Things were looking up for the Cornell men’s hockey team about a week ago. The Red was riding a six game winning streak — the third longest in the nation — two of the Red’s top forwards had returned to the lineup after long absences and the team had just come off of a dominant victory over Northern Michigan. One day later, after a loss to a 4-12-1 Colorado College team in the finals of the Florida College Hockey Classic, the Red suffered a setback.
“It was just one of those nights where we didn’t capitalize on our scoring chances, and that’s disappointing,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “In the first period I think we hit two posts, in the second period we hit two posts and crossbars and in the third period we had some great chances but couldn’t convert.”
Cornell (8-4-1, 4-2-1 ECAC) certainly gave Colorado College a run for its money in last Thursday night’s contest, forcing overtime. But a shot from the left circle that snuck over the right shoulder of junior goalie Hayden Stewart gave the Tigers both the upset victory and the tournament’s Harkness Cup. Senior forward Jake Weidner had the Red’s lone goal in the loss.
Although Schafer said he was disappointed with the outcome, he was not at all displeased with the way his team played, unlike in some past Florida appearances.
“In years past I thought we didn’t play that great down there, but this year I thought we were really solid,” he said. “It was just one of those nights in the game of hockey where we did a lot of good things, but it just wasn’t meant to be”.
Cornell was without starting goalie Mitch Gillam in the loss, who was still a bit banged up after a collision in the Miami series the final weekend of the first semester. Schafer said that Gillam is healthy and will start in goal for the team’s next game.
Now the Red must bounce back and attempt to start its winning streak anew.
This weekend’s task is the Red’s final non-conference game of the season — a rematch with Merrimack. Back in October, the Warriors topped Cornell 3-2 in what was the Red’s first regular season game. The offseason rust showed in that game, and on Saturday the team will look to come out strong in search of revenge.
The group has been practicing in Ithaca all week, and Schafer knows they are focused and ready to get back to their winning ways. “The guys have come back from break and have had some great practices these last few days,” he said. “They’re staying focused and getting better each day.”
Senior forward Matt Buckles echoed his coach’s optimism, and he and the rest of the team are eager for the chance to get back on track against Merrimack.
“We feel confident going into this weekend,” he said. “We’ve worked hard all week, and we look forward to getting back in the win column… Last time around, we scored one goal in the first 58 minutes, so obviously we want to get on them early this time.”
Merrimack (7-9-3, 1-4-3) has had an up and down season thus far. The Warriors have performed well against solid teams, topping Providence and skating to a tie against Boston College, but lost decisively against New Hampshire, Colorado College and UMass. Like Cornell, Merrimack competed in the Florida Classic, finishing third after a loss to Colorado in the first round and a consolation victory over Northern Michigan.
Schafer said he is confident his team will not overlook an opponent like Merrimack, having already lost to them and after seeing the team’s ability down south.
“They definitely won’t overlook this one – they know we lost there early in the year, so it’s a great chance to go and prove themselves,” he said. “We also saw them down there in Florida, and we know they’re a good hockey team. There are no easy games in college hockey, these guys understand that, and they’ve come ready to play in almost all of them… I expect nothing different in this one.”
The Warriors have had their greatest success at home this season with a 5-3-1 record, including the early win over Cornell. They are also 6-1 when scoring first and have yet to lose a game after leading at the end of any period. The Red, on the other hand, seem to love playing from behind. Five of its eight victories have come after surrendering the game’s first goal.
Merrimack is led by senior Hampus Gustafsson and junior Brett Seney who are setting the team’s pace for goals and points, respectively. Sophomore Drew Vogler has predominantly been the man between the pipes, starting 15 of 19 games and sporting a 2.68 goals against average to go along with a .902 save percentage.
Banged up all season, the Red welcomed back two of its top forwards — seniors Jeff Kubiak and Buckles — last Wednesday in a win over Northern Michigan. Each had a goal in the effort, and the returning players’ presence in the lineup should bolster a Cornell offense that has looked to its secondary scoring to step up.
“Jeff and Matt had an impact right off the bat and gave us some depth in those games,” Schafer said. “The fact that they’re around is also going to push other guys to play better and more consistent so they’ll definitely help us out in the stretch run.”
“[Kubiak] is our leading scorer from last year… he’s a playmaker who can also bury it, and I think I’m a guy who can chip in whether it be on the power play or even strength by scoring goals,” Buckles added. “I think that we definitely bring experience and some goal scoring back even though the guys did a great job without us.”
The Red will also look to senior defenseman Patrick McCarron, not only for solid play on the back end, but also for a continued presence on the scoring sheet. The senior now leads the team in scoring, averaging over a point per game. Sophomore forward Mitch Vanderlaan continues to lead the team in goals with eight after a goal against Northern Michigan.
With three more games to play of its five consecutive away from Lynah, the Red will try to finish up the road-heavy portion of its schedule strong. After next weekend, the team will have played 12 of the first 16 games on the road and will close out the year with nine of the final 13 in front of the Lynah Faithful.
With 16 games to go, there are many games left to unfold, but Buckles said he believes this team can get to the highest level when all is said and done.
“I believe in us and everyone else in our locker room believes in us, we’ve just got to listen to coach and stick to our game plan,” he said. “We may not be as run and gun skilled as some of the best teams, but we feel that if we do stick to our game plan we can beat anybody.”
Action gets underway at 7 p.m. tomorrow night at Merrimack’s Lawler Rink.