By JOON LEE
If you line up the first line of the Cornell men’s hockey team against Niagara in order of height, they would look like the signal bars on your cell phone. Freshman Mitch Vanderlaan stands first, listed at 5-foot-7, 178 pounds, but brings a skillset that highlights the advantages of being a smaller guy out on the ice, namely quickness and agility. Junior Jeff Kubiak brings the experience in the group, finding himself in the right place to light the lamp as he did for the Red twice on tip-in goals on Saturday. And then there’s 6-foot-7, Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Anthony Angello who looks like he’s hacking away at the puck like a lumberjack in front of the net.
Vanderlaan, Kubiak and Angello bring their own positives and negatives out to the ice, but in the Red’s 4-0 win over Niagara at Lynah Rink, the group’s chemistry and complementary skill set shined through. Vanderlaan netted the first goal of his collegiate career in the first period off a rebound of an Angello swing towards the net. Kubiak later redirected a Vanderlaan laser towards the net. The cherry on top for the group came when Kubiak redirected a shot from freshman defenseman Alec McCrea for his second goal of the night.
Head coach Mike Schafer needed someone to step in and replace the production of a now departed 2014-15 senior class. So far, the freshmen, highlighted by Angello, who notched the first three points of his collegiate career over the weekend, and Vanderlaan have led the way offensively for Cornell. That is no surprise for Schafer.
“One of the things is that Anthony Angello could’ve come in last year and so could’ve Mitch Vanderlaan,” Schafer said. “They made conscious decisions about when they wanted to come in college hockey, they wanted to make an impact. They didn’t want to just get here. Both of those guys did a good job. Beau Starrett did a good job coming into the game tonight as a freshman and had a great 2-on-1 there in the third period. Those guys and Alec McCrea and some guys that are energy boosters.”
The Red dominated both sides of the ice in the first period, creating a significant number of shots while keeping the Purple Eagles away from their net. Cornell outshot Niagara 18 to 4 while winning 16-of-23 faceoffs. The Purple Eagles struggled to clear pucks around their net, giving Cornell a lot of second-chance shots on Niagara goalie Guillaume Therien. But what really stood out for the Red was how the first line shot pucks on pucks on pucks at the net like a machine gun.
“We’ve been gelling really well starting in practice,” Angello said. “We come in and we’re always on the same page and we know where each other are on the ice and I think that helps us, not only in the games, but as a team as a whole because it provide camaraderie and that will provide us with success. I feel that the closest team is going to go the farthest, not only between us three, but between the whole team.”
Vanderlaan stood out in the first period, scoring the first Cornell goal off a rebound and creating Kubiak’s goal, putting the puck near the senior center’s stick and creating the tip-in goal. For Vanderlaan, adding additional strength and size to his frame took place as his foremost reason behind his decision to delay his time enrolling at Cornell.
“I had to get a lot bigger, a lot stronger,” Vanderlaan said. “I didn’t think I was quite ready to jump in with the physicality. Another year in juniors for me was something that could really benefit me because I didn’t think I was ready to jump in with the physicality of it, so I thought another year of juniors for me was something that could really benefit me, so I took it. It’s something I’m glad I did.”
Coming into Cornell, size was not the issue for Angello; rather, the forward wanted to improve his all-around play in order to maximize the potential impact he could have for the Red once he got to the hill.
“Taking another year in juniors as a way to increase my all-around game, whether it’s my offensive skills or defensive skills, getting bigger and stronger,” Angello said. “I feel for me that was the right play. I wasn’t ready to come in and have a dominant impact in college hockey last year. For me, it was about getting bigger, faster and stronger.”
The Red’s dominance on both sides of the ice continued in the second period. After Angello drew a hooking penalty on Niagara defenseman Vinny Muto, the powerplay unit, which did not look particularly strong on Saturday, lit the lamp with a tip-in goal from Jeff Kubiak on a shot from freshman defenseman Alec McCrea. Holden Anderson added to the goal party with five minutes left in the second period on a rocket shot from the point that zipped past Niagara goalie Joe O’Brien, who entered the game after Thieren left with an injury.
This presence in front of the net is an area where Schafer has made a concerted effort for his team to improve.
“We talked about resetting things and we have a great bench and we had great effort and guys get up on their feet. It’s a work in progress,” Schafer said. “We changed a bunch of guys on the power play and we weren’t happy with how guys were shooting on the powerplay and we teed it up and shot it. We had great chances and then Jeff Kubiak with a great tip and I’m happy with how they responded for things that we asked between games.”
So while Schafer said that the team expects to see the lines alignments to be fluid as the Red continue on into the season, the group will continue to need to see the freshman bring their A-game in order to contribute on the offensive end.
Over the first weekend of the season, the Red score seven goals, a mark that took Cornell three weekends and eight games to hit last year. And for the first line of Kubiak, Angello and Vanderlaan, the trio’s drastic differences in skill set could ultimately prove to be why the line could make a mark as one of the team’s strongest offensive units.
“We each bring our unique skill and different talents, but to make things work and to bring production, we need to gel together and communication between the three of us, we come back to the bench and we make sure each other knows what we could’ve done better that shift and it’s worked with our chemistry,” Kubiak said. “Anthony said it starts in practice and you’ll have to gel different skills to make a good line. So far, all three of our lines have done in the first two games and guys are finding chemistry and that’s what it’s all about.”