By CHRIS MILLS
As the team came together on the ice, set against the backdrop of a symphonic Lynah crowd still soaking in the magic of Cornell’s 2-1 gut-check victory over defending national champion Yale, it would not have been a far stretch to imagine the Red had just won a title of its own.
Five weeks into ECAC play, the men’s ice hockey team (7-4-1, 4-3-1 ECAC), in the midst of winning three out of four games in mid-November, has been playing like a resurgent version of last season’s 15-16-3 squad. Music blasting from the locker room after the game, the players and head coach Mike Schafer ’86 held their heads high, recalling the ups and downs of the still-young season and looking to continue carrying a new attitude through the 2013-2014 year.
“There’s just a different mentality with this group of guys,” Schafer said. “We’ve talked about being a lot more detailed-oriented, especially on those Saturday games.”
Despite a renewed focus and discipline, wins have not come easy for the No. 15 Red. Up until this past weekend, the team had failed to outshoot a single opponent, allowing at least two goals per game through the season’s first eight. The Red instead has relied on the nation’s best power play conversion percentage, 30.61%, which was in full force in a pair of season-opening wins at Nebraska-Omaha, followed by a 4-2 victory against Princeton to get the team off to a 3-0-0 start.
Cornell’s season thus far can be arranged into three pieces. First, the team’s undefeated beginning. Second: a grueling 0-3-1 stretch of conference games early in the month. Finally, with late-November flurries signaling hockey weather has settled into campus, the team has arrived too, parlaying a big rebound on the road in North Country into a fresh winning streak at Lynah.
“The turning point was our mentality after the Clarkson game,” Schafer said, remembering the team’s 1-3-1 start in ECAC games that included a 3-2 loss on a last-minute goal to the Golden Knights. “I thought Clarkson was our worst game this year — nothing to take anything away from them — but we were lifeless. There was no passion in our game, and I was frustrated coming out of that game and then playing the next day.”
That next game was against St. Lawrence, at the time ranked No. 19 in the country. An opening rush of power play goals scored by junior forward Joel Lowry gave the Red a 4-1 advantage in the first frame en route to a 5-2 final.
“It was our effort, our intensity, and our enthusiasm in that game, not worrying about the end result, but just coming ready to get after it and play some hockey,” Schafer said. “Going into that stretch drive [of four consecutive ECAC road games] … I knew it was going to be tough — the four places are tough to play. But we ended up on that stretch drive where Union’s now ranked, RPI was ranked at the time, Clarkson was ranked, and St. Lawrence was ranked and we started with Quinnipiac. So it was a tough stretch and just a start to kind of right the ship and get ourselves going back in the right direction where we need to be.”
The return of junior forward Cole Bardreau from injury certainly did not hurt the squad’s recent momentum going into a weekend sweep of Brown and No. 9 Yale. Points have been hard to come by at times, but the Red still ranks a healthy No. 22 in the nation with the help of goal leaders Lowry and junior forward Brian Ferlin, who have nabbed six apiece.
“Coming into the season, one thing I wanted to focus on was just getting more pucks on net because that’s obviously going to turn into goals, hopefully,” Ferlin said. “We believe in the locker room when we’re playing our best hockey, we can compete with anyone in the country and I think we showed that tonight. … Guys are definitely building more confidence.”
With Ferlin and the rest of the offense continuing to build continuity on the front line, the team has also been working to cut down on mental errors and penalties. Although Schafer will be the first to point out that penalty minutes — as opposed to number of penalties — can be a misleading statistic because of the varying length assigned to different infractions, the Red’s head man since 1995 was not pleased to see Cornell leading the nation in penalty minutes last season.
“I think you’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the number of penalty minutes we’ve taken this year,” Schafer said, noting that he’s been more willing to sit players down during games and to continue to assign push ups for various mental errors in practice.
“That definitely holds guys accountable for when they’re not doing they’re job,” said junior defenseman Joakim Ryan, who has helped anchor the Red’s back line this season.
Crouching behind Ryan on the ice is the Red’s last — but certainly not least — line of defense in senior goalie Andy Iles, who has been nothing but dependable in his final season on the hill. Iles has now started 80 consecutive games in a Cornell uniform and has a save percentage north of .900 this season.
“In the scrambles he’s under control,” Schafer said. “Andy plays his best hockey when there’s [a] puck out in front of him and he trusts his instincts to be patient and under control.”
Though the Red’s four-game win streak through the middle of November was cut short by Boston University in the Red Hot Hockey Classic at Madison Square Garden, the squad looks forward to a visit from Colgate (7-7-1, 5-3 ECAC) before finishing off the calendar year at the Florida College Classic.
Despite some early ups and downs, the team can breathe a temporary sigh of relief knowing it has made it through a grueling run of ranked opponents. And with confidence comes the continued pursuit of improving in all facets of the game.
“There’s nothing that we’re looking not to fine tune right now,” Schafer emphasized. “Power play, penalty kill, six-on-five, for and against; I mean there are so many things to continue to cover and work on. That’s our goal; [to] just keep plugging away and become better in every phase of the game.”