After traveling across the country to face a pair of top-20 opponents in Las Vegas, No. 2 Cornell men’s hockey returned to New York but remained on the road as it faced Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
While the Engineers have struggled in recent years to make an impact in the ECAC, they have been capable of pulling off upsets, including their dethroning of the Red two years ago.
And just last weekend, RPI shocked then-No. 4 Clarkson and completed the weekend sweep with a shutout against St. Lawrence. The Red avoided that same fate. Thanks to a strong offensive showing and a shutout performance by junior goaltender Matt Galajda, Cornell left the Houston Field House with a 3-0 victory.
Right from the get-go, the Red (12-1-1, 8-1-0 ECAC) held an early advantage. Cornell was unrelenting in its pressure against RPI (8-11-1, 5-6-1) goaltender Linden Marshall. The Red unleashed a barrage of shots on the junior while limiting chances on its own defensive end.
Despite the disparity in shots, the Engineers defended their ice. That changed when RPI sophomore Daniel DiGrande held a Cornell skater, resulting in the Red’s first power-play opportunity of the night.
Coming off a 2-for-4 weekend on the man advantage in Vegas, Cornell once again converted to break the tie. With time dwindling on the power play, the Red passed around the puck until sophomore forward Michael Regush and junior forward Brenden Locke set up junior forward Tristan Mullin, who punched it in.
“We got off to a really good start and played the first period with pace,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “Our guys did a good job of getting after it on the road — big play by Brenden Locke to touch it to Tristan.”
By the end of the initial frame, the Red held a 16-3 edge in shots on goal, and it continued its dominance going into the next period.
After Cornell squandered some early opportunities and killed a penalty, the Red doubled its lead as junior forward Cam Donaldson pulled off a beautiful behind-the-legs pass to Locke, who lit the lamp.
Cornell didn’t stop there, though. Two minutes later, freshman forward Matt Stienburg, who was shifted to the center in a lineup change, set up his team’s third goal.
Stienburg kept the puck in the RPI zone as he fought off several Engineers on the wall. After freshman defenseman Travis Mitchell launched a shot, senior forward Jeff Malott picked up the rebound and fired it past Marshall to put the Red up, 3-0.
“It was the first game of [Stienburg’s] college career playing at center,” Schafer said. “That third goal was huge for us, and Matt played a big part in that. Those guys seem to have a little bit of chemistry already — [freshman forward] Jack [Malone], Matt, and Jeff — I’m pretty happy with those guys.”
For the rest of the period — and the rest of the contest — RPI desperately tried to beat Galajda in an effort to climb back into the contest. Despite the Engineers narrowing the shots-on-goal gap, they could not find the back of the net as Galajda and the rest of the defense buckled down.
While Cornell once again found success in the second period, it could not extend its lead in the final frame. The Red started off the third period on the power play, but it failed to convert. For the remainder of the game, Cornell found itself on defense, doing what it could to stymie RPI’s barrage of shots.
“I thought we got a little loose,” Schafer said. “We weren’t as tight and didn’t play with as much pace. But Matty made some big saves to make sure it stayed a three-nothing game.”
By the end of the night, Galajda had tallied 25 saves and recorded his second shutout of the year to propel the Red to its 12th victory. Through 14 games, Galajda has been Cornell’s anchor. The junior is the only goaltender in the nation that has yet to give up more than two goals in the game.
Meanwhile on the offensive end, Cornell went 1-for-2 on the power play, another encouraging sign following the team’s 0-for-18 drought to close out the first semester.
“I think they’re moving pucks a little quicker,” Schafer said. “They’re playing with their eyes up and not getting predetermined on what they want to attack off of. We’ve made some pretty good touch plays down by the net to score a couple goals.”
“But we’re also getting really good looks other times, too,” Schafer added. “So we got to continue with that mentality of knowing what the prescout is and really focusing on how to attack on any given night.”
Cornell will finish its road trip at Union on Saturday night in Schenectady, New York.