In two of its last four games, Cornell hasn’t been able to outsmart goaltenders who dominated between the pipes as the Red’s hot streak hit a couple bumps.
This weekend, No. 10/9 Cornell men’s hockey will take on a netminder who gave it fits last year — a goaltender who plays for one of the ECAC’s best teams, not a squad occupying the bottom quarter of the standings like the last two hot goalies Cornell has run into.
In two games against now-No. 9/10 Clarkson last season, Cornell scored zero total goals against Golden Knights goaltender Jake Kielly in a 4-0 loss and a 0-0 tie. This weekend, Cornell, occupying first place in the conference standings by a slim margin, welcomes Kielly and the Golden Knights to Lynah Rink.
“Last year, we didn’t play well against them at home and they took it to us pretty good here early in the year,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86 of his team’s Nov. 2017 loss to Clarkson, its first of the season. “Watching the video of it, [the 0-0 tie] was a really good hockey game. Both goaltenders played outstanding and the game could’ve easily been 3-3 or 4-4.”
With 20 points in the league standings to Clarkson’s 18, Friday’s contest represents a chance for Cornell to earn some breathing room — or to lose its grip on the top spot. Only two points separate the first and fifth-place teams.
“These are two big ECAC points against Clarkson and then two more points against St. Lawrence so we definitely want to create some separation in the standings,” said sophomore defenseman Alex Green, who returned to the lineup last weekend after missing three months with a concussion.
Clarkson, coached by Cornell alumnus Casey Jones ’90, won eight straight games in late December and January. Like Cornell, the Golden Knights appeared to be hitting their stride before a couple of hiccups — losses to Harvard two weekends ago and Quinnipiac last weekend — interrupted their hot streak as the regular season reaches its final month.
The Red rode an eight-game unbeaten streak into a Jan. 26 meeting with Colgate, where Raiders goalie Mitch Benson robbed Cornell on its home ice and led the visitors to a 3-2 overtime win. Last weekend, after a 4-0 beatdown of Union, Cornell was stymied by Rensselaer goaltender Owen Savory, who made 40 saves in a 1-1 tie.
Cornell is prepared to face another top-tier goaltender on Friday night.
“If the goalie’s hot, you just gotta get in front of him,” said sophomore forward Tristan Mullin. “He can’t stop what he can’t see … Get in front of him [and] take away his eyes.”
Schafer said his team needs to establish its net-front presence and force opposing goaltenders to move “east-west.”
“[Kielly] has just been outstanding in the games we’ve played,” Schafer said. “[Savory] played well [for] RPI but I didn’t think that we did a great job of having traffic in front of him and showing a lot of poise around the net on our rebound opportunities.”
On Saturday, Cornell’s focus will shift to the ECAC’s cellar-dweller, St. Lawrence. The Saints have just two league wins on the season. One of them was a 4-2 win over Clarkson that was the Golden Knights’ last loss before their eight-game winning streak. St. Lawrence is currently 59th — second to last — in the PairWise Rankings (Cornell and Clarkson are 10th and 12th, respectively).
“Last time we played [Clarkson] at home they gave us a beating,” Mullin said. “With St. Lawrence, it’s college hockey, you can’t take any team lightly; I think you saw that with RPI.”
With only eight games remaining in the regular season, Schafer is prepared for hard-fought battles. Though still banged up, the Red is nearing full health — but freshman forward Max Andreev is out at least a few more weeks, senior defenseman Brendan Smith is banged up and it’s unclear when junior forward Noah Bauld will return to the lineup.
“We took Monday off … to get rejuvenated for the stretch drive,” Schafer said. “Clarkson and St. Lawrence are two teams that play really, really hard, as does everybody this time of year.”
As it gears up to face one of the conference’s best goalies — Kielly’s 1.85 goals against average is second in the league; his .931 save percentage is third — Cornell seems to be nearing the end of its months-long goalie battle.
Sophomore Matt Galajda, who went down with an injury in late November and ceded the starting role to classmate Austin McGrath, spent several weeks splitting starts with the one-time backup. But after shutting out Union last weekend, Galajda started against RPI the next day, making his first consecutive starts since Nov. 17 and 24.
“[Galajda’s] had success and that breeds the confidence,” Schafer said. “In practice, Austin is a big part of his success. Austin has played well and I’ve always said, when Matt competes … his play gets sharper. With Austin playing well and doing a great job, I think Matt has stepped up his game.”
While the bench boss still plans to “play it by ear” for another week or two, Schafer said he’ll have “one guy” when Cornell plays its final regular season home games Feb. 22 and 23.
Puck drop at Lynah Rink is set for 7 p.m. Friday against Clarkson and 7 p.m. Saturday against St. Lawrence.