February 10, 2011

Men’s Hockey Seeks Redemption in Union Rematch

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While a Feb. 18 fish-throwing affair with Harvard is the date circled in the calendars of the team’s most passionate fans, at the moment the only Friday night matchup the Red (11-9-3, 9-5-2 ECAC Hockey) has its eye on is tonight’s road contest at No. 9 Union (20-7-3, 12-3-1). This crucial conference battle in Schenectady, N.Y. will likely serve as a strong indication of what the future holds for a Cornell team that will conclude its road trip at No. 8 Rensselaer (18-6-4, 10-5-1) in a nationally televised 3:30 p.m. contest on Saturday. In order to contend for one of the top spots in the ECAC, the men’s hockey team will need to show vast improvement from last month’s disappointing 5-1 home loss to the Dutchmen — the Red’s only loss in its last 10 games. “We didn’t work hard [against] them at all. They kind of took it to us,” said senior forward and co-captain Patrick Kennedy, referring to the blowout loss at Lynah. “I think this game we’re going to focus on one-on-one battles where guys are forced to take the puck to the net … a lot more. I think it just came down to what team wanted it more, and Union did obviously, pulling out a 5-1 win.”One factor that will certainly play into the Red’s favor is the hot streak the team has been on since it returned from consecutive losing efforts in the Florida College Classic in the days leading up to the New Year. Cornell’s 7-1-2 record in its last 10 games has vaulted the team into ECAC playoff contention, with a chance to take over the third spot in the standings on the line this weekend. According to head coach Mike Schafer ’86, the impetus for the team’s most recent success has been its stellar special teams play.  “I thought we did a good job [with] our power play starting to generate some goals for us,” he said. “We made a couple tweaks to it as far as personnel — we moved some people around — and I thought for the most part … that the power play was better than what we’ve had. We’ve played with more poise … and when they play with more poise up top and move the puck around … it creates that many more offensive opportunities.” The Red’s offensive efforts have been led in large part by the team’s new top line, which features senior co-captain and ECAC Player of the Week Joe Devin, senior forward Tyler Roeszler and sophomore center Greg Miller. “Our line and power play has done very well,” Miller said of the trio’s recent success. “Myself, Devin and Roeszler have certainly worked well together. We’re trying to continue the chemistry together that we have, and hopefully we can go into Union and RPI this weekend and continue that … because we certainly need to come out with a ‘W’.”Tonight’s matchup with Union will be a showcase of the ECAC’s best penalty-kill unit — Cornell kills off 88.5 percent of all power-play opportunities — and the nation’s best when it comes to the power play. Union’s staggering 30.5 percent efficiency with the man advantage would create anxiety for most goaltenders; luckily for the Red, Cornell has two of the conferences’ best in junior Mike Garman and freshman Andy Iles. In the last 10 games Garman and Iles have combined to hold opponents to a 2.00 goals-against average. Union, however, has been competing at this level all season on defense, ranking No. 4 in the nation with a 2.10 goals-against average.“If you look at [Union’s] statistics I think they’re … almost identical to where we are as far as goals for and goals against. I don’t think there’s a whole lot that separates the two teams in those categories, other than they learned their lesson early on on how to win. … We’ve got to play a very similar type of style and learn how to win on the road against this team.”The Dutchmen feature a youthful lineup led by sophomore forward Jeremy Welsh and freshman forward Daniel Carr; however junior forward Kelly Zajac — the younger brother of New Jersey Devils star Travis Zajac — remains the key piece to the potent Union offense. As suggested by the team’s miniscule goals-against numbers, Union’s strength lies in the hands of sophomore goaltender Keith Kinkaid. The netminder’s 2.00 goals-against average and .920 save-percentage rank him fourth and sixth among ECAC goalies, respectively. Saturday afternoon’s matchup on NHL Network against RPI will be unique from most games the Red has played this season due to the unusual 3:30 p.m. start time.“It’s a little bit different. We’re used to playing the 7 p.m. game on Saturday, but I don’t think so,” Roeszler said when asked whether the time change would have any impact on the game or his team’s preparation. “Obviously we’re excited about the opportunity to play on NHL Network, but we know what’s at stake.”The Engineers are led on offense by ECAC point-leader senior forward Chase Polacek, who has compiled 42 points on 17 goals and 25 assists over the season’s first 28 games. NHL draftee goaltender Allen York has put together a standout junior season between the pipes to the tune of a 1.89 goals-against average. Like RPI, the Red has leaned on its senior class to arise to the top of the conference standings. After a difficult start to the season, it seems as though the elder statesmen have willed the team into the competition for a top seed in the ECAC postseason tournament. “We’re really excited especially since the way we started things off this year, but as a class I don’t think we’ve been doing anything different lately,” said senior defenseman Mike Devin, who enters tonight’s game as Cornell’s top scoring defender. “We’ve just been concentrating on the process and trying to improve every day and … things have been turning around for us lately.”As is the case each season, this year’s senior class will be celebrated on the weekend of Feb. 18-19 when the Red takes on Harvard and Dartmouth. Despite all the hype that surrounds that weekend, Roeszler remains confident that the team is fully concentrated on the task at hand.“I think we’ve learned … as the season has gone on, and we know not to look over opponents because every team in the ECAC is tough,” he said. “We had two tough games against Colgate and they’re a struggling team, so it doesn’t even matter who you’re playing it’s going to be a tough weekend. We know enough where you can’t be looking past people in February where every game is so important, so we’re just taking it one game at a time.”

Original Author: Evan Rich