One game doesn’t usually make or break a 29-game season in college hockey. Putting too much stock into one game can make a team lose sight of the big picture, derailing progress and success.
But in the 2018-19 Cornell men’s hockey season, there is one game that players, coaches and fans alike all point to as season-saving: a come-from-behind road win over rival Harvard that sent the Red limping into winter break on a high note, rather than questioning where things had all gone wrong.
It was Dec. 1, and Cornell was ranked No. 33 in the PairWise. The Red owned a mediocre 5-5 record and, just a week prior, had suffered a loss to its archrival at Madison Square Garden. The team was in disarray, largely due to a slew of injuries among its best players, including struggling star goaltender Matt Galajda.
Cornell was in a rough spot, facing injuries up and down the lineup. But the Red earned a hard-fought win despite the circumstances and headed into the six-week hiatus a winning team — capitalizing throughout January on the momentum it built for itself against its hated rival.
The month-plus off after Cornell’s improbable win — a needed 2-1 triumph over Harvard — was a welcome break for an ailing team.
“It’s a game that we always go back to,” senior defenseman and alternate captain Alec McCrea said on Tuesday, ahead of Cornell’s ECAC quarterfinal series against Union. “It was a real turning point in our season, and it shows [that] we can deal with adversity if we stick together.”
It’s no secret that — like McCrea — head coach Mike Schafer ’86 likes to beat Harvard. But the gritty win in the teams’ 154th all-time meeting stands out even among the classics played in one of college hockey’s fiercest rivalries.
After calling his team’s 4-1 loss to the Crimson at Madison Square Garden just a week prior “lifeless,” Schafer labeled the Dec. 1 matchup “one of the grittiest wins I’ve been a part of in my time as a head coach” — a span of almost 24 years.
“We knew that that was a huge win for our program — our team being so shorthanded and having lost to them at Madison Square Garden just a week before,” Schafer said in February. “Getting out of there, going into break knowing we were going to get healthier [was] a great gut-check at that time.”
A nationally-ranked team that was picked in the preseason to finish first in the ECAC limped into Cambridge that Saturday night, less than 24 hours after a 3-2 loss at Dartmouth and facing the possibility of entering the much-needed winter hiatus with a losing record. The situation was quite a contrast to 2017-18, when Cornell started with seven straight wins and entered the break 10-2 — eventually earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It ended up being a game that proved Cornell could handle whatever the season would throw at it — and highlighted this season’s primary difference with last year, during which the Red didn’t really face any adversity whatsoever until the playoffs.
“That morning we woke up and we kind of came together after team stretch … and we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘You know what — if we just stay true to who we are, we’ll get out of this,’” McCrea recalled. “We all had each other’s backs.”
At Harvard in December, sophomore goaltender Austin McGrath made just his second collegiate start and started a brief but unexpected position battle with Galajda. Senior forward and captain Mitch Vanderlaan, injured early in the first period the night before, played “on one foot,” according to Schafer. A handful of Cornell skaters were in the lineup because theirs were the only bodies available.
Here’s what Tristan Mullin’s game-winning goal looked like in Cornell’s 2-1 win over Harvard on Dec. 1: pic.twitter.com/lBgWX3vij0
— Raphy Gendler (@raphy_gendler) March 14, 2019
Cornell’s top two centers, sophomore Brenden Locke and freshman Max Andreev, sat out with injuries; the latter having broken his finger the night before. Senior Brendan Smith and sophomore Alex Green — two key pieces of the defensive unit that was the nation’s best in 2017-18 — couldn’t suit up.
And yet, somehow, Cornell won. McGrath earned his first collegiate victory, making 23 saves — 10 of them in the third period — and the Red got back to its physical brand of hockey.
“It’s really huge to get a little confidence going into the break with a big win, and getting back to the way we like to play,” said McGrath, who kept Cornell in the game during first and third periods dominated by Harvard.
Whether due to the momentum from the end-of-semester win, the time for injured skaters to recover or a combination of the two, the Red started the season’s unofficial second half on a tear, going 6-1-1 in January and jumping out to first place in the ECAC.
As the regular season wound down in February, Cornell’s injury problems weren’t over. Sophomore forward Cam Donaldson’s shoulder issue from last season reappeared, and sophomore defenseman Cody Haiskanen went down with a gory season-ending arm injury. But Cornell could look at the win at Harvard from two months prior as reassurance that it could fight its way through adversity.
As the team enjoys its bye week heading into the league playoffs, the Red will finally be to almost full health when the postseason begins.
Schafer looked back on the Harvard road win as a turning point in the season and was as proud in February as he was in December of the lack of a “woe is me” attitude in the Cornell locker room.
“Not once did the guys go into that game [at Harvard] and think, ‘Jeez, God this is awful’ or, ‘This is bad,’” Schafer said, “but they just played, and that’s the sign of a good team.”
Schafer was as visibly pleased tonight as I’ve ever seen him in a regular season win. Suit was disheveled in presser, presumably from postgame celebration antics.
In this video, you can see a glimpse of him jovially pounding his players on the back after the final buzzer: pic.twitter.com/20BeJyTELZ
— Zachary Silver (@zachsilver) December 2, 2018
On Tuesday, Andreev — likely to return to the lineup this weekend after being sidelined with a broken collarbone for more than six weeks — said the MSG loss was “the most disappointing loss by far this year.”
Following the loss to Dartmouth on the last night of November, a Cornell team primed in the preseason to contend on the national stage had slipped to 3-2 in the ECAC — not cause to panic, but certainly not what had come to be expected of the preseason league No. 1 — and still hadn’t quite rebounded from a season-opening home sweep at the hands of Michigan State.
And injuries were piling up, forcing the Red to face a challenge it didn’t have last season. While the team has preached the “next man up” mindset all year, finishing with a shared Cleary Cup despite its countless ailments, thrusting players into new roles comes with challenges.
No matter the injury woes, the Frozen Apple loss was a reality check. Cornell hadn’t performed according to expectations set in the offseason and by last-year’s 25-win team, and would have to get its ducks in a row quickly to be in good position entering January.
“Disappointing. Really disappointing, how we played tonight,” Schafer said after the MSG loss, explaining that his team looked either fatigued or nervous — or both. “I told them that that’s the least physical I’ve ever seen a Cornell team play in a game against Harvard.”
Out-battled and out-worked, Schafer didn’t see any positives for his team to take into the Dec. 1 game.
But in Cambridge a week later, there was no nervousness, no lack of passion and seemingly no fatigue. In the team’s second game of 2018-19 against Harvard, the Red showed up with fire and grinded out a hard-fought redemption win.
“Beating them in Madison Square Garden last week and them losing [at Dartmouth] last night, I knew we were going to get a hungry, determined Cornell team,” Harvard coach Ted Donato said postgame.
In the second period — during which the visitors outshot Harvard, 19-4 — sophomore forward Tristan Mullin potted the eventual game-winner, a gritty goal on a rebound that represented the type of effort needed in a tough, one-goal road game against Harvard.
Was the win — on the road, following a loss to the Crimson a week earlier, heading into break and missing several key contributors — extra important?
“It’s Harvard, so it’s always big no matter what the stage is,” Mullin said after the game.
The road win at Harvard was like games against the Crimson always are — hard-fought, close in score and high in intensity. But in a season defined by undergoing ups and downs, Cornell’s December game against its century-old rival proved more critical than most.