As the Cornell men’s hockey team made its final preparations for opening night back in October, head coach Mike Schafer ’86 had a goaltending decision to make: Would he go with sophomore Austin McGrath or freshman Nate McDonald? Schafer ultimately chose McGrath … as the backup to classmate and reigning All-American Matt Galajda.
Coming off a stellar freshman season, Galajda’s starting spot was never in jeopardy, but now — three months later — he finds himself in a daily battle with McGrath for the No. 1 job. That competition has gone on long enough; it’s time Galajda gets his job back.
Despite sky-high expectations for his second collegiate season between the pipes, Galajda could not have gotten off to a worse start. A Hobey Baker finalist just one year ago, the underclassman was pulled in each of his first two games, surrendering eight goals in under five periods of work. McGrath came on in relief in both eventual losses, but any talk of a goalie competition would have been ridiculous.
“He’s a hell of a goaltender,” Schafer said of Galajda at the time. “I know he’s going to bounce back down the road.”
Galajda and the rest of the team settled down and played well over the next month of games, but the Ontario native sustained an injury in the Harvard game at Madison Square Garden just before Thanksgiving and went on to miss the next five games.
That’s when things got interesting.
Schafer called on McGrath to fill in, and he did not disappoint. In his five starts, the Red went 3-1-1 against a slew of impressive opponents — beating two Ivy rivals and backstopping a blowout of a ranked Arizona State team. He did everything expected of him and more.
But when Galajda came back for game two against ASU, it seemed as if McGrath’s stint had come to an end. Galajda beat the Sun Devils that night and followed it up with a shutout of Harvard in front of a sold-out Lynah Rink.
Yet, Schafer was unwilling to commit to Galajda as his starter going forward. To the surprise of many, it was McGrath who led the team onto the ice the next day against Dartmouth. Once again, he did his job and got the win.
Last Friday, Schafer went back to Galajda — who was solid in Cornell’s 3-2 win over Colgate. But once more, Galajda was benched in favor of his good friend McGrath on Saturday night. This time, the plan did not pay off. McGrath was pulled after allowing a pair of tough goals, and the team dropped its first game in two months.
The Red is currently tied for first in the ECAC, has all but clinched the Ivy title and is ninth in the PairWise rankings. There is no crisis at hand.
But the goalie situation is getting ridiculous.
Galajda was outstanding last season. He led the nation with a 1.51 goals against average, finished first in shutouts (nine) and third in save percentage (.939). His play earned him too many honors and awards to even mention in this column. Sure, he got off to a rough start this season, but his performance ever since has been reminiscent of his 2017-18 self.
In fairness to McGrath, he played almost lights out when the team counted on him. For that, he deserves a tremendous amount of credit. But Galajda should not have lost his job due to injury — especially given the way he’s played since coming back.
According to Schafer, there is a simple reason behind the madness: competition. Knowing that the other guy is waiting in the wings means both Galajda and McGrath must bring their A-game every day in practice along with every Friday and Saturday night.
“Something that we want as a coaching staff is competition at that position,” the head coach said after Galajda’s shutout of Harvard. “Every time Matt has had competition, he has risen to the challenge and plays better and better … It is good to have two guys back there who will push each other.”
Schafer believes so strongly in this that he admittedly planned to alternate goaltenders each of the last two weeks — seemingly regardless of how the games actually played out.
And therein lies the problem. Clearly, Schafer has seen enough in Galajda to give him the start each of the last two Friday nights. And Galajda has done his part by winning both games. So why start McGrath the next day? We all know of Galajda’s potential, and he ought to have the opportunity to find some sort of rhythm as the season really picks up.
If he happens to play poorly, his backup McGrath is a great asset to have. But shutout victories should not be followed by benchings.
Despite the current state of affairs, Schafer does not want this competition to go on forever. “I definitely want someone to grab and run with it,” he said Tuesday. “By the time we hit playoffs, I do not want to be in this situation where we’re alternating.”
However, he refuses to name a starter. “No one stands out either way. They’re still competing … Both look ready to play, and we just gotta figure it out.”
Galajda has shown more than enough over the last several weeks — not to mention the entirety of last season — to become the number one guy.
It’s time to make the decision, coach. And it’s an easy one.