NEW YORK — Cornell men’s hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86 walked into the locker room in the bowels of Madison Square Garden after his team lost, 4-1, to Harvard and, as one would expect, didn’t see many smiling faces.
He saw a glimpse of a grin from freshman forward Liam Motley, but the rookie’s first collegiate goal was overshadowed by losing to the archrival Crimson. The coach saw senior forward Mitch Vanderlaan sport a furrowed brow after Harvard netminder Michael Lackey turned aside the Cornell captain’s game and season-high seven shots on goal.
But the starkest frowns he saw came from players who didn’t even see the ice in the loss.
“You could see it when you walk into the locker room,” Schafer said. “Probably the four most disappointed guys were the guys that couldn’t play tonight. It would have been a great opportunity for them.”
Cornell is still trudging along with four key nightly contributors all out with injury. With top-four defensemen sophomore Alex Green and senior Brendan Smith missing, Cornell has had to adapt without the stability of “probably our best two skating” blueliners, as Schafer said. In sophomore forward Brenden Locke, Cornell misses flexibility and faceoff-winning prowess, and in junior forward Jeff Malott, an experienced, physical presence.
“We had injuries last year, but we didn’t have them to this extent. … But there is no excuse for the lack of passion,” said Schafer, who added that Saturday’s loss was the least physical performance he’s ever had a team play against the rival Crimson. “Maybe it’s nerves. A lot of freshmen and sophomores out there, and maybe they didn’t handle this environment very well.”
Health, especially on the blue line, was an advantage for Cornell last season. The Red lost just 10 man-games to injury within its defense — that is, a combined 10 missed games by the entire starting defensive core — en route to a finish as the nation’s No. 1 defense.
This season, that number has already reached 12 — 10 of which have been Green and Smith.
This has meant increased minutes and wear on Cornell’s other defensive stalwarts on top of less-refined players being thrown into larger roles. On Harvard’s second goal Saturday, freshman Joe Leahy, playing in just his fourth collegiate game, found himself in a 2-on-1 situation and couldn’t make the already-daunting defensive play, going down to block the puck too early, giving the Crimson an open passing lane. On the third goal, Henry Bowlby blew past Cornell’s tired and out of position defense to give the Crimson an insurmountable two-goal lead.
“For us, it’s just keeping the game simple,” senior defenseman and alternate captain Alec McCrea said before last weekend’s Quinnipiac-Princeton series of playing through the injuries. “We’ve been very good about keeping our shifts short out there. … But the biggest thing is just simplicity within the process.”
But that simplicity is made more difficult when you hand four power plays to the nation’s top man-advantage group, as was the case Saturday against Harvard.
Injuries are nowhere near unique to Cornell and something no team would ever wish them upon itself nor its opponents. The Red will hope to benefit from the injury bug hitting early — get them out of the way early, then play as a cohesive, resurgent unit in the second half and peak later in the season rather than earlier, as was the case for Cornell last year.
Schafer said he’s hopeful at least one member of the injured quartet will return for next weekend’s trip to Dartmouth and rematch with Harvard. At the very least, all will return for the second half of the season, Schafer said.
“It’s not easy when that happens, but every team goes through it,” Vanderlaan said. “We’ve had some tough luck, but most teams will go through that at some point this year.”
But it has been and will be how Cornell responds to the adversity at the early onset that determines whether 60 minutes of play results in wins or losses.
“There’s not many teams that won’t go without getting into a little bit of injury trouble and having guys step up,” Vanderlaan said. “That’s how we have to deal with it — we have to have guys step up and take extra minutes and make good plays.”