This time of year, the Cornell men’s hockey team cannot take anything for granted.
Last week, the Red played three ECAC games, taking care of business to earn five of the possible six points. As of this past Sunday, when the the Red defeated Brown 5-3, Cornell had played five games in 10 days, going 4-0-1 in that stretch.
Although the team would have liked a win over Yale last Saturday night, its position in third place in the ECAC is a testament to its recent success. Since dropping contests to Harvard and Dartmouth on back to back nights, the Red has not lost and is back up to 13th in the pairwise, an integral ranking when it comes to NCAA tournament selection.
“We had a couple of tough home losses, so for us to regroup and get nine out of 10 points was really good,” said sophomore forward Mitch Vanderlaan. “I think our guys really gelled together and pushed through that which was an important step for us.”
“We try to stay even keel, but I’d say our morale is pretty high right now,” added classmate blueliner Matt Nuttle.
Now, No. 12/13 Cornell (16-6-3, 11-4-3 ECAC) must turn its attention to its North Country rivals as it hits the road for the final time during the regular season.
First up will be No. 17 St. Lawrence on Friday night. The Saints (15-9-6, 11-4-3) are tied for third in the conference with Cornell and will look to avenge a narrow 3-2 defeat at Lynah back in mid-January.
Since then, the Saints have struggled a bit. Losers of three of its last five, the team has given up some ground in the ECAC. It will need to kick things back into gear in order to lock up a top-four spot and secure a first round bye in the conference tournament in March.
St. Lawrence has been without two of its leading scorers for much of the 2016-17 campaign. Defenseman Gavin Bayreuther continues to lead the team in points with 25 despite missing seven games in the middle of the season. Forward Mike Marnell leads the team in goals but has been out the better of the last month.
Kyle Hayton is expected to be in goal Friday night, and the junior has been having another quality season. Hayton has posted a .933 save percentage and a 2.12 goals against average — both top 10 in the country. St. Lawrence is a strong defensive team overall, giving up the seventh fewest goals in the NCAA this season.
“They’re obviously a really good team,” Vanderlaan said. “They’re really strong defensively too. We’ve got to go in and be physical with them and expect a tight game … those types of [close] games are good for us.”
Both teams also understand the importance of this one, given the battle atop the ECAC.
“Everyone knows that we’ve got to keep pushing to get a bye in the ECAC and then a spot in the [NCAA] tournament,” Vanderlaan added. “Every single game matters at this time of the year.”
While the St. Lawrence game has more direct postseason implications, the following night’s contest is also of great importance at this critical stage in the season. Clarkson (13-13-4, 8-8-2) is in the ECAC’s six-hole, but is always a tough matchup for the Red.
When the two teams met in Ithaca earlier in the year, the Golden Knights sprinted out of the gate to a 3-1 lead. Cornell came back thanks to a pair of goals from junior forward Trevor Yates, but things ultimately ended in a tie in a game where head coach Mike Schafer ’86 labeled his team as just “average.”
After its valiant effort against the Red, Clarkson has since lost four of its last six, including two disappointing defeats at the hands of Colgate and RPI. Clarkson will look to right the ship this weekend with rematches against Colgate and Cornell.
Forwards Sam Vigneault and Troy Josephs lead the team in points and goals, respectively, and defenseman James de Haas has also contributed from the blue line with five goals and 10 assists.
Freshman Jake Kielly is the team’s net minder and has been team’s net minder and has been relatively effective throughout the season. Saturday night’s game in Potsdam will be the 133rd meeting between the two teams, whose series dates all the way back to 1922.
Schafer’s game plan for Saturday should sound very familiar for those who have followed the team all year: “It’s the same road formula we’ve used all season: we play hard, stay disciplined and don’t get behind early,” he said. “St. Lawrence and Clarkson are no different than any of the other nights on the road. We’ll just do whatever it takes to win that particular game.”
As for Cornell, the team has returned to its winning ways. The Red has gotten recent offensive production from its leading goal scorers — now a three-way tie between sophomores Anthony Angello and Vanderlaan, as well as Yates — and has benefited from consistent goaltending from senior Mitch Gillam. Gillam and the Red’s defensive unit gives up only 2.20 goals-per-game, good for seventh-best in the NCAA.
That unit is particular banged up at this point in the year. Junior Ryan Bliss has not played this season and will miss the remainder of the year with a lower body injury, forgoing both athletic and academic eligibility for the year. Sophomore Brendan Smith recently suffered an upper body injury and junior Dan Wedman is also out.
As a result, junior forward Alex Rauter has moved back to help out on defense as recently as Sunday — and has done a commendable job thus far.
“Until we get things squared away back on the blue line, he’ll probably continue to eat up some minutes for us,” Schafer said.
“He did a great job,” Nuttle said. “It was cool having him back there, and I think he had some fun too.”
The team’s captain, senior Jake Weidner, has been tremendous as a shot blocker all year long. Weidner averages the most shots blocked per game of any forward and is fifth in the nation overall with 2.44. Nuttle blocked an impressive seven shots against Brown and has come around to the Red’s culture of giving up the body.
“I don’t think I blocked too many shots before I got here, but it’s obviously a huge part of what we do here,” he said. “It’s part of our culture. I have no problem getting in front of the puck to win the game and neither do any of my teammates.”
While Cornell is in a prime postseason position, Schafer says his team is still taking things one game at a time.
“We don’t look at standings … You kind of get lost in the day to day preparation for each team, and that’s how it should be,” he said. “These games are huge, but they’ve been huge since the start of the season. There’s four games left and eight points to get, and we start with the game at St. Lawrence on Friday.”