A slow start and early-season injuries have plagued No. 20 Cornell men’s hockey 11 games into the 2018-19 season. As the team gears up for its first two games post-winter break, our team of writers takes a look at the state of the team at the break and what the last 18 games might look like.
Cornell is 6-5 overall with a 4-2 conference record. Its eight points are good for fourth in the conference, and the Red has played fewer league games than all but three ECAC teams. Cornell faces Princeton and No. 3/5 Quinnipiac on the road on Friday and Saturday.
Sophomore goaltender Matt Galajda got off to a rough start, being pulled in both of Cornell’s season-opening losses to Michigan State, and he hasn’t quite regained his All-American form. Your thoughts on his play thus far, how he can bounce back and what you’ve seen from sophomore Austin McGrath, who filled in for an injured Galajda in the Red’s last two games before break?
Dylan McDevitt: As good as Galajda was in 2017-18, it was his consistency that was most impressive; he turned in similarly impressive performances night-in and night-out. Replicating that level of sustained success was always going to be a challenge, and we all knew that. So it comes as no surprise to me or probably anyone that he hasn’t been as tremendous as he was. Having said that, it’s still hard not to be disappointed with his performance. We all know what a talented goaltender he is, so I have no real worry that this will last forever. But for a team whose defense is already in shambles due to injury, a question mark at goalie is not a great sign. Enter McGrath, who in his limited time so far has impressed me between the pipes, particularly on the most recent road trip. At Harvard’s Bright-Landry Hockey Center in the last game before the midseason hiatus, while the team in front of him was missing some of its most important contributors on offense and defense, McGrath backstopped his team to what Schafer called “one of the grittiest wins” he’s seen as a head coach. This isn’t to say that McGrath has earned the nightly role by any stretch, but the fact that he’s proven he can contribute should be a comforting sight for Cornell fans in the face of some uncertainty.
Zachary Silver: My worry level about Galajda is not terribly high. He had to forge through the first half without two of the top four defensemen from last year’s top-ranked defense in front of him, which has thrusted less experienced youngsters into larger roles they may not have been ready for. With that in mind, some of these early-season hiccups are to be expected. Outside of the season-opening Michigan State series, I don’t think Galajda has had a particularly troublesome game. He hasn’t stolen many games yet, but even in the 4-1 loss to Harvard at MSG, he was left out to dry by his defense on the three goals he allowed. That being said, McGrath was impressive in his relief, showing the coaching staff and Cornell fans that they have a more-than-capable backup should Galajda struggle or end up back on the shelf.
Raphy Gendler: Barring disaster, Galajda’s job is secure. Assuming his injury that held him out of two games before the break isn’t problematic down the road, I expect him to bounce back and start a solid streak behind a newly healthy defensive unit. Other than the opening series against Michigan State in which Galajda played poorly, he hasn’t had any games that threaten his job and will be the go-to guy when Cornell starts back up in early January with a slew of key ECAC games. If the Red makes a playoff run, it’s likely to be on the strength of its star goaltender.
Christina Bulkeley: Galajda’s sophomore slump is simply that — a slump. It happens to the best players, and it was inevitable that he’d fall off a bit after his phenomenal debut season. I won’t condemn him as a total disappointment, but he did set sky-high expectations last year that he isn’t meeting right now. That being said, he has bounced back from those dismal first games and is looking like a solid goaltender again, albeit not an All-American. Health is obviously going to be key going forward, so assuming he makes a full recovery in time for the second half of the season and the defense does the same, things should be looking up for the goalie. While McGrath is looking good, he won’t be taking Galajda’s job any time soon, barring unforeseen circumstances. The Lynah Faithful should take comfort in having a backup goalie that can hold his own when needed.
Heading into the season, Princeton and Union were projected to be two of the ECAC’s best teams. Both trail Cornell in the conference standings. Who are the teams to watch going forward?
D.M.: Princeton and Union are still formidable opponents, but No. 3/5 Quinnipiac has proven to be not only one of the best teams in the conference but also in the entire country. The Bobcats are the biggest threat to Cornell’s chances at a repeat Cleary Cup. Also ahead of the Red in the standings are Yale and Dartmouth, two teams Cornell has beaten in the early going of the season. I think both have a chance to make some noise in the second half. With Quinnipiac, Yale and Dartmouth ahead and Princeton and Union close behind, Cornell will certainly have its work cut out for it on the other side of the holiday break.
Z.S.: The easy answer is Quinnipiac given just how fast a start the team has gotten off to, but I’m going to keep my eye on Yale. Cornell downed the Bulldogs earlier this season, 4-3, but Yale has been an overall surprise so far, thanks to the continued emergence of Hobey Baker candidate Joe Snively, who’s No. 5 in the country in points per game. Yale is a solid 8-4-2 overall and 6-2-1 in the ECAC to open the year. An argument can be made that they don’t have enough “quality” wins on the season, no thanks to tying Harvard and Union once before later beating the Dutchmen and losing to Dartmouth, but the hot start has set the Bulldogs up for success and has instead formed Yale into a team to beat this season.
