A year ago, men’s hockey opened its season with a pair of games at home against Michigan State. This weekend, the Red will visit Lansing to return the favor — but hope for the opposite outcome.
Last year’s opening contests, at the time, looked to spell disaster for Cornell, who was swept at Lynah against the unranked Big 10 opponent. The Red, which was ranked at No. 8 going into that 2018 series, fell 10 spots to No. 18 in the next round of polling.
But what felt like the beginning of a long and painful season was not ultimately the foreboding omen that Cornell supporters feared. Despite that sweep on home ice, Cornell reached the NCAA quarterfinals in March. That disastrous weekend became little more than a blip over the course of a long season in which the team also won a share of the Cleary Cup.
After Cornell’s ultimately successful season, do those two defeats all the way back in last October still even matter? Have they been forgotten — or, rather, is there added motivation to down the Spartans this weekend?
“Oh, absolutely,” sophomore forward Max Andreev said. “We got swept in front of our home crowd last year. And that was absolutely embarrassing.”
Cornell conceded nine goals to the Spartans that weekend, with now-junior goaltender Matt Galajda being pulled in both matches.
“They’re a different team [now],” Galajda said. “Just one bad weekend, that’s all that was.”
Galajda will be returning from a knee injury sustained in the ECAC title game against Clarkson. Trapped under his own net when it fell on top of him in sudden-death overtime, Galajda was then forced to miss the rest of the year.
But after shutting out the US National Team Development Program Under-18 squad last weekend, Galajda looks — and feels — ready for the season.
“I took it slow after the season last year, just training — didn’t really get on the ice until later in the summer,” Galajda said. “And I think that’s always something nice. I’ve never really done that before, but it’s always nice to have a mental break and just get refocused and rejuvenated.”
Once again, Cornell will be taking on a team whose season has already gotten underway. The 2-2 Michigan State team has wins against Colorado College and Northern Michigan thus far. Ivy League rules force the Red to start later than its non-Ivy opponents — a tradition that head coach Mike Schafer ’86 condemned as “archaic.”
But the Red will need to overcome the disadvantage quickly if it does not wish for a repeat of last October’s debacle.
“I’ve always said, you have to get yourself up to speed, up to game speed, like [your opponent is] already,” Schafer said.
Cornell has played an exhibition game in each of the last two weekends, coming away with victories in each. In the first, against Nipissing, a long offseason left the Red looking out of sync with imprecise passes and miscommunications on the ice; going into the contest, the team had only practiced together a handful of times. This past weekend, against the USNTDP U18 team, many of the kinks looked to be largely worked out as play flowed more smoothly.
Now that the games count, Cornell can’t just focus on its own play like in its last two tune-ups. Michigan State, after all, plays a different brand of hockey than the ECAC.
“They’re trying to play pond hockey, as we call it,” Andreev said. “They don’t want to play defense; they’re trying to get going on offense as much as possible.”
The Red, conversely, is known for its traditional emphasis on a strong blue line. Following the graduation of three key Cornell defensemen in May, this weekend will put the Red’s young defense to the test.
“They’re going to be very physical,” Andreev said. “We know that they have a really dangerous first line.”
Andreev compared the Spartans’ style to Northeastern, who Cornell cruised by in the first round of the NCAAs in March.
“They have very good special teams … their power play’s clipping at [23%] right now,” associate head coach Ben Syer said. “They’ve got a couple guys that returned from last year that are extremely talented players up front, to two twins on the back end — the Krygiers … I think you’ll see a lot of what you saw last year, I think it’s a very similar makeup.”
Puck drop is at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in East Lansing, Mich.