When the Miami (OH) buses pulled out of the Lynah parking lot on Dec. 3, after the RedHawks dropped their second game in as many days in Ithaca, Cornell men’s hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86 was enthusiastic about his team, a squad that was pushing all the right buttons.
“Pretty excited [about] where we are,” he said after the team’s 2-1 win over Miami. “This team’s been finding a way [to win] and it’s great.”
The excitement is well earned. Cornell opened its season with a disappointing 0-2-1 start, but has gone 7-1 in the eight games since, including the current five-game win streak, which is good enough for third-longest in the country.
But now, the Red — idle for 25 days during the team’s exam and holiday break — is trying to regain momentum. The Florida College Hockey Classic, which Cornell has been a participant in for all 17 years of its existence, signals a start to the second half of the season, but also serves as a test to see what the team is able to carry over the break what it accomplished in the first portion of the season.
“It’s starting brand new,” Schafer said of the next slate of games. “It’s trying to get your act together and seeing how guys worked out over the break and exam period.”
Senior forward and captain Jake Weidner will take part in his fourth Florida tournament on Wednesday, making him well-versed in how to best tackle the annual extended break in play. He’s learned “it’s making sure we are sticking to our process.”
“It’s definitely tricky [with exams and the break],” he added. “Everyone’s got to be in the right mindset.”
Cornell is the only team in this year’s tournament which has appeared in the tournament more than twice, and has won the Classic four times. This year’s lineup of teams — Colorado College, Northern Michigan and Merrimack — all present interesting challenges for the Red.
Whereas last year’s grouping — Ohio State, Providence and Boston College — was a strong amalgamation of teams, two of which ranked top 10 nationally, not one of the other three teams this year owns a winning record. Cornell sits at a cool .682 winning percentage.
The only team the Red (7-3-1, 4-2-1 ECAC) is assured to face is Northern Michigan (4-14-2, 2-11-1), a team that has struggled to find any sort of consistency so far. The Wildcats are led by junior forward Robbie Payne, whose five goals and nine assists put him four points higher than any of his teammates.
If Cornell wins, it will face the winner of Merrimack or Colorado College at 7:35 p.m. on Thursday or will face the loser in an earlier consolation game if Northern Michigan is able to pull off the upset.
Merrimack (6-8-3, 1-4-3) and Cornell have faced off once already this season, with the Warriors taking the game, 3-2, though it was Cornell’s first game of the season compared to Merrimack’s eighth. Since then, the Warriors have gone 3-5-2, dropping games to tough, nationally-ranked competition. Whether or not the teams end up playing each other in Florida, Cornell will travel yet again to North Andover to face the Warriors Jan. 7 for its first game following the tournament.
Of all the teams in this year’s tournament, Colorado College (3-12-1, 1-6-1) has the most history with Cornell. The two have met nine times and Cornell holds a 6-2-1 record. This season, the Tigers have struggled to keep the puck out of their own net, with starting goalie Alex Leclerc mustering only a .869 save percentage and 3.98 goals against average.
Although this year’s competition is objectively inferior, the Red knows to not overlook any opponent, keeping last year’s Florida tournament in mind, according to Weidner. It was a roller coaster of a two-game series during the holiday season for Cornell last year, who beat the then-defending national champions, No. 1 ranked and undefeated Providence on an overtime goal off the stick of current alternate captain and senior forward Jeff Kubiak.
On the other side of the bracket, an unranked Ohio State upset then-No. 4 Boston College, and would go on to rout Cornell 8-0 in the championship game. Part of it was bad luck, as Cornell caught the Buckeyes who were surging at the exact right time and now sit as a top 10 team in the country.
“Last year was a bit of a roller coaster beating the best team and then losing to one that was closer to the bottom in a pretty big blowout,” Weidner said. “This year we are preaching that there is so much parity in the league and across the country that any team can beat anyone on any night.”
While the break presents difficulties in retaining the game-day mentality, it has also afforded Cornell some benefits with players returning to health. Last year’s leading point-getter and this year’s alternate captain, Kubiak, is poised to return to the lineup in Florida, according to Schafer. Whether he will reunite with his traditional linemates of sophomores Anthony Angello and Mitch Vanderlaan is unclear — the duo has been producing well with Weidner at center. Schafer was optimistic about the senior’s health, though conscious to monitor his playing time as to prevent reinjuring himself like what happened in the opening game against Merrimack.
Senior goalie Mitch Gillam, who took a hard hit when playing a puck in the second game against Miami, sustained a knee injury on the play, but “the break came at the right time,” according to Schafer, and his goalie used the team’s extended hiatus to recover.
Schafer did not rule out that other injured players could make the jump back into the lineup, but he said he will use the few practices before puck drop against Northern Michigan to make a final decision.
Though none of these games count towards the highly-anticipated ECAC tournament, they could easily have implications come NCAA tournament selection time. An extra win or tie last year could have propelled a Red team that was considered on the bubble. With that record in mind, Weidner said he believes his team will come out full guns blazing, despite the considerable drop in buzz around this year’s opponents.
“We know that there are teams out there that are ranked lower that are a lot better than what their record shows and teams that are a lot higher that fall down in the second half,” he said. “We are looking to make a push here and climb a little bit and do it the right way by playing our type of hockey.”