After grinding out three points against its final non-conference foe in Northern Michigan and retaining the No. 1 spot in the national polls, Cornell men’s hockey has its sights set on two familiar foes.
This weekend, Dartmouth and Harvard will visit Lynah Rink for two critical conference matchups.
Leading up to this set of contests, Cornell endured a tough stretch in its schedule. It started at the Fortress Invitational, where the Red faced ranked foes such as Ohio State and Providence. Cornell then continued its road trip with a pair of ECAC games before finally returning home for the Northern Michigan series.
“It’s been a grind going to Las Vegas, then going on the road, coming back and facing a Northern Michigan team that kind of lived up to its billing,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “I thought they were one of the better teams we faced all year in the non-conference.”
Against Northern Michigan, the Red was perfect on the penalty kill, an encouraging sign given the team’s struggles in that department. But at the same time, Cornell only found the back of the net once on nine power-play chances.
“After the Union game, we talked about how we can’t pay attention to statistics,” Schafer said. “We’ve gone back-to-back games without giving up a power-play goal — our guys were much better on [the penalty kill]. Our power play created a lot of scoring chances, but we just didn’t capitalize.”
While Cornell has excelled this season, its performance on the penalty kill has been lacking. Compared with some of its other top competitors, the team’s 76.4 penalty kill percentage lags behind. Senior defenseman Yanni Kaldis reflected on the team’s penalty kill and what it did differently over the weekend.
“It wasn’t the dedication — we always want to sacrifice our bodies and block shots,” Kaldis said. “I think it was just doing the little things right. It seemed like every mistake we made on the penalty kill was in the back of our net. I think it’s just rhythm — we killed a few and got our confidence going.”
With the Northern Michigan series wrapped up, the Red will not face any more non-conference opponents for the remainder of the season and will instead set its sights on league play with two of its biggest ECAC rivals coming to town.
“There are 12 games left with half the ECAC,” Schafer said. “Everybody says it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Now it’s a sprint to the end of the season with 12 games.”
Harvard, which was one of the two remaining unbeaten teams in the country late in November, has somewhat lost its mojo. After rattling off six straight wins to start the year, the Crimson has gone 3-6-2 since.
Despite its lackluster start to 2020, the Crimson remains ranked at No. 16 in the national polls and will square off against the Red in a perennially sold-out matchup on Saturday.
“I expect the crowd to be pretty good — just like every other year,” Kaldis said. “That’s obviously one of the craziest atmospheres in college hockey. I expect it to be just as good, maybe even better this year since it’s already sold out.”
Cornell’s freshmen players, too, are amped up for their first Harvard game at Lynah Rink and the traditions that come along with it.
“[The younger guys] are asking us questions on what it’s like and if fans actually throw fish on the ice,” said junior defenseman Alex Green. “Everyone’s really excited, and it should be a fun weekend.”
Meanwhile, Kaldis began to reflect on playing his last game against Harvard on East Hill.
“It’s pretty emotional — four years passed by really quickly,” Kaldis said. “[Patrick] McCarron [’17], my D[efense] partner, was telling me how fast it passes by. It’s tough to really understand what that means until you’re here. It’s pretty emotional that I’ve already played them three times at home, and you know, my college career is winding down.”
While the Harvard game draws the most attention, Dartmouth arguably presents itself as the better and more intimidating opponent. The Green is the only team to defeat the Red so far this season.
“[Against] Dartmouth, we just had to score,” Schafer said. “We had a ton of chances in the game that we didn’t get in the back of the net. Just play harder — I didn’t think we played as hard as we needed to.”
With Cornell looking for revenge against its Ivy foe, the team will have an added incentive to take down Dartmouth.
“The trip back [from Hanover] wasn’t fun,” Kaldis said. “It’s a huge game — we can’t just think about Harvard because Dartmouth was the team that beat us, and they’re a really good team.”
With the team holding a high spot in the polls — and now the No. 1 ranking — Cornell has had a target on its back and has seen numerous teams come out and play especially hard against the Red throughout the season. Given the high stakes of the upcoming matchups, Cornell expects nothing less this weekend.
“I always say it’s going to make you better by the end of the year,” Schafer said. “You’re not going to get a soft night. I think one of the reasons these guys came to Cornell in the first place is because we’re a team that wins — hockey is important to the campus and student body.”
Cornell has not been concerned with its national ranking. Instead, the Red has its eyes set on conference standings.
“It gets amped up with the ranking, but now the rankings don’t mean much because it’s all league play now,” Schafer continued. “There’s a lot of teams lurking around those top four spots — we just got to get it done.”
The Red will aim to get it done as it hosts Dartmouth on Friday and Harvard on Saturday at Lynah. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. on both nights.