizes that as a group we don’t want that to happen again like it did last year,” said senior forward Jeff Kubiak. “I think that’s the biggest thing in the room: to make sure everyone’s focused and on the same page as to what our goals are and to make sure that we put ourselves in the best position to have a successful second half and to the playoffs.”
Despite the parallels between season and the last, head coach Mike Schafer ’86, currently on the cusp of his 400th win, says last year is last year. With solely ECAC competition remaining, only production in 2017 matters.
“Last year could be further from our minds,” he said. “Every year is a different venue and different journey. For these guys we are just looking forward to getting back on the road and playing again.”
The opportunity to continue the solid beginning to the season first comes against the team that the No. 19 Red (9-4-1, 4-2-1 ECAC) snapped its skid against last season: Princeton (7-10-1, 3-8-1). Then, Cornell will travel to Hamden for another meeting against No. 15/15 Quinnipiac (12-9-2, 7-5-1).
The two teams present an interesting dichotomy for the Red’s preparation. The Tigers started out their season extremely slow, taking eight games to notch the first win of the season. Since then, Princeton has gone on to defeat nationally ranked teams, including sweeps of Bemidji, Quinnipiac, and a split-series against Minnesota State Mankato.
On the other hand, the reigning NCAA runner-up, Quinnipiac, started out its season fairly well with wins over quality teams such as Northeastern, Clarkson, Harvard and Dartmouth. But as of late, the Bobcats have struggled. The sweep at the hands of Princeton, along with losses to Union and a defeating loss to Vermont leave Quinnipiac with already more than double the losses the team had in its strong season last year.
“We’re not going to get their inconsistency,” a wary Schafer said. “We have a nice little rivalry with them, and we are not going to get them coming out and being flat. We’ll get their A-game, which will make us better by the end of the year.”
With two teams not playing to a level most would expect, for better or for worse, judging the teams this weekend is an interesting task.
“One of the big things is realizing the types of teams they both are,” Kubiak said. “Quinnipiac is a really good team, they play a systematic game and work really hard. Same goes for Princeton. [The Tigers] definitely have a lot of players where if you take them lightly they’ll do some damage out there.”
As is typical of Cornell’s rhetoric, however, the team focuses most on what it can control: playing the Cornell hockey way.
“I think together for both teams its [important] that we outwork them and play physical and do things that make us successful,” Kubiak added. “You don’t have to worry about the other team if you’re doing your own things.”
Cornell has already faced off against against both Princeton and Quinnipiac, splitting the series that was the home-opener for the Red at Lynah Rink. In those games, Quinnipiac handled Cornell in a game Schafer labeled as one the team “didn’t play to win.” The next night, Cornell let Princeton get ahead with two quick goals, but the Red went on to score four unanswered to salvage a win on the weekend.
This go-around against Princeton and Quinnipiac, however, presents the team with the chance to finish some of its last road games with victories in raucous arenas. It also could give Schafer a more personal victory. A win against either Princeton or Quinnipiac would award Cornell’s coach of 23 years his 400th career win, passing longtime Maine head coach Shawn Walsh for 38th all-time.
“That’s definitely one thing we want to do,” Kubiak said, “to grab that next win for him to hit that milestone.”