Alternate captain and senior Jared Fiegl scores a goal in a 4-3 win over Union at home.

Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

Alternate captain and senior Jared Fiegl scores a goal in a 4-3 win over Union at home.

March 21, 2018

‘I Love a Team Like That’: Contending for National Championship, Lack of Star Power is Men’s Hockey’s Greatest Strength

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This story is part of The Sun’s 2018 NCAA Hockey supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.

Freshman goaltender Matt Galajda is the Red’s ultimate exception. He’s undoubtedly one of the most critical reasons the team enters the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, two wins away from the Frozen Four.

But save for Galajda, Cornell’s most valuable asset isn’t a star player or 50-point scorer. It’s the team’s ability to skate four lines and six defensemen that can help a team win hockey games.

“Our whole team is kind of like secondary guys,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “Obviously we’ve got some guys over 10 goals, but I really feel that our secondary scoring is really our primary scoring.”

Any Cornell hockey historian will accurately point out defense as the time-tested staple of the team, but this year’s squad has turned heads offensively, too.

Playing in a conference with foes like Harvard forward and U.S. Olympian Ryan Donato, Cornell ranks 12th in the country in scoring, relying on 10 players with five or more goals and 15 with five or more assists — and nobody with more than 13 goals or 15 helpers.

Junior Anthony Angello is tied for 80th in the nation with 13 goals, and his 26 points are tied for 146th. All 15 other teams in the NCAA tournament have a leading scorer with more points than Angello.

“Someone seems to always step up for our hockey team,” Schafer said. “I think our strength is our depth, that we get offense from all four lines [and] all four lines can play defense.”

Despite having, statistically, the field’s worst “best” player, Cornell has a real shot to play at the Frozen Four in April. Most national contenders could easily answer ‘who’s your best player?’ And while Galajda makes a strong case for most valuable, there’s no clear, single star for Cornell.

“I don’t know if we have a best player,” Schafer said. “I don’t think we’re that kind of team … I think this is one of the best teams I’ve had — maybe not the best individual talent I’ve had, but this is definitely a group of guys that play very well together.”

The Red’s depth has powered it offensively, but, like with all of Schafer’s past squads, success starts with defense — the team boasts a 1.53 goals against average, best in the nation by nearly half a goal.

“[Galajda has] done a good job in net, but without the guys playing well in front of him and being committed to blocking shots and backchecking and moving pucks and gutting it out and winning games … [Colgate’s] Colton Point’s the goalie of the year,” Schafer said.

After dominating the conference in the regular season to hoist the Cleary Cup, the Red has drawn praise from its conference foes.

“They have some high-end players, but they just come at you with tremendous depth,” said Clarkson head coach Casey Jones ’90, whose Golden Knights also earned an NCAA tournament bid. “There’s not much drop-off between the lines … I think it’s one of the best teams [Schafer’s] had at Cornell.”

Its impressive offensive depth hasn’t prevented Cornell from having hot goal scorers throughout the season. Senior Trevor Yates led the way early, scoring 11 goals in his team’s first 15 games. But Yates went cold, failing to light the lamp in 16 straight before scoring his team’s only goal in its ECAC semifinal loss to Princeton.

As Yates cooled down, Angello heated up. After Yates scored the goal that ended up being his last in more than two months, Angello scored seven total goals in the Red’s next six games, including a hat trick in a 3-0 win at Harvard.

“That is our team, our secondary scoring, and I love a team like that,” Schafer said. “It worries me when you have one line, and you rest your laurels on that line, if another team does a great job of shutting down that line, then you start looking at yourself going, okay, where are we going to score?”

The cliche that it’s a team game and it doesn’t matter who scores the goals seems to be true for the Red, whose constant focus on “the process” has led it to its best season in over a decade.

“They play hard for each other and that’s evident in the fact that we roll four lines and not one guy cares who scores or who has the big play,” Schafer said. “So they have depth in the skill, but that mentality they have has set us apart from a lot of teams this year.”

On a hot goal-scoring streak at the end of January, Angello saw his team earn its way to the top of the national rankings. That didn’t change the “process”-obsessed mindset.

“Nothing really changes,” he said. “Our grind still continues, we still trust the process and follow it, come to work ready to get better each day.”

So while Galajda wins accolade upon accolade and stands tall between the pipes, it’s hard to say who to watch for offensively as the Red enters the NCAA tournament. But it’s a safe bet the Red will play prideful defense and get scoring from, well, somebody.