This story is part of The Sun’s 2018 NCAA Hockey supplement. To view the rest of the supplement, click here.
Defense wins championships. That’s a classic axiom in the world of sports.
Cornell men’s hockey has long prided itself on being a defensive stalwart. Head coach Mike Schafer ’86 — the winningest coach in Ivy League history — has made defense a hallmark of each of the 22 teams he has coached in his time in Ithaca, and the Red has earned five ECAC championships during his tenure, more than any other team.
This year’s team is no exception. The Red’s defense is the best in the country, and it isn’t close. The gap between Cornell’s 1.53 goals against per game and the second best team is more than twice the size of the gap between the second and third best teams.
But this year’s Cornell squad has something that very few before it have had — a chance to compete for a national title. Just one Cornell team since 1980 has been as far as the national semifinal.
The defense has been as special as they come, blocking shots and gutting out victories all season long. The anchor has been freshman goaltender Matt Galajda, who has had one of the best rookie seasons by a goaltender in recent memory.
Galajda’s 1.49 goals allowed average is the best in the country and his .940 save percentage is good for third-best. The tremendous season to start his collegiate career earned him ECAC Rookie and Goaltender of the Year honors, and he’s also been nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, which is given annually to the most outstanding player in college hockey.
But for all of Galajda’s merits — and he has many — he’ll be the first one to tell you that his success is thanks to the defense in front of him.
“Our D-corps has been doing an amazing job in front of me,” the rookie said after a Feb. 9 scoreless tie at Clarkson — the seventh of his nine shutouts this season. “Our forwards are coming back and clearing pucks. It makes my job a lot easier.”
Galajda’s comment highlights that defense isn’t played by just the six blueliners on the ice. The forwards have defensive prowess, too. Just ask junior captain Mitch Vanderlaan who, despite missing the final six games of the regular season, has more blocked shots than any other Cornell forward this season. In fact, the injury that caused Vanderlaan to miss time was sustained while he was blocking a shot against Rensselaer on Feb. 3.
Of course, that’s not to say that the Red’s defenders — referred to as the “D-corps” by members of the team — aren’t as instrumental as they come. Junior defenseman Alec McCrea was tabbed this year’s best defensive defenseman in the ECAC while sophomore blueliner Yanni Kaldis was named to an All-ECAC team.
“Offense is secondary,” Kaldis said. “Once we do things right defensively, it transitions into offense. So I think that it’s everyone contributing and blocking shots, doing whatever it takes, not cheating for offense. And I think the D-corps has been really solid and we’re doing what we’re asked to do and everyone has just bought in.”
Blocked shots are an important metric for this hockey team. Schafer and associate head coach Ben Syer have emphasized that all season long.
And for a defensive platoon that has started three freshmen — Alex Green, Cody Haiskanen and Matt Cairns — and zero seniors for most of the season, juniors like McCrea, Brendan Smith and Matt Nuttle have been the upperclassmen leaders of the unit, setting an example for their younger teammates. Those three third-year players account for one-third of the team’s blocked shots this season.
“Our biggest thing is our depth and how committed we are to the smallest details,” Nuttle said. “[Syer] does a really good job of staying on us for the details. And then us, as a D-corps, we hold each other accountable and we all work really well together.”
But for all the success that the older players have been able to find, the freshmen have been major contributors right from the start, with Green and Haiskanen in particular being centerpieces of the action since the first game of the season.
“It starts from the goalie at the back end and works all the way to the forwards,” Haiskanen said. “It’s a whole team thing. But it’s been awesome [to] contribute to such great success that we’ve had so far this year.”
And however far this Cornell team will go this year, it is certain that they will only get there with their lockdown defense leading the way.