The 2016 regular season for Cornell men’s hockey will begin with a road-heavy opening set of games this year, starting with a trip to North Andover, Mass. to take on Merrimack College in what has been a widely anticipated match up for players and fans alike.
“I think we got some rust out last weekend against UOIT and Brock and I think there is a lot of excitement around the rink,” said senior alternate captain and defenseman Patrick McCarron.
The team appeared to be on firing on all cylinders in two preseason matchups, which included a 3-1 victory over UOIT and an 8-1 win over Brock after the team outshot its Canadian opponents 84-28.
If a summer without hockey wasn’t enough, the two games against UOIT and Brock have created a sense of eagerness around the club to get the year underway.
“We are really looking forward to getting the season started and making some noise,” said senior captain and forward Jake Weidner.
Cornell will be one of the last teams to begin its season, while a team like Merrimack already has six games under its belt.
“Obviously we are anxious,” added head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “Amongst the other Ivies we are one of the last teams to play in the country … but the guys are excited.”
Last season, the Red swept a two game series against Merrimack, outscoring the Warriors, 8-2. Still, with a new season comes two completely different teams, and Cornell knows it cannot get caught up in last year’s results.
“Merrimack got off to a slow start, but they swept Colgate at home last weekend,” Schafer said. “[The Warriors] are a much different team at home than they are on the road. It’s a tough rink to play in.”
With the regular season yet to begin, Cornell is still in the midst of gelling as a team and trying to get caught up to speed in terms of game plan and style of play.
“We know we still have a lot to cover and each week is a whole new learning experience,” Schafer said. “We’re trying to teach guys and refine our system in terms of what we want to do, but at the same time keep that creativity that we’ve been showing so far in the first few weeks.”
Another major difference in this year’s matchup is timing. Last year, Cornell and Merrimack met in the middle of each other’s season. By that time, the Red had somewhat established lines and had freshmen that gained in-game collegiate experience.
While the two will meet again in early January — again on the road — when it comes to this Friday, plenty of components are still up in the air.
“We are trying to learn so many little things,” Schafer said. “By the time we played [Merrimack] last year, most of who is killing penalties, who is playing power plays and who is doing what had already been determined.”
What Schafer of sure of, however, is that he is happy with his captaincy core of Weidner, McCarron and senior forward Jeff Kubiak. Schafer lauded the trio for their strong performance communicating with the team and younger players, which will be integral to Cornell’s success as it tries to put the pieces together.
“We have to be aware of everything that goes on within our program,” Schafer said. “Our leadership council has done a great job of keeping those communication lines open and living up to the values of our program.”
Cornell hopes to have Kubiak — a leader both on and off the ice — return from injury in coming days. It remains to be seen whether last year’s leading goal scorer will be able to take the ice against Merrimack this weekend.
“[Jeff] has made progress,” Schafer said. “We have to see where his conditioning levels are at. It’s very tough to skate twice and then jump in the game this weekend but you never know. He’s a great player, so we’ll see what happens this weekend.”
With injuries and the coaching staff still in the midst of evaluating players, it is probable that many of the lines that take the ice against the Warriors will be given a new look in the near future.
“We were lucky last year to have the one line of [sophomore forwards Mitch] Vanderlaan, [Anthony] Angello and Kubiak that we put together,” Schafer said. “Other than that there wasn’t a set of defenseman or forwards that played together.”
When Kubiak returns, Cornell will look to reunite the talented center with wingers Angello and Vanderlaan and the JAM line will likely serve as Cornell’s first line.
That said, Cornell has a lot of depth on its roster, and young players will be expected to make an impact. One of these players is freshman defenseman Yanni Kaldis, who has impressed teammates — and more importantly the coaching staff — in just a few games.
“Yanni has come in and made an immediate impact,” McCarron said. “He looked good in the exhibition games and is catching on to everything that we are doing.”
Kaldis is set to make the opening roster, and Schafer hopes that he can “play [other freshmen] as much as [he] can. We’ll see how practice goes this week.”
Regardless of the opening roster, this weekend marks the beginning of a long and arduous opening for the men. Despite the challenge, the team is looking forward to get on the road and some even welcome sleepless bus rides for what they make up for in bonding.
“Personally I love the road,” Weidner said. “Going on the road is just you and the team with no distractions … [It’s a chance] to build the team and get guys to know each other. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue for us. I think guys are just really excited to get going.”