This is part one in Kevin Linsey’s three-part series recapping the Cornell men’s hockey season. Check back next week for part two.
The 2016-17 edition of Cornell men’s ice hockey faced numerous challenges. Each time adversity struck, Cornell’s team attitude triumphed. Much of the credit goes to coach Mike Schafer ’86 for continuing to instill a team-first philosophy in his players.
The difficulties arguably started before a puck even dropped. When Cornell Athletics released the schedule, Cornell fans were stunned to see that the team would start with five straight road games for the first time ever. Besides exhibition games, Ithacans would not get to see this team until Nov. 18, by far the latest date for a home opener in the country.
So Cornell went on the road and promptly lost two of the first three games and tied the other. At that point, Schafer called the group, “so far away from being a polished team.” Injuries were a possible culprit. Cornell lost Jeff Kubiak to an injury against Merrimack, and he would miss the whole first semester, while Ryan Bliss would miss the entire season with a back injury. These were just some of the questions facing Cornell as they prepared for a road trip to Yale and Brown.
Yet the Red’s offense showed up anyway. The team scored 10 goals that weekend and recorded four crucial ECAC points. Yet, the conference schedule never served up a soft weekend. The next time out, at home to Quinnipiac, a tough bounce off of Matt Nuttle cost the Red a chance at a comeback, and it threatened to get worse when the Red was down 2-0 to Princeton the next night. Yet, sophomore forward Mitch Vanderlaan stepped up, scoring twice in the third period to power a 4-2 comeback win.
Next weekend, when the Red faced New Hampshire at Madison Square Garden, adversity struck again as Patrick Grasso put the Wildcats ahead early on, with a goal from his knees. The high-scoring Granite State squad was confident of causing a painful upset. Yet, Trevor Yates equalized by slamming a loose puck in on the doorstep, Noah Bauld deflected in his first collegiate goal and Alex Rauter struck on Cornell’s first made penalty shot in nearly thirty years. Cornell won 3-1 and followed that game up with a two-game sweep of Miami (Ohio) at home.
When the second semester started, Cornell found itself with a healthy Kubiak but still missing defensemen Bliss and then Dan Wedman as well. Starting the second semester the way the first began, on the road at Merrimack, Mitch Gillam stood out as Cornell shut out the Warriors, 1-0. Gillam, who had been excellent in the fall semester, also impressed in a four-point weekend on the road at Princeton and Quinnipiac. Again, the Red was going on the road to tough conference opponents, refusing to let key absentees affect their game, and getting crucial ECAC points.
At home to Clarkson, Cornell fell behind again, as the Golden Knights took a 3-1 lead. But it was Yates again who responded, scoring twice to earn Cornell a point. The Red would triumph over Saint Lawrence the next night, but then have its worst weekend of the year. Cornell lost to Harvard and Dartmouth by multiple goals. Neutral observers suggested that Cornell may have another second-half collapse, like in 2015-16. The response to that weekend would define Cornell’s season and make a statement about Cornell’s answer to adversity.
The next contest was a huge road game at Union, which was ranked in the national top 10 at the time. The Red scored twice in the third period to break open a 3-3 game, silence a hostile crowd and claim a significant victory. It sent a signal to the college hockey world that this Cornell team would battle through any conditions. Yet, that win would have been less valuable had Cornell fallen the next night at RPI. The Engineers went ahead several times in the game, and the game was tied, 3-3, late on. Answering the bell this time was freshman defenseman Yanni Kaldis, who somehow had not scored a goal in his career yet. The Canadian snuck down to the high slot and swatted home a loose puck with less than 30 seconds left. The team bus returned from Troy down Interstate 88 with another four ECAC points in tow.
In ensuing weekends, Cornell finished off a season sweep of Colgate, got three points against Yale and Brown at home and then headed to the North Country. Cornell earned another hard-fought, 3-3, tie with Clarkson, and Jake Weidner stepped up to provide the key goal from a tight angle against St. Lawrence, sealing a huge road win against a fellow contender. In the last weekend of the year, Cornell got three points again, and secured a third-place finish in the ECAC.
Cornell finished the regular season with a 13-4-5 record in the conference, and was rewarded with a quarterfinal matchup at home against Clarkson. The Golden Knights would test Cornell to the limit.
Check back next week for the second part of my season review to read about Cornell’s playoff exploits.