At the start of the 2017-18 campaign, Cornell men’s hockey was picked to finish third in the conference. Many thought that this season would be a replication of the last — a decent conference showing, but ultimately a record that would pale in comparison to the conference giants of Harvard, Quinnipiac and perhaps even Union. These predictions couldn’t have been further off the mark.
But even after winning 25 games and an ECAC regular season title, the Red was unable to find much postseason success this year. Still, the team looks back on how it built such a successful year and finds much to be proud of.
“I’m happy with the season,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “I’m happy with the development of our players, the excitement of the program.”
Cornell got off to a hot start — its hottest in 40 years, in fact — winning its first seven games out of the gate and jumping into the top five of the national rankings. It didn’t take long for this Cornell team to turn heads, but the feeling inside the locker room was that this team was simply living up to its potential.
“We had very high expectations,” said senior captain Alex Rauter. “We knew from the second we got to campus the quality of the team that we had … We had belief all along in our group. The team chemistry started to come together and became something really special.”
One of the hallmarks of Cornell’s season was its defense — the stingiest in the country. And while the Red boasted talent on the blueline from the start, the anchor of the defense was freshman goaltender Matt Galajda, who performed so well that he was the only freshman named a finalist for the Hobey Baker award, given annually to the most outstanding player in collegiate hockey.
“[Galajda] exceeded the expectations,” Schafer said. “To have a [1.51] goals against average and to lead the country is a tremendous feat for any goaltender, let alone a freshman.”
“I thought personally I matured a lot as a goalie over the year,” Galajda said. “From my first game to my last game I gained a lot more control and poise in the net. I think throughout the year I just gained a lot more confidence in my play.”
Part of Cornell’s impressive run to start the season was a thrilling, last-second victory over its archrival Harvard at Lynah Rink, when junior defenseman Alec McCrea potted the game-winning goal in the waning seconds of the contest.
“The Harvard game, that was just crazy,” Galajda said. “The way I saw Lynah erupt after we scored that goal was just incredible.”
In that moment, Cornell secured its sixth straight win to start the season and also cemented itself as a national contender, catapulting to a No. 5 ranking in the USCHO.com poll.
But Cornell’s historic win streak would come to an end just a week later, suffering a shutout loss at the hands of then-No. 7 Clarkson.
“The game against Clarkson was a tough one … we didn’t have it that night,” Rauter said. “But the biggest thing that came out of it was the response … They were such a good team, it showed us how hard we had to play if we wanted to be up there with the best teams in the league.”
The Red’s second loss of the season came just three games later, in a road contest against Miami (OH). But Cornell came back the next night to beat the same team, shutting the Red Hawks out thanks to a dominant performance by senior goaltender Hayden Stewart who replaced Galajda after a shaky performance in the previous game.
It was at that moment, according to Schafer, that the team proved its resilience. After a several week hiatus, Cornell went on a massive tear, amassing an 11-game unbeaten streak and climbing to a No. 1 national ranking.
“We had a great team meeting [after the first Miami game],” Schafer said. “To me, that was a little bit of a turning point … We just prepare hard and we throw it out there.”
Through it all, Cornell showed its grit and character many times this season, coming back from several multiple-goal deficits and gutting out wins all year long.
“It just helps so much when everyone cares about each other,” Rauter said. “Everybody wants to win and be successful and it all just comes together.”
Asked whether he could pinpoint what made this team more special than others he’s coached, Schafer underscored the nature of this team’s sense of camaraderie. In particular, he noted how the team’s 10 freshmen — its biggest rookie class in four years — grew substantially thanks to the leadership of the upperclassmen.
“A lot of the credit for [the freshmen] feeling comfortable goes to the upperclassmen,” Schafer said. “As a freshman you feel like you have to defer … [But] these guys just felt so welcome that they knew that they were a teammate … The freshmen did a great job and the upperclassmen did a great job.”
In the end, Cornell’s season did not come to the conclusion that many had hoped for, falling in the ECAC semifinal and then the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back weeks. In effect, the Red’s monumental season had ended with nothing to show for it.
“Our goal every year is to win [a championship], and we didn’t do that,” Rauter said. “Obviously it was nice to be regular season champs, nice to have a good year … But someone needs to bring a championship home to Cornell, it’s been a long time and I really think this group of guys can definitely do it.”
Cornell will retain much of its core next season, particularly on defense, with 21 of the team’s 26 players coming back for another season on East Hill including all eight blueliners.
“I expect us to be a lot better,” Galajda said. “I don’t plan on losing any games next year … We got a lot of guys returning, and I think we’ll do an unbelievable job.”
Whether the 2018-19 squad will match up with Galajda’s prediction and join the 1969-70 squad as the only undefeated team in Cornell history remains to be seen, but with the best defense in the country retaining its core and a young, superstar goaltender in net, the Red has reason to be optimistic about its near future.