This weekend marks the beginning of the ECAC season for the Cornell men’s hockey team; the Red will face off in back-to-back road games against Dartmouth and Harvard. Coming off a disappointing 3-2 season opening loss to Merrimack, the Red is looking to build momentum going forward by capitalizing on these two highly anticipated match-ups.
While the Red’s loss to Merrimack was frustrating, the team did see momentum heading into the last period that it hopes to carry over into the coming weekend.
“We thought that we didn’t have the start that we wanted in the first two periods,” said senior forward Matt Buckles, who scored the team’s first goal against Merrimack. “Once we got the jitters out, got the rust out, we started taking it to them — but it was too little too late.”
Head coach Mike Schafer ’86 has broad goals for the team moving forward, including focusing on fundamentals and ensuring that his team functions as a single, cohesive unit.
“We’re just in the basics of trying to establish the fundamentals of our hockey team,” Schafer said. “I liken it to crew. You got eight guys, and they have to pull at the right time at the same time, and if one guy tries to do too much it throws off the whole boat. And we had a bunch of guys who were trying to do too much.”
After an uncharacteristic performance by senior starting goaltender Mitch Gillam, Schafer is considering giving junior goalie Hayden Stewart the nod.
“We’ll think about it,” Schafer said. “We made Mitch work harder in practice, and be more detail oriented.”
However, Schafer’s confidence in Gillam — one of last year’s premier goaltenders in the ECAC — is not waning.
“Mitch is a very smart goaltender, he’s very athletic, and [his performance at Merrimack was] very uncharacteristic,” Schafer said. “Our full expectation is for him to bounce back quickly.”
Now the Red looks to play Dartmouth this coming Friday. Critical to its success will be its avoidance of the infamous “Harvard trap,” where the excitement for a rival game against the Crimson distracts the Red from the current task at hand: beating Dartmouth.
“There’s no doubt that the Harvard game is a really big game for us, but I don’t think we ever look past it,” said senior defenseman Holden Anderson. “It’s about going through that preparation for the week, and sticking to the process we do for every game.”
Dartmouth is not a team that should be overlooked. Returning a large senior class and coming off a 3-2 victory over Michigan in Thompson Arena, the Green is bound to bring significant challenges to the Red this weekend.
One of these challenges will be Dartmouth’s lethal attack. Last year, Dartmouth’s offense bested Cornell in a 3-0 win, but then the Red fought back for a 1-0 shutout of the Green later in the season.
“They’re a dangerous, experienced hockey team upfront,” Schafer said. “They’re an aggressive team — they’ll step up in the neutral zone, they’ll step up in the forecheck, and you have to be patient against them.”
And the Red has some of its own offensive weapons as well. Freshman defenseman Yanni Kaldis has been gaining recognition from some of the older guys on the team and is sure to be a significant factor going forward.
“Offensively gifted would come to mind,” said Anderson. “He does some good things with the puck.”
Harvard, too, poises another offense-minded threat for a young defensive core for Cornell. Last year, the Crimson lit up the Red for eight goals in two games, a 6-2 win at Lynah and 2-2 tie in Cambridge.
However, this year’s Harvard roster comes without the likes of Jimmy Vesey — who is now lighting it up in the NHL — and Kyle Criscuolo, who scored the game winner in the Crimson’s 6-2 win.
Despite this, Harvard is still brimming with offensive talents that will not let the Red off the hook following the trek from Hanover.
“They are a dangerous, experienced hockey team up front,” Schafer said. “They have some guys that can skate and handle pucks up top, but we’ve always had great games against them and it’ll be fun.
It seems evident that there will be little love lost this upcoming weekend during these Ivy matchups.
“With these two teams, we don’t like them very much, they don’t like us very much,” said Buckles, a senior who has gotten to know Harvard and Dartmouth very well. “A lot of our older guys know a lot of their older guys. We have a big history.”
One difference this year for Cornell will be the health of some key contributors. After playing against Merrimack, Schafer said that senior alternate captain and forward Jeff Kubiak’s status is in question for this weekend due to soreness. Junior defensemen Ryan Bliss and Dan Wedman are also still battling offseason injuries and are questionable for the next slate of games.
Sophomore defenseman Brendan Smith was also kept out of Friday’s game against Merrimack, so it is unclear if the team will be working with any leniency with an already depleted blue line.
With injuries and a road-heavy start to the season, Cornell might seem to be at a disadvantage. However, there seems to be little sign of dismay at this fact.
With two games that are likely to set the tone for the rest of the year — one of which being the age-old rival game against the Crimson — the Red seems eager to come together as a team and bring home its first victories of the season.
“We’re really excited to get it going,” Buckles said. “Especially on the road — we’ll come together as a team even more, and get to see what we’re made of.”