When Cornell men’s hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86 looks down at his line sheet before a game, scanning the score of troops awaiting to take the ice amid this season’s plethora of adversity, seldom does he see an arrangement of names that is identical from one night to the next.
At this point in the season, submitting a line sheet to referees and media coordinators has essentially become a pure formality rather than a blueprint for battle.
“It’s amazing. We’ve got to have set a record for the amount of line combinations we’ve used this year,” Schafer said. “It’s got to be ridiculous.”
But through it all — a lackluster first half of the season, a deluge of injuries and uncertainty at several positions heading into each weekend — Schafer and offensive assistant coach Sean Flanagan appear to have found a fresh breath of consistency and an important source of scoring within its top line.
The all-sophomore line of Morgan Barron, Brenden Locke and Cam Donaldson has wreaked havoc for Cornell over a majority of its current seven-game unbeaten streak with each scoring or assisting on 15 of the 23 goals in the seven-game stretch — and many of those scored by one and assisted by another.
“I think they are two really easy guys to play with,” said Barron, whose current five-game streak with at least two points in each contest is the most for a Cornellian this century. “For us, I think it’s big communicating with each other on the bench, making sure we are on the same page going into every game and understanding that we need to be a really solid line each and every game.”
Success has been built by the distinct skillset brought to the table by each skater: Donaldson’s lightning-quick speed, Locke’s passing and awareness and Barron’s strength and physicality — not to be outdone by the latter’s scorching, pinpoint shot.
“Cam can fly around the ice, and he’s so skilled, but at the same time when he gets down in the corners and stuff he is really strong on the puck,” Barron said. “And Brenden is the same, really skilled. I think he sees the ice really well.”
But there’s one thing that unites the trio.
“It’s a good combination, but I think their underlying skill set for all of them is their hockey sense and their ability to read plays and see plays develop,” Schafer said. “All three of them can score, and all three of them can play … the hockey sense for all three of them is outstanding, and I think that’s what makes them special.”
Part of the reason this line has taken so long to conceptualize is its own fair share of injuries. Locke missed five games from Nov. 10 to Jan. 4 with an injury, and since his return and taking on the role as the top-line center, he has four goals in six games.
“He stepped in almost seamlessly, which isn’t always easy to do,” Barron said of Locke. “I’ve been impressed with that. He came in, and it seemed like his skating was there like it was before … he’s really sharp around the net, and I think last year he probably could have had a few more goals than he did have and you’ve seen it come out this year.”
Now, however, health is no longer a factor, and the line has stuck together for the past six games. In a fraction of the games they played last year, both Barron and Donaldson have already ecplised their point totals from last season, and Locke has already doubled his goals.
“Even in practice they are a super hard line to play against,” said sophomore defenseman Cody Haiskanen of his classmates on the top line. “They just know where each other are.”
Cornell’s culture under Schafer has been built on depth and the ability to roll four lines. While the Red would not mind one line distinguishing itself like its current, yet-to-be-nicknamed top line has — the most potent since the “JAM” line of now-senior captain Mitch Vanderlaan, Anthony Angello ’19 and Jeff Kubiak ’17 — its pride comes in having four lines capable of playing equal minutes.
Injuries have hampered that ability so far this season, but the top line — all of whom are also fixtures on the power play — has not only lived up with the increased minutes, they’ve thrived.
“They’ve been able to be hot because of the amount of ice time they’ve been getting,” Schafer said. “Those guys are hitting the ice a little bit more, and they are definitely more consistent, so throughout the course of the game they are getting different types of scoring chances. They continue to push it. They get transition, they get offensive zone chances, they are getting tip chances, and they are capitalizing on those goals.”
Even when all were healthy at the beginning of the year, the trio of sophomores were not put on a line together. But the relationship has roots in last year, when Barron and Donaldson played together much of the season centered by Trevor Yates ’18 — “I thought we had really good chemistry last year,” Donaldson said recently — and it continues to evolve today.
“I pretty much see them right from 9 a.m. when I wake up and go to class, and now I have almost all the same classes with them,” said Barron, who lives with Donaldson and is in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management with his whole line and classmate Matt Cairns. “We spend pretty significant amounts of time together.”