A central New York college hockey blue blood will host a higher-ranked opponent this weekend, one whose home arena is in a desert more than 2,000 miles from Ithaca. The visitors’ goaltender is an NHL draft pick and leads the nation in shutouts. The likely Cornell men’s hockey starter — now turning heads in the ECAC — was a bench-riding backup until a month and a half ago.
No. 13 Arizona State (16-7-1), college hockey’s newest Division I program and winner of six of its last eight games, comes to Lynah Rink this weekend for a pair of contests with No. 17 Cornell (7-5-1, 5-2-1 ECAC) that are likely to have NCAA Tournament implications down the road. Cornell, home for the first time since November, is gearing up for its final non-league games of the season before its final 14 ECAC games (Cornell is third place in the ECAC standings, two points behind Quinnipiac and Yale, but has played fewer conference games than the Bobcats and Bulldogs).
“All your non-conference [games have NCAA Tournament implications], so when a team like [ASU] is playing so well and has a great record it’ll help everything as far as the NCAA is concerned,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86, who is vying to take his team to the big dance for the third consecutive year.
The Sun Devils, 3-2 against ECAC teams this season, are led offensively by Arizona native Johnny Walker, whose 18 goals and eight power play goals both lead the nation. Goaltender Joey Daccord, an Ottawa Senators prospect, leads the country with six shutouts.
After a pair of statistically poor losses to Michigan State to open the year, Cornell will be looking to improve its PairWise ranking — a statistical evaluator accounted for NCAA tournament selections based on record against common opponents, head-to-head competition and the rating percentage index — against a higher-ranked foe in ASU.
Cornell currently sits tied with Clarkson at No. 16 in the PairWise — just on the cusp of what could be an NCAA bid. Arizona State is No. 10 in the PairWise, while Michigan State, which is 3-10-3 since playing in Ithaca, is No. 37.
“They’re a legit top-10 team in the country right now,” said Schafer, who has recovered from an illness and will return behind the bench after missing two games. “They’ve got a great power play and play a very solid game, so it’s a great opportunity for us playing against a team that’s playing so well.”
The Sun Devils, whose 16 wins lead the nation, split with Harvard and swept Princeton earlier in the season — both on the road. They come into Ithaca fresh off a home sweep of Boston College.
“They’ve had some big wins this year,” said senior defenseman Alec McCrea. “We’ve never played a team like this before. … It’s always fun to play a team who’s kind of rolling a little bit.”
Heading into the season, goaltending questions weren’t expected to arise — sophomore Matt Galajda was an All-American and dominated nearly every statistical category a year ago — but an injury to Galajda in the Red’s Nov. 24 loss to Harvard at Madison Square Garden has thrust sophomore Austin McGrath into the starting role. And the Lloydminster, Alberta, native has excelled in his first four collegiate starts as Galajda has been sidelined with an undisclosed injury. Schafer said Galajda has been practicing this week but hasn’t been cleared to play — it’s unclear when he’ll get back on the ice.
Cornell sophomore G Matt Galajda is practicing but not yet cleared to play, accd to head coach Mike Schafer ’86. Galajda was injured Nov. 24 in Cornell’s loss to Harvard at MSG. When/if he’s back, Schafer may have a good problem… a hot goalie and an All-American goalie (cntd)
— Raphy Gendler (@raphy_gendler) January 9, 2019
McGrath made 65 total saves last weekend as the Red beat Princeton and tied then-No. 3/5 Quinnipiac before being named the ECAC Goaltender of the Week. McGrath’s four consecutive starts represent his only collegiate action aside from two relief appearances in the Red’s season-opening losses to Michigan State. In his four starts, he is 2-1-1 with a .930 save percentage and 2.0 goals against average.
“[McGrath] was kind of a calming presence for us back there,” McCrea said of the netminder’s play at Princeton and Quinnipiac. “He came in and stepped in, and instead of being nervous he looked calm, cool and collected. He shut the door and made some huge saves for us.”
As Princeton has turned up its play, so too has McGrath, highlighted by this spectacular save on a 2-on-1 to keep the Tigers off the board. pic.twitter.com/Y6hxl8Kta2
— Cornell Daily Sun Sports (@DailySunSports) January 5, 2019
“[McGrath has] been steady in the net, he’s been calm,” Schafer added. “The improvement in him has been remarkable since last year. He continues to get better and better all the time. He’s stepped in and he’s done the job. He’s played very, very solid.”
Schafer was non-committal about his plans at goalie once Galajda is healthy. Last year, Schafer also demurred when it came to crowning a starter — though Galajda, who began the season as the starter because of an injury to Hayden Stewart ’18, quickly emerged as the go-to goalie. But one thing is for certain: having two capable goaltenders is a good problem to have.
“We’ll know when we get there with regards to who’s playing well, who’s practicing well,” Schafer said of a potential late-season position battle. “If it’s equal, we’ll split them but we’ll make that decision when it gets there.”
Sophomore defenseman Alex Green, out since Nov. 2 after hitting his head on the ice against Yale, is also practicing but has not yet been cleared to return to game action, according to Schafer.
With parity in college hockey seemingly at an all-time high (the No. 1, 2 and 3 teams in the country all lost the same night, Jan. 4), games between ranked teams will prove consequential come March.
“There’s a lot of balance across the country [that] keeps everybody close to the pack at the end of the year,” Schafer said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for us at home.”
The meeting will be the first ever between the Red and Sun Devils, the former with rich decades of history, the latter in just its fourth season as a Division I program. This will be Cornell’s first matchup against an independent team since it took on then-unaffiliated Alabama-Huntsville in 2010.
Cornell and Arizona State face off at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Lynah Rink.