Cornell men’s hockey holds a three-point lead atop the ECAC, clinched its second straight Ivy League title last weekend and is a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament — and The Red has gotten here despite not having its full top lineup available throughout the entire season.
Cornell (15-6-2, 11-3-2 ECAC) takes on Ivy League foes Brown (10-10-3, 7-6-3) and Yale (11-9-3, 9-6-1) this weekend, two squads looking to fight their way into the top four in the ECAC and earn first-round playoff byes.
The Red earned two wins last weekend but lost key players in each. Sophomore defenseman Cody Haiskanen exited with a scary arm injury in a 5-0 win over Clarkson; sophomore forward Cam Donaldson — the team’s second-leading scorer — left with an upper-body injury after an awkward fall in a 3-1 win over St. Lawrence.
And while Cornell has had a short roster all season, what has defined the season thus far has not been the spell of bad luck, but the team’s response to it.
“It is an unusual year [but] you can never hope or think about ‘what if’ or ‘what could be’ rather than what is, and right now the ‘is’ is we’re hurt,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “I’ve never felt like our guys have gone in and had a ‘woe is me’ attitude of ‘poor us, why us.’ They’ve never asked that question once all year long.”
Cornell has a three-point lead in @ecachockey and currently No. 8 in the Pairwise. That’s awfully good on its own, but consider the Big Red has done that despite using 17 different combinations of skaters in 23 games … and all those changes have been injury-related. pic.twitter.com/C2QuGgQ2UV
— Brandon Thomas (@BT_unassisted) February 11, 2019
Cornell’s resilience, Schafer said, is more than just its ability to harness the “next man up” mentality when injuries force players to miss games. It also means players competing while banged up and enduring the long haul of a college hockey season nearing playoff time. Only three weekends remain in the regular season until Cornell hopes to enjoy a much-needed first-round bye. The Red has been grinding hard since October.
“That’s where guys have really been resilient; the guys that have played hurt, that are playing with significant injuries, are doing the jobs,” Schafer said.
The Red’s apex lineup has been intact for a total of fewer than 10 minutes this season. Cornell’s top 12 forwards and six blueliners all suited up for the team’s 4-2 win over Yale Nov. 2 — but sophomore defenseman Alex Green’s concussion in the first period started a months-long streak of Cornell playing shorthanded.
Donaldson’s injury will keep him out at least this weekend. His absence, plus the continued absence of freshman Max Andreev, means Cornell’s forward lineup — in addition to the jumbled defensive pairings with an injured Haiskanen and day-to-day Brendan Smith — will be all over the place.
“Everybody’s playing with everybody and they’ll play every position all night long,” Schafer said. “There’ll be no set lines for this weekend whatsoever.”
Yale’s Joe Snively, who Schafer called the best forward in the league, presents challenges for whomever is tasked with matching up against him. He had a goal and an assist — both on the power play — when the Bulldogs met Cornell at Lynah Rink in November.
But the Red’s sound defensive play gives Schafer confidence in his skaters’ ability to match up with Snively and his team — even if Cornell’s lines are fluid.
“Even though we’ll play multiple lines, it’s pretty evident that our defensive ability on the road or at home — [centers] Kyle Betts, Beau Starrett, Brenden Locke — it doesn’t matter who they’re playing with, they’re really, really solid defensively,” Schafer said. “Then you roll a group of defensemen out behind them, that’s what gives you the balance to be able to play anybody with anybody because those three guys up front are so solid.”
While Yale occupied the No. 2 spot in the conference until recently, and while Snively garners much attention, Brown poses a new threat. The Bears enter the weekend on fire, returning home after five straight road games — a stretch that ended with convincing road wins over Princeton and now-No. 6/5 Quinnipiac.
The Bears have won eight of their last 11 games and, in sixth place, are in line to host a playoff series, even after being picked to finish 11th in the preseason media poll.
While Cornell’s injury problems are as bad as they’ve been all season, junior forward Noah Bauld’s return to the lineup last weekend should help anchor a solid line for the Red as it does battle with Snively and Brown’s leading scorer Tommy Marchin.
“You definitely have to respect him,” Bauld said of facing Snively. “We’re not going to completely change our game plan just to play against Snively, but definitely the biggest thing is just being aware when [he’s] out there and not changing the way you play but just being aware and respecting them.”
Cornell faces Brown and Yale at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, respectively, in Providence and New Haven.