Read all about the upcoming Cornell men’s hockey season in The Sun’s 2018-19 Men’s Hockey Preview Supplement.
Then came the tournaments.
The only losing streak in Cornell’s 25-6-2 season arrived in consecutive postseason elimination games — the ECAC semifinals against Princeton and NCAA opening round against Boston University. In the end, after the program’s most successful regular season in more than a decade, the Red was left with nothing to show for it.
Now, Cornell faces a challenge: address the need to start fresh without leaving the pain of last year’s failures totally behind.
“Last year didn’t leave a good taste in our mouth,” head coach Mike Schafer ’86 said at pre-season media day. “Statistically, how we played against Princeton and B.U. were probably two of our better games the whole season. But we lost both games.
“There’s no ribbon for that.”
The memories of last season’s unscored goals, unblocked shots and unmet expectations remain. Without question, those memories will serve as a hefty dose of inspiration.
“It motivates us a lot,” senior defenseman and alternate captain Alec McCrea said of his team’s failure to capitalize in the postseason. “Not only to get back to where we were but advance farther.”
Yet the question remains whether those lingering memories will be a help or a hindrance. In the wake of last March’s events, Schafer has emphasized the need to get back to basics and set course from the start.
We’re getting right back to ground zero,” he said. “The season’s starting over.”
With eight freshmen, there’s a hefty chunk of players who didn’t experience the ups and downs of last season. But the other 20 Cornell players did. With tons of talent returning — including the entirety of the nation’s best defense — the ingredients for success are there. All that’s left is to devise the formula that will repeat last year’s success.
And then some, hopefully.
“That’s nearly a third of our team that didn’t experience last year firsthand,” said senior forward and now-two-time captain Mitch Vanderlaan. “At the end of the day, I think the biggest thing is just recognizing that we all have one main goal. Different motives and perspectives kind of help each guy to the best they can be to all go towards that one goal. That’s the ideal.”
That one goal is to win. Win against Michigan State this weekend. Win the Ivy League. Win the ECAC. Win the NCAA championship.
“It’s easy to forget just how much work we actually did to get [to the playoffs],” Vanderlaan said. “So right now the focus isn’t the end of the year, it’s how we’re going to get better this week.
“Obviously, we want to win this year,” Vanderlaan added. “Looking long ways we’d like to win a national championship; we’d like to win the ECAC. But right now we’re not getting ahead of ourselves.”
The one-game-at-a-time process was present all throughout last season, and there were moments where it felt as though getting away from it was a crucial misstep. Just days after being crowned the No. 1 team in the nation, the Red fell flat on its face at home to a lousy Rensselaer team. After redeeming that loss on RPI’s ice and clinching the Cleary Cup, Cornell put up a weak effort against a strong Union team in the regular season finale, when the playoff scenarios had already been determined.
Still, with just four total losses in the regular season, it’s clear Cornell was doing something right. The mental and physical preparation was sufficient to fuel a team that, for a long stretch of the season, was a juggernaut that seemed all but unbeatable. Building on that is a hugely important step on the course to accomplishing more — something the team believes falls squarely on the shoulders of the upperclassmen.
“You always have an influx of talent with freshmen, but the biggest improvement within a team is your sophomores, juniors and seniors,” Schafer said. “Those guys have to come back and play with more poise and understand what it takes to play at this level, night in and night out. Play when you’re tired, when you’re hurt, when you’re sick.”
A grind-it-out mentality defined Cornell’s 2017-18 season. With a handful of come-from-behind wins and a few more that were nail biters until the end, it consistently felt like Cornell had what it took to gut out victories night-in and night-out. Until it didn’t.
The lessons learned from the playoff shortcomings and the motivations they bring are critical components of the winning formula. But the need to return to the old ways of hard work, sacrifice and grit is even more profound than it was last season.
“The culture from knowing how to win, from knowing how to block a shot, from absolutely anything with our program, we start all over,” Schafer said.
This time last year the stakes were different. Cornell was picked third in the conference behind Harvard and Quinnipiac — teams it would later beat a combined six times. And while the 2016-17 season had also ended with a loss in the first round of the NCAAs, the appearance then was an impressive feat in its own right.
Now, the team has been chosen to finish first in the ECAC and is ranked No. 8 in the country. The expectations are much higher, so the pressure is on. That makes the mentality as important as ever.
Scores of questions remain unanswered. Which forwards will step up to fill the gap of top scorers who are gone? Will the freshman class make their presence known early? Can sophomore goaltender Matt Galajda recreate his tremendous success?
Whatever the answers, they will be imperative to the winning formula that Cornell is hoping to create. For now, at least one thing is abundantly clear.
“There’s always work to be done,” Schafer said.