Going into the first round of the NCAA Tournament without starting goalie Matt Galajda, most teams would be concerned over the situation that Cornell men’s hockey faced between the pipes. Not concerned was the Red, however, who believed in backup Austin McGrath — even before he made his name known this season.
Cornell was proven right once again on Saturday, as McGrath made 20 saves and only allowed one goal in Cornell’s 5-1 victory over Hockey East champion Northeastern for a spot in the East Regional Finals against Providence Sunday.
“There was never a doubt in any of our minds [in] Austin sitting down there,” head coach Mike Schafer ’86 said after the game. “We had a saying last year that, ‘Only we know,’ and I think everybody else doubted, but only we know our teammates and our team.”
And McGrath’s performance in the biggest game of the year came an appearance removed from being a situation no goalie in the world would ever be wished into.
With no time to warm up, McGrath stepped into the crease in overtime of the ECAC championship game last Saturday due to an injury to Galajda. But in a high-intensity situation just 3:47 after McGrath entered the game, Clarkson scored the championship-clinching goal.
“Coach Schafer mentioned a few times during the week, he knew it was an unfortunate circumstance and kind of a good play for them that worked out for them to win that game,” McGrath said after the win over Northeastern. “[Last] Saturday night I put that behind me knowing that there was a chance I would be playing this weekend, just got back to what we do to get ready for the week and get ready for the game.”
The championship game was not the first time McGrath was called upon this year, too. Galajda was pulled in both of the season-opening games against Michigan State and McGrath made a string of five consecutive starts when Galajda went down with an injury from late November to early January.
All of this came before a temporary goalie battle when Galajda returned to full health, and just a season after McGrath did not see the ice as a freshman.
During the Red’s Nov. 24 game against Harvard, Galajda suffered his first injury on the year even though he finished the game, and McGrath then stepped into the starting position as soon as the following weekend. The Red lost to Dartmouth in his first career start but then went 3-0-1 in its next four under McGrath, including wins against Harvard, Princeton and Arizona State.
McGrath’s performance in the most notable of those — a gutsy road win at Harvard to close out the first half — has been looked back fondly at as a masterful showing in a game that saved Cornell’s 2018-19 season.
Galajda returned to action on Jan. 12, and the two goalies would split the starting role until Jan. 26, when the original starter took the reins until overtime of the ECAC championship.
For his part in the regular season, McGrath went 4-1-1, allowing 2.05 goals per game and posting a save percentage above .920. His play during the Ivy League slate specifically impressed, so much that he was voted a first-team All-Ivy selection.
“It’s great recognition because in the Ivy League, he was the key to our Ivy League season,” Schafer said.
Despite competing against each other for the starting goalie position, Galajda and McGrath remained and still remain supportive of one another, avoiding any semblance of jealousy for each other’s success. Both are roommates, both are close friends and both are more excited than anyone else by their counterpart’s success.
“Matty and I have a great relationship,” McGrath said. We live together at school, we get along really well and we push each other a lot, so he was all encouraging and had my back the whole week and if he couldn’t go everything was positive, nothing negative about him not being able to play.”
Top line rewarded for its work. Barron on the wraparound. Galajda and the scratches celebrate at the end of the clip. 3-0. pic.twitter.com/F63MagTrnT
— Zachary Silver (@zachsilver) March 30, 2019
Teammates of the two sophomore goalies can also attest to their good relationship.
“They spend a lot of time together,” said senior captain Mitch Vanderlaan, who had the eventual game-winner over Northeastern. “They push each other, they work hard, they try to make each other better. It’s great that when Matty went down, McGrath is fully capable and has the full support of everybody, even Matty.”
All of this culminated in Cornell’s victory over Northeastern, giving the Red an opportunity to advance to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2003 if they beat Providence on Sunday.
“We knew that Austin would rise to the challenge tonight and play well and do his part, and he played well and the team played well,” Schafer said after the game.