It’s still November, and everyone around the team will say they’re not caught up with rankings. But No. 17 Cornell men’s hockey has a pair of hugely consequential early-season contests this weekend.
Two teams Cornell trails in the national rankings will visit Lynah Rink this weekend: No. 14 Quinnipiac and No. 15 Princeton, two squads likely to join Cornell throughout conference play in jockeying for position atop the ECAC.
“We know [Quinnipiac and Princeton are] going to be very, very competitive and we’ll find something out about ourselves, good or bad,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86.
The games will be not only a pair of top-20 matchups but a pair of rematches from the 2018 postseason. Quinnipiac, off to a hot 7-2 start to the season, is likely to remember being swept in the ECAC quarterfinals — including a 9-1 game one shellacking — the last time they skated into Lynah Rink. The night after facing Quinnipiac, Cornell will hope to down the Tigers, who ended the Red’s hopes of an ECAC title in the conference semifinals in Lake Placid last March.
“I think there is pressure against good teams, but I think there’s more excitement,” said freshman forward Michael Regush, who has scored a goal in three straight games. “It’s going to be a really good test for us. Obviously we were highly touted coming [into the season], we kind of fell a little flat starting and now we’ve rattled off four [wins] and it’s just a really good opportunity for us as a team playing some ECAC rivals.”
The Red will be shorthanded as it hosts the Bobcats and Tigers after an injury-riddled road trip to Northern Michigan where the Red earned its first two nonconference wins of the season behind four total power-play goals.
“We still have some bad blood [with Princeton] from last year at the end of the year,” said senior defenseman and alternate captain Alec McCrea, a blueliner whose services will be needed during teammates’ absences.
Cornell enters the weekend missing a few important pieces: junior forward Jeff Malott and sophomore defenseman Alex Green won’t suit up this weekend. Sophomore forward Brenden Locke and senior defenseman Brendan Smith are questionable.
The absence of key players, especially two of the top four skaters on the blue line, will mean increased responsibility for healthy top-six defensemen senior Alec McCrea, junior Yanni Kaldis, senior Matt Nuttle and sophomore Cody Haiskanen. Malott’s absence represents a missing piece on the Cornell forwards line generally tasked with matching up with opponents’ top line — a job that will be especially crucial against standout Tiger forwards Max Véronneau and Ryan Kuffner.
“It’ll be bare bones as far as going into the weekend and that presents a challenge but it also presents an opportunity for those guys that might have not played as much up to this point,” Schafer said.
When it takes on Chase Priskie-led Quinnipiac (the defenseman leads the Bobcats with 11 points and four power play goals) and Princeton’s nation’s-best power play (42.1 percent through five games; 27.7 last season, both No. 1 in the country), Cornell will have a chance to reassert itself as a team not to be overlooked in conversations about the ECAC’s best. Four of the ECAC’s top-rated teams are within six spots of each other in the USCHO national poll: No. 12 Union and all three teams that will compete in Ithaca this weekend.
“The next five games right before [winter] break are huge,” McCrea said. “We are really excited for this weekend to get back into ECAC play and build off the momentum from our first road wins of the season.”
Newly intense rivalries with Quinnipiac and Princeton are sure to be hotly contested. While Regush hasn’t experienced these conference rivalries, he expects his teammates to come out with an extra “jump.”
“It’s a rivalry that’s built over the last couple years, it’s gotten bigger so [there’s] some animosity between us,” Regush said of Cornell and Quinnipiac.
Schafer has said before that it is around Thanksgiving when he can identify his team’s identity. Is that the case this season, when the injury-afflicted Red takes on two nationally-ranked opponents before Turkey Day?
“It’s getting there,” Schafer said. “We faced that adversity at Northern Michigan … There’s so many more scenarios … a lot of adversity we haven’t faced yet.”
Cornell hosts Quinnipiac on Friday and Princeton on Saturday, both at 7 p.m.