Last March, I left the Cornell men in Lake Placid, where a well rounded Harvard team claimed the ECAC title on neutral ice. It wasn’t Cornell’s last game, but it was my last game, and a 30 minute drive back to my motel in Tupper Lake was far less sweet than it could have been.
Now, seven months later, I walked into Lynah on Friday night, picked up my free bomber hat (exclusively for season ticket holders) and settled into my home away from home — Section B — to welcome back Cornell men’s hockey.
We had a great season last year, and the fans in Section B and around the rink are dreaming for a return to Lake Placid and beyond now that the gleaming red “NCAA Tournament 2017” banner hangs from the new and improved rafters. Over the weekend, with a strong sweep of one of the NCAA’s southernmost teams, Cornell and its fans took the first step toward another successful campaign.
But something felt different at Lynah this weekend; it wasn’t just the rafters that had been swapped out in the offseason. There were new faces, too. In the stands, a new cohort of students made their long anticipated upgrade from Section D. On the ice, a group of freshmen skaters shined as they warmed up to the atmosphere on both sides of the glass.
The nature of being a college sports fan is that you need to get used to a revolving door of people. Every single year, players that have been here for what feels like forever depart, and a group of players you know nothing about comes in. Sometimes it can be hard to let go and accept change. The challenge for freshman players is to impress in spite of that, and this weekend, they did exactly that.
Head coach Mike Schafer ’86 was not surprised by the strong performances from his new players, saying “we knew that they had this talent.” That may be true, and give credit to Schafer and his staff for having confidence in their young talent. But for those of us who watch the game from behind the glass, such an approach is not feasible. We need to see it to believe it.
Lo and behold, we did.
The rookies were led by goalie Matt Galajda, who on Friday stopped 28 of 29 shots and on Saturday earned the first shutout of his young Cornell career. Galajda, standing between the pipes in place of an injured Hayden Stewart, offered the Lynah Faithful as impressive a start to the season as they could have asked for. Of course, the hope is that he can continue his impressive play through the season, but as of now it remains to be seen whether Galajda will keep his place in net once Stewart returns to the fold.
“It depends on how they practice. [Stewart] practiced pretty well before he got hurt, and so did [Galajda], so we’ll play that by ear,” Schafer said.
Regardless of whether the starting job is Galajda’s to keep moving forward, the future is bright for him in this uniform and on this ice. The Faithful adored his predecessor, Mitch Gillam ’17, whose athletic saves and electric performances always fired up the crowd. With Gillam gone, there may have been an uneasy approach to our relationship with the new netminder, but any reservations were quelled quickly, as Galajda proved himself worthy of the bows from Section B.
Galajda was not the only freshman who showed talent and promise. Forwards Morgan Barron and Cam Donaldson each had a couple of points on the weekend, with Barron scoring on Friday next to Donaldson’s two assists. Forward Kyle Betts was instrumental in the Red’s impressive penalty kill, which was successful in all 12 attempts between the two games.
The others in the class showed promise on the ice, too, and it’s clear that the upperclassmen have welcomed this new unit with open arms.
“I give our upperclassmen a lot of credit,” Schafer said. “You don’t want your freshmen to defer to the upperclassmen on the ice, you just want them to play.”
It remains to be seen if this year’s campaign will live up to last year’s billing. Even though the Red looked good in its first two contests, there are clearly some areas where improvement will be necessary if the team wants to return to the national stage this year.
It’s this uncertainty that keeps us coming to Lynah, and it’s what makes us so passionate as fans. But consistency on the ice is the key to a winning season, and if the newcomers continue to perform as they did this weekend, the ceiling is high for Cornell hockey — this year and beyond.