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Columnist Jack Kantor argues that — despite hockey's failure to reach conference finals last season — Cornell's best in the nation defense, led by goaltender Matthew Galajda, should be enough to solidify the Red as the league's best team.

October 10, 2018

KANTOR | The Nation’s Best Defense is Here to Stay

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The 2018 postseason for Cornell men’s ice hockey was disappointing in some respects. After claiming the best record in the ECAC, the national No. 1 ranking — albeit briefly — and even the country’s best defense, the season seemed to fall short after a pair of upsets in the ECAC and NCAA tournaments.

But if one considers what was expected of the Red last year, the season was undoubtedly successful. After starting off last season ranked 15th and third in the national and ECAC polls, respectively, the Red exceeded expectations — at least in the regular season.

As a result, Cornell is now considered to be the best team in the ECAC and the seventh-best team in the nation entering the season, according to the preseason polls.

This may seem like a lot of praise for a team that failed to reach its conference finals or win a game in the NCAAs. But at the end of the day, the squad had a couple bad games that could not have come at a worse time. Playoffs aside, Cornell exhibited prowess over its opponents throughout its campaign last season, specifically on defense, proving to be the No. 1 defense in the nation (1.58 goals allowed per game). Considering that defense will be just as good, if not better, this season, it makes perfect sense why there are such high expectations for the Red.

At the nucleus of the Cornell defense is goaltender Matthew Galajda, who returns to net after a breakout freshman campaign that surprised all. As the netminder for the nation’s best defense, Galajda naturally led the nation with an astounding 1.51 goals allowed average, including nine shutouts (also best in the country). To see dominance and consistency from a collegiate goalie is without a doubt exciting. But to see that from a freshman is truly something else. And while a sophomore slump is always in the cards, it’s likely the first-team All-American will be one of the nation’s best goaltenders again this season.

In terms of blueliners, Cornell did not lose a single defender from last season’s roster: Alec McCrea, Yanni Kaldis, Matt Nuttle, Brendan Smith, Alex Green, Cody Haiskanen and Matt Cairns. Everyone, and I mean everyone, from the defense is still on the roster (Okay, if you’re really keeping close tabs, backup goaltender Hayden Stewart graduated. But that’s it).

Not only did the nation’s best defense keep all of its players, it added to its plethora of talent. Freshmen Misha Song from China and Joe Leahy from Ontario will join the Red at the blueline this season. If not to add more excitement to the Cornell defense, Song is the first China-born NHL draft pick after he was selected by the New York Islanders in the 6th round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

On top of adding some youth, Cornell will also regain some experience on the defensive end. Senior Ryan Bliss will finally make his return to the roster after missing the last couple seasons to injury. In his most recent season (2015-16), Bliss contributed with 10 points and appeared in the most games of any Cornell defenseman.

Even the forwards for Cornell play a role in maintaining a stifling defense. Cornell managed to concede the least amount of shots on goal because players on both defense and offense put their bodies on the line to block shots, a focus of head coach Mike Schafer. As a result, forward Mitch Vanderlaan was named a finalist for best defensive forward in the ECAC last year. With guys like Vanderlaan still around, the forwards will certainly contribute to a strong defensive effort this season.

It certainly makes it easier to sleep at night knowing your team will likely give up two or less goals on average. Even if there are some minor question marks surrounding the offense with the departure of key goal scorers in Trevor Yates and Anthony Angello, who forwent his senior year to play professionally, the quality of the returning defense makes up for any offensive shortcomings.

It really can’t get much better than this, which is why expectations are as high as they are for Cornell. When a team has the nation’s best defense, keeps every defender, sports an All-American goaltender and even adds some defensive talent in the process, it’s reasonable to expect they can be the league’s best team and a top-10 team in the nation.