R.G.: At the risk of being a homer, Cornell is in good position after the first half despite a shaky start and a barrage of injuries. The Red has just two conference losses, a bad-bounce loss to national top-5 Quinnipiac and a road loss to Dartmouth. With conference wins over Harvard and Princeton (a 5-1 romp), Cornell will benefit from the return of two key defensemen and a couple forwards and move up the conference standings. The Red is fourth in points in the ECAC and has played fewer games than all three teams above it. Road games against the Bobcats and Tigers to start January play could go a long way toward showing us if Cornell is legit.
C.B.: Obvious answer: Quinnipiac. Less obvious answer: Union still, even given their conference standing. Quinnipiac’s 14-3-0 record is nothing to sneeze at, and the entire nation has taken notice. Cornell fans might remember that Cornell’s loss to Quinnipiac this season was a little fluky, but I still think the Bobcats are for real. They entered the season hungry for wins and have played all year with a vengeance. I wouldn’t say Union is as much of a threat, but I am interested to see where their season takes them. They’re a team with the potential to do well, even if they didn’t totally display that capability throughout the first half of the season. Even so, worth keeping an eye on.
What has impressed you most about Cornell so far this season? Highlight, team MVP…
D.M.: Not to be overly negative, but I haven’t seen much that I would truly categorize as impressive.
Z.S.: I’ve been very impressed by some of the steps taken by the current sophomore class, especially by Cam Donaldson and Kyle Betts. Especially with the former, Donaldson has really taken shape as the player he offered glimpses of last season. He’s learning to utilize his speed and for such a big team like Cornell, he can provide a jolt in times of mediocrity. While maybe not ending up on the scoresheet as much, Betts has been a constant presence at center for a Cornell team that has been devastated at the center position due to injuries. He’s coming into his own and proving himself a versatile asset no matter what duties he’s assigned to.
R.G.: The season highlight thus far has to be Cornell’s gut-it-out 2-1 road win over Harvard before the break. Coming off a dud at Madison Square Garden and with an injured Galajda, the Red worked hard to earn McGrath his first collegiate win. It was an impressive performance and the type of shot-blocking, physical, tough effort we expect in Cornell-Harvard matchups. The win will prove consequential for the Red in the conference standings and in the confidence and momentum departments.
C.B.: Maybe this is a cop-out, but what I’ve enjoyed seeing the most all season are the glimmers of potential seen in many games. Saying that this year’s team isn’t what we hoped it would be isn’t really revolutionary, but there are times when a clever breakaway or heads-up passing has demonstrated that Cornell is capable of being better than they were in the first half of the season. Optimism is a powerful thing.
What should Cornell be worried about in 2019?
D. M.: Special teams. Even with some bright spots at times on the power play, the special teams units have been far from effective. In today’s game, it’s really hard to win without success on the kill or on the power play. So it
Z.S.: Not a whole lot. Cornell likes to say it doesn’t even look at the rankings, but maybe the expectations entering the year — consensus first pick in the NCAA and No. 8 in the country — were a little too daunting for the young team. Now that some of those eyes and weights are off the shoulders, perhaps what Cornell needs is to play relaxed and expectation-free.
R.G.: This is probably more of a concern for media and fans — don’t let expectations get too high. After ascending to the No. 1 spot in the national rankings last season and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, expectations were sky-high for a team suddenly with a real chance at making it to the Frozen Four. Understanding that an NCAA Tournament appearance is a tough achievement in its own right should calm down fans who began the season making Buffalo travel plans.
C.B.: It can’t be said enough — injuries. Cornell needs to be worried about getting healthy and staying that way. I’m not sure that anyone can actually do much in the way of ensuring this, but I know that for this team, health is my main concern in 2019.
What should Mike Schafer ’86 and company’s New Year’s resolution be?
D. M.: Getting back to basics. By all accounts, the first 11 games did not go as planned — Cornell has already exceeded its regular season loss count from a season ago. Part of that was a slow start, and part of it was injuries. At any rate, once the break is over and the Red gets back into action, look for the hopefully healthy and newly energized group to try to replicate some of its tendencies from last season. Remember, this time last year Cornell was coming off two wins that would eventually be part of an eleven-game unbeaten streak that lasted into early February and catapulted Cornell to the national No. 1 ranking.
Z.S.: Find some type of elixir to insure a healthy New Year. Injuries devastated Cornell in the first half of the season. The Red finished the de facto first half of the season with five of its nightly starters on the shelf, including its All-American goaltender and pair of top-four defensemen. The win against Harvard was gritty and impressive, but surely Cornell wouldn’t mind if they start coming a little more comfortably. Injuries are going to come to every team, but hopefully for Cornell, injuries are so 2018.
R.G.: Get healthy. Absences have allowed players who otherwise would’ve been riding the bench a chance to get some experience that could prove valuable if injury issues arise down the road. But with Brendan Smith and Alex Green out for an extended period, the Cornell blue line has been depleted for much of the season and two key forwards, Jeff Malott and Brenden Locke, missed considerable time. Getting these four — plus Galajda — back will certainly boost the Red’s chances of taking control of the ECAC in the season’s second half.
C.B.: The team looked a bit sloppy on the ice at times during the first half of the season, so I would like to see a reenergized group playing come 2019. The way they were playing, it seemed like some of the players got worn down or frustrated given the bumpy start, so this fresh beginning is the perfect chance for the Red to get back to business.