It wasn’t all that long ago when Princeton and Quinnipiac — this weekend’s opponents for Cornell men’s hockey — were picked to finish near the top of the ECAC in the annual preseason poll: Quinnipiac in second, Princeton fifth. But a few months later, the two teams sit in a tie for eighth in the league, winners of just three ECAC contests apiece.
Disappointing results? Yes. But Cornell (11-2, 5-1 ECAC) is not taking either matchup lightly despite entering the weekend with the nation’s highest winning percentage.
“Their records are not indicative,” senior forward Trevor Yates said of each team’s ability. “These are two good teams and they play hard. We’ve got to approach them like they’re the best teams in the country and play our best.”
The best teams in the country, maybe not, but both squads certainly gave the Red a challenge the first time around. Cornell relied on a fortuitous bounce to top the Bobcats (7-10-2, 3-5-1) by a score of 2-1 back in November and needed three unanswered goals to overcome a multi-goal deficit against the Tigers (6-7-3, 3-5-1) for a 5-4 victory the following night.
Princeton’s leading scorer is Max Veronneau (9-11—20), whose top line is far and away the team’s most dangerous unit. The trio boasts a plus-35 rating while the rest of the forwards are an abysmal minus-21. Rookie Ryan Ferland is the team’s starting goaltender, who has held up fairly well despite a weak defensive effort that has yielded nearly 35 shots on goal per game.
With solid offensive production and consistent goaltending, the Tigers may be starting to come together; the team managed a tie on two straight nights against top-ranked St. Cloud State last weekend.
Quinnipiac, Cornell’s Saturday opponent, has meanwhile continued to search for answers between the pipes, with Andrew Shortridge likely to get the start at Lynah. The Bobcats have won just two of their last eight games, one of which victories was a 3-0 shutout of in-state foe Connecticut on Tuesday.
Friday and Saturday night resemble the first set of rematches Cornell will play this season and they kick off a stretch of 16 consecutive ECAC games to close out the 2017-18 campaign. As always, seeing a team for the second time in a season means the coaching staff can use film from the first matchup to more effectively scout the opponent.
“It allows us to … see what we did well against them and what we did poorly,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “There is no whole huge adjustment as far as systems or how you are approaching the weekend rather than just taking care of those things that occurred at the beginning of the year.”
That being said, the Red continues to devote most practice time toward its own collective improvements. The team feels if it sticks to its game and highlights its strengths, it can compete with any team in the county.
“We just want to get better, and keep refining our process,” Schafer said. “As a team, we’re focused on becoming a better hockey team going forward. We’re not trying to think ahead or about the past, we just focus on the present.”
One area of Cornell’s game that does not need much improvement is its offense. A perennial defensive juggernaut as the current second-best team in goals allowed (1.85), the Red also ranks in the top-five in goals scored (3.62) with as formidable an offensive unit as it has had in recent memory.
“We’re playing a little faster and a little quicker than we have before,” Yates explained. “We’re just continuing to focus. We set the goal of being the most offensive team in the league, and we’re almost there.
Yates happens to lead the team in scoring but is just one of many whose name has appeared on the scoring sheet with regularity this season. The Red has also gotten strong offensive contributions from its freshmen as well as from blueliners like juniors Alec McCrea and Brendan Smith.
According to Schafer, the increase in goal scoring is “nothing more than just following the process,” he said. “We want to possess the puck, and we want to be able to do that within a defensive framework. The better we are offensively, the better we’re going to be defensively.”
Behind a defensive framework allowing well under two goals a game has been a tandem of goalies. Freshman goalie Matt Galajda had been the team’s primary netminder, but senior Hayden Stewart has now started — and won — the Red’s previous two games. Schafer would not reveal his decision for the weekend, but it seems the job may now be the veteran’s to lose.
“We’re still playing it by ear,” Schafer said. “Hayden had a solid game against Canisius. Every day in practice we’re watching guys and seeing how they’re performing, and we’ll go from there. Those guys are no different from our other players. They’ve got to continue to compete day in an day out and do the job.”
After playing both teams on the road earlier in the season, the Red will play this weekend’s matchups at Lynah Rink. The action starts Friday night with a 7 p.m. start against Princeton and concludes with a 7 p.m. puck drop against Quinnipiac on Saturday.