After the longest mid-season break in program history, Cornell men’s hockey won’t have a warm-up game or easy non-conference opponent to ease into 2019 following a start to the season that didn’t meet expectations. The Red opens its second half with rematches against ECAC foes Princeton and No. 3/5 Quinnipiac.
“[It’s] obviously not the results we wanted being 6-5 right now,” said senior forward Beau Starrett. “[But] it’s still early on in the season, there’s a lot of hockey left. It always comes down to being the best team by the end of the year.”
Any hope of a gradual welcome back to game nights for Cornell will be unaided by the quality of opponents and stakes attached. Unlike a majority of the past two decades, when non-conference matchups in the now-defunct Florida College Classic, or in the case of last season, Canisius, awaited Cornell after the break, it’s a pair of ECAC matchups on the docket.
Despite the underwhelming first half of the season, Cornell maintains a 4-2 record within the ECAC — good enough for fourth place, with games in hand on opponents immediately ahead of and behind it the standings.
The Red will have the chance to create some breathing room ahead of fifth-place Princeton when the two tangle on Friday, and try to make up ground on second-place Quinnipiac — also a top-five team in the country — on Saturday.
It won’t be the first time these teams meet this season. A flukey bounce that went in off the glass behind sophomore goalie Matt Galajda sunk Cornell in its first meeting with rival Quinnipiac. But the team responded well the next night, downing the high-flying Tigers, 5-1.
Cornell will also be unaided by the fact each of its opponents have played several games since the Red dropped the puck in the win over Harvard to close the first half. For Princeton, three of its five games since Cornell’s last came against top-20 foes while two of the Bobcats’ three came against now-No. 2 UMass.
“[The win at Harvard] certainly did give us a momentum boost even though it seems like it was a long time ago,” said associate head coach Ben Syer. “[Princeton and Quinnipiac are] certainly a great test for our guys. Our guys are aware of that. It’s jumping right back into the fire.”
The tests will be worthy ones for Cornell, especially in the form of special teams practice. The power play and penalty kill of both weekend opponents all fall within top 10 in the nation, most notably with Princeton, which owns the No. 2 power play with a 33.3 percent success rate and No. 1 penalty kill at 89.7 percent. Quinnipiac sits at No. 9 (24.6 percent) and No. 7 (87.5 percent), respectively.
Cornell’s power play, meanwhile, is No. 31 at 18.2 percent success and penalty kill at No. 53 of the 60 Division I men’s teams at 75.7 percent.
“Statistically we’re not where we want to be [on the penalty kill] but at the same time we have a lot to improve on and I think it can only go up from here,” said Starrett, a key fixture of the Red’s penalty killing group.
The difficulties attached with these road contests will be quelled in part by the long-awaited return of some key contributors for the second half. Cornell entered the break down two key defensemen and a couple of starting forwards. Galajda also missed the win over Harvard, as well as the night prior’s loss to Dartmouth, with an injury. Senior defenseman Brendan Smith is expected to rejoin the lineup this weekend, according to Syer, but sophomore blueliner Alex Green, injured in his team’s Nov. 2 win over Yale, isn’t expected to suit up.
Cornell travels to Princeton on Friday and Quinnipiac on Saturday — both at 7 p.m.