Sophomore goalie Matt Galajda earned the win in his first game back from injury, a pair of his classmates provided all the scoring and, just like a season ago, Cornell men’s hockey appears to be putting the pieces together out of the break after a 3-2 win over Arizona State Saturday locked up a sweep.
Cornell, which owned an overall disappointing 6-5 record headed into the holidays, now continues to ride an unbeaten streak that has grown to five games thanks to the pair of wins over a higher-ranked ASU. Most of the stretch has been powered by the more-than-solid play from backup goalie Austin McGrath.
But Galajda, who was healthy to dress for Friday’s game but kept on the bench due to a coach’s decision, returned to the crease and made his once-overbearing presence known again, brushing aside 27 of 29 shots from the potent ASU offense. Both Sun Devil goals came late when the outcome was nearing a determinable status, though the second goal that came with 20 seconds to go caused a brief moment of uneasiness before the celebratory hugs.
“We talked about how we have to play this like a playoff weekend,” reiterated head coach Mike Schafer ’86 “Them being No. 13 in the country, I think everybody just takes them for granted. They are a really, really good hockey team. … It was a great win for us and a good weekend for getting the sweep, and now its ECACs for the rest of the way.”
Looking back at a year ago, Cornell blasted out of the break with a 10-game unbeaten streak that ultimately resulted in a 23-4-2 record and an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. While the first half of the 2018-19 season may have cast some doubt on if the team was on the path for a third consecutive March appearance, Schafer has been much reassured by the play he’s seen since the return to action.
“Last weekend we talked to our guys that we want to peak at the right time,” Schafer said, alluding to a three-point road weekend at Princeton and Quinnipiac. “We have to keep climbing. I thought we were a better hockey team this weekend than we were last weekend. Each weekend we have to incrementally get a little bit better.”
It wasn’t nearly the blowout that came in Friday’s 6-1 shellacking. On Saturday, the season’s improvements were marked by the continued outburst of sophomore forward Cam Donaldson, whose pair of goals — No. 8 and 9 on the year, which leads the team — propelled Cornell to a 2-0 lead after 40 minutes for the second straight night.
Donaldson’s first, which came just 61 seconds into the contest, began after he created his own offense deep in the ASU zone before sending a low shot past Sun Devil goaltender Joey Daccord. The second, which came in the final two minutes of the opening frame, was a “great rip” on a 2-on-1, eluding Daccord’s glove.
Donaldson, who missed nine games last year with injuries, has already tripled his goal total from his rookie season and was later stymied on a pair of third-period chances that would have gifted him his first career hat trick.
“We talk about with Cam that if you want to be a dominant player in the league, you have to go for it offensively,” Schafer said. “He’s done a really good job defensively, too. Full confidence in him to play against anybody because he’s responsible, but he can be electric, and the first goal he scored tonight he kept just moving his feet and the second one was just a great rip against a really good goaltender.”
After ASU came out in the second period strong once again, sophomore forward Morgan Barron was able to respond to the strong Sun Devil play with a power play goal 8:36 into the third period — another “great rip,” according to Schafer, that capped off continuously stronger play from his power play units.
“We talk about the power play that didn’t have the killer instinct in the second but we had the killer instinct in the third to make it 3-0,” Schafer said on a night where the power play was 1-for-4 and penalty kill 5-for-5.
Galajda, whose strong play was highlighted by turning away all 13 shots the Sun Devils sent his way in the middle frame, was solved twice in the final period. But he clenched down in the important moments to earn his first win since Nov. 17.
Galajda has appeared to have earned back his starting role for now after McGrath was 3-1-1 with a .936 save percentage and 1.78 goals against average in his five starts.
“I thought [Galajda] did a good job over the course of the game,” Schafer said. “Didn’t have much of a chance on the breakdown in our own zone to make it 3-1, and on the extra attacker there was tons of traffic — I don’t think he saw it, it was post and in. I thought he had a good return to the lineup, too.”
Cornell now faces 14 ECAC matchups to close out the season, starting with rivals Harvard and Dartmouth in Ithaca the coming weekend. If the current play wasn’t enough to have Schafer optimistic, the head coach is hopeful that both junior forward Jeff Malott, who missed both games against ASU, and sophomore defenseman Alex Green, who hasn’t played since he hit his head on the ice Nov. 2 against Yale, could suit up against the Crimson or Green and give Cornell a fully healthy lineup for the first time since the season-opening series against Michigan State.
“He’s been practicing with us and getting better and better all the time,” Schafer said of Green. “So we just hope we get both those guys back next weekend and give us that extra oomph with all four lines.”