The work is far from over for the men’s hockey team newly crowned best in the nation.
The team may be ranked No. 1, but Cornell still has eight conference games to play –– plenty of hockey before the postseason. If the Red fails to take care of ECAC opponents Union and Rensselaer at home this weekend, its time at the top will have been short-lived.
“We just have to focus on continuing to play hockey,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “And as arduous as the climb to get to No. 1 [is], the descent will be really quick if you don’t continue to win. That’s the way the polls work.”
On Monday, Cornell (18-2-1, 12-1-1 ECAC) was ranked No. 1 in the USCHO.com poll for the first time in nearly 15 years. The Red was also selected as the nation’s top squad in the USA USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll for the first time since 2005.
The ranking comes with good reason. This team has not lost a game since Dec. 1 and holds a 10-game unbeaten streak, the best in the nation.
The Red refuses to slow down now. Even at the top of the polls, Schafer and his players know there is plenty of room for improvement.
“There are a few areas in our game [where] we have so much growth left, that we have to get better at, that we want to get better at,” Schafer said. “But [we] also can’t forget our building blocks … that’s what got us to this point.”
Senior alternate captain Trevor Yates and his teammates share a sentiment similar to Schafer’s.
“We know we are number one, but we are not resting on our laurels,” Yates added. “We don’t really care about [the ranking], we just care about Union Friday night and getting better in practice this week, and focusing on ourselves rather than focusing on our national ranking.”
Junior forward Anthony Angello and Yates lead the Red in points with 20 and 19, respectively. While their individual successes have put them in the spotlight, it is their focus on the group’s success that has brought about the results.
“Within our team, the guys are not hanging their hat on whether they are scoring goals,” Schafer said. “They are hanging their hat on how they perform and how they can get better the next day, and [Yates and Angello] are prime examples of not worrying whether they score or not.”
Angello, who earned his first ECAC Hockey Player of the Week honor Tuesday, has been on fire, posting seven goals in the last five games and leading the nation with nine goals in January. But for the team’s points leader, continued success as a unit is all that matters right now.
“I think I have been lucky in the recent past to have things go my way,” Angello said. “But it really wouldn’t make a difference if another guy scores. As long as we get two points at the end of the night, that’s what I care about.”
While Angello has been in a groove lately and Yates started the season hot, one constant on this team has been its defense — the nation’s best.
Cornell has kept its opponents starving, averaging 1.43 goals allowed per game.
“Our biggest thing is our depth and how committed we are to the smallest details,” said junior defenseman Matt Nuttle. “Even though maybe the result turns out the way we wanted to, we don’t always have the details perfectly correct. As a [defensive] core, we keep each other accountable; we just work really well together.”
Having held teams to 2.31 goals per game last season — ninth-best in the nation — the program has long prided itself on its ability to keep its opponents from finding the back of the net. But even so, this year’s unit is not your typical Cornell defense.
“I think we are an even better defensive team this year because the positions all can skate,” Schafer said. “We can pressure teams more in all three zones, all night long, for 60 minutes. When you’ve got a team that can really skate, which this team can, it allows us to be a lot more consistent.”
The type of consistency that Schafer describes has been present all season long, and the Red will look to maintain its winnings ways on Friday against a third-place Union (15-12-1, 10-4) team. The Dutchmen will come into Lynah riding a four-game winning streak following a 4-3 victory over RPI (4-19-4, 3-10-2) last weekend.
The following night, Cornell will host the second-to-last-place Engineers, but is by no means overlooking the struggling group from the Capital Region.
“RPI is a pretty good hockey team,” Schafer noted. “[In] the game they had against Union … I thought RPI played great. I think it goes back to our players trust in the coaching staff. When we tell them we think a team is pretty good, we are not just saying it for the sake of trying to get them fired up about it.”
Regardless of how long Cornell keeps its place atop the national rankings, the players know that there is only one time that being on top means that the work is over.
“Every team wants to be No. 1 in the country,” Yates said. “But our goal is to be number one at the end of the year.”
The ambitious Yates and his squad welcome Union to Lynah Rink for a 7 p.m faceoff Friday night, followed by another 7 p.m. start on Saturday against RPI.