Hockey is a team game. Coaches preach it, from youth level up to Cornell’s men’s hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86, but it is up to the players to demonstrate a team philosophy on the ice.
This year, Cornell’s skaters bought in to a level that has not been reached in recent years. The result was a place in the ECAC finals, the first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012 and one of Cornell’s best seasons in years.
Cornell clearly grew as a team. Last season, the Red was within a game of reaching Lake Placid, reaching a game three against Quinnipiac. However, the Bobcats were the better team for almost the entirety of the weekend, and completed a series win in game three by a four-goal margin.
This time around, against Clarkson in the quarterfinals after a bye week, Cornell got off to a poor start against the Golden Knights, but the team rebounded in spectacular fashion to win the next two games and book a trip to Lake Placid. One has to conclude that the leadership of Schafer and senior captain Jake Weidner inspired Cornell to come together as a team in a way they did not the year before.
During the regular season, Cornell used this team mentality to have a stellar campaign. The Red conquered challenges that ranged from a myriad of injuries to five straight road games to start the year. The team finished with a 9-2-2 road record, an outstanding mark in college hockey. Most teams approach a road game by trying to battle hard, press and wear down the home team over the course of the contest. It is no wonder that strong team play, such as shot-blocking and unselfish passing, contribute more to winning this war of attrition on the road than at home.
The senior classmen were the main contributors to this impressive team focus. Weidner led the team on and off the ice. In his early years at Cornell, his main skill was assists, but he then developed into a two-way center who excels at faceoffs and scores key goals. He signed a contract for next season to play for the Iserlohn Roosters in Germany, where he will pursue his dream to play professional hockey.
The second of five Cornellians who will play professional hockey next season, Jeff Kubiak served as a first-line center for much of his time on East Hill. His best season was his junior year, when he centered a high-scoring line with current sophomores Mitch Vanderlaan and Anthony Angello. He served as an alternate captain this season, and will play for Bridgeport in the AHL through 2017-18.
Matt Buckles, the only member of his class to be drafted, reported to the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds — affiliate of the Florida Panthers — when Cornell’s season ended. Buckles was the leading scorer in his class despite missing time to injury and was always a threat to put the puck in the net. His biggest career goal for Cornell was the overtime goal that clinched the ECAC first-round series against Union in 2015-16.
Patrick McCarron recently signed a contract with Grand Rapids of the AHL. The senior blueliner was an assistant captain this season and the highest-scoring Cornell defenseman. He has continuously grown during his Cornell career and the team will miss his leadership next season.
Mitch Gillam spent three years as Cornell’s starting goalie, during which he continued a tradition of excellent goalkeeping in the Red net. He famously scored a goal in his first career start against Niagara in 2014 and will graduate as the leading scorer among current NCAA goalies, with a goal and four assists to his name. In the more traditional goalkeeping statistics, he excelled as well, making stellar saves game-after-game. He’s currently signed to the Orlando Solar Bears in the ECHL.
Though more of an uphill battle, the other three seniors are still looking to earn a pro contract. These include Holden Anderson, who was a strong contributor to Cornell’s defensive corps over the last four years, but also dabbled on the offensive side when called upon. His slapshot scored several crucial goals and always proved a threat on the power play. Forward Eric Freschi embodied Cornell’s physical play in his four seasons, playing in almost every possible game and setting the tone with hard-nosed play along the boards. He popped up with key goals, particularly against Clarkson and Harvard in 2014-15. Ryan Coon served as Cornell’s third-string goaltender over the last four seasons, seeing ice in just one game — a stint in the final 1:12 of last year’s quarterfinal series against Quinnipiac. The only men’s hockey player in the College of Engineering, Coon demonstrated the attitude and team mentality of Cornell hockey in his four seasons.
Over the summer, Cornell hockey fans will learn the freshman class for the coming fall. There are many holes in the roster to be filled and questions to be answered. The departures of Kubiak and Weidner leave the team short-handed at the center position, so depth down the middle should be a focus area. In the past two seasons, the defense has suffered from injuries, so dependable skaters should be a priority. And perhaps no hole is bigger than the goal, vacated by the graduating Gillam. Incoming senior Hayden Stewart should get his chance to finally lay claim for the role, but Schafer will definitely add at least one, if not two, goaltenders to the roster to challenge and push Stewart. Given the increasing trend of freshmen goalies across college hockey, don’t rule out the possibility of a first-year starting in net for Cornell.
Perhaps it is best not to worry about the future. Schafer has shown the ability to predict weaknesses and address them before they develop. He has likely been recruiting centers, or training wingers to take faceoffs and play center. Surely, he has been recruiting more talented defensemen for the Cornell blue line. And of course, he has been working with Stewart over the past three years so the rising senior can seize his chance when the puck drops next season.
See you in the fall, Lynah Faithful.