By JOON LEE
Everything about the Cornell men’s hockey team is different from last year. Head coach Mike Schafer ditched his new forecheck from last season and went back to the system that found him success throughout the entirety of his career leading the Red. There is a buzz around the players about the new locker room culture, something that players and Schafer have spoken at length about during the preseason. The team voted for four quad-captains, a first in the history of the program.
Add another difference so far one game into the season: the Red is scoring goals and shooting a whole lot of pucks at the net in the process. With the team heading into overtime in the season opener at Niagara, Cornell (1-0) needed a goal in overtime to avoid a tie and take home a victory. They got the goal they needed in a 3-2 victory over the Purple Eagles (0-3) from a familiar face: senior forward Christian Hilbrich.
“It was a big goal by him in the game. I think, like a lot of our guys, he was just OK as a player tonight,” Schafer said. “A lot of guys looked tired tonight. We’ve got to get refreshed and get the Lynah Faithful crowd, but Christian made a big play to score the game winner with a great play by Jake Weidner and Teemu Tiitinen to get the puck to him.”
Hilbrich, of course, is the team’s highest returning scorer (10 goals, four assists in 2014-15) following the graduation of Cole Bardreau ’15 to the NHL. But while Hilbrich’s score certainly highlighted the team’s opening night victory, the wide range of contributors — seven Red players registered a point on Friday — and the continued offensive outburst from freshman forward Anthony Angello, who scored his first collegiate goal following a four-score output in the Red’s preseason finale against Laurentian, stood out as the most important developments for Cornell.
“He’s big. Anthony has played well and Jeff Kubiak has done a good job with him,” Schafer said. “It’s exciting to see Jeff in the middle and a great pass by Jeff tonight and a great play by Anthony to get open on the back side. It was a good start. Glad that Anthony got his first career goal, but we’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow night.”
The Red found themselves in a familiar position just 22 seconds into the game when Niagara’s Luke Edwards scooted the puck past junior goalie Mitch Gillam, who stopped 23 of 25 shots on the night, putting Cornell down early from the outset.
“It was a rough way to start the season when you give up a goal 22 seconds into it,” Schafer said. “That really put us on our heels a little bit for the first while of the game. All of these aspirations of playing well and within 20 seconds, you’re down a goal on the road.”
The willingness to work through adversity, at least for some players according to Schafer, brought the Red back into the game, a sight that was infrequent last year.
“The guys fought back throughout the game, but we knew going into this game that the pace was going to be better athletes,” Schafer said. “We struggled a bit at times in our own zone. It was a tough win for us to come back and a difficult place to play and the guys did a good job with it.”
There are a few areas in which Schafer hopes to see improvement when the Red hits the ice at Lynah Rink tomorrow night to finish off the home-and-home series against Niagara.
“The biggest area that we need to work on is playing with poise,” Schafer said. “Tonight in the first game getting scored on with 22 seconds, it sucked the life out of our poise and we tried to battle back. Some guys played with it, some guys didn’t play with it. We’ve got to get right back. I didn’t like our defensive zone coverage tonight and thought we gave up chances and shot lanes. A lot of work to get done for tomorrow and get better for the following week.”
Niagara presented a new challenge for the Red, proving to be a much better team than the teams Schafer’s squad faced in the preseason. It will take time, especially after significant personnel turnover, for the Red to find an identity as a team.
“I think that facing adversity,” Schafer said, “like we did tonight being down and then coming back, it takes a long time for a team to develop that mentality and overcome adversity and overcome success and all of the things that you go through.”