The Red is coming off of an intense pull-away victory against Boston University, which saw the return of Cornell hockey to Madison Square Garden in its biennial Red Hot Hockey matchup.
Now sitting with an impressive 8-1-0 record as the ninth-ranked collegiate team in the nation, according to the U.S. College Hockey Organization, the Red is preparing to face St. Lawrence (3-6-4) and No. 19 Clarkson (8-4-3) in back-to-back road games before a month-long break from regular season play.
Coming off the win over the Terriers, possibly no one is happier than freshman forward Kyler Kovich — in the first period, Kovich scored the first goal of the game and the first goal of his career.
“I felt amazing getting the first goal out of the way, especially in one of the biggest cities in the world and in front of so many fans,” Kovich said. “To get the ball rolling on the game and be the first goal in a winning game, it means a lot to me and the entire team … I was just really honored and happy for the whole experience.”
Kovich was not the only one to be excited about playing at MSG. Head Coach Mike Schafer ’86 appreciated the opportunity to return at the historic venue after being two years removed from his last trip to New York City.
“It was nice to be back down in the city and that kind of environment,” said Schafer. “It’s fun to watch the kids for the first time see the NHL or Madison Square Garden from ice level.”
Still, the game was far from perfect. The 6-4 win matched the most points given up by the Red defense all season, and the Terriers came within striking distance following a Boston score, cutting the deficit to one score in the final minutes of the second period.
“Defensively we’d like to tighten up a little bit,” Schafer said. “They have a good hockey team and they made us pay for the scoring chances that we gave up. So just like every other game that we’ve won, we need to learn our lessons of how we played in different situations.”
Junior defenseman Sebastian Dirven has seen a decent amount of action on the blue line in recent games. He knows as much as anyone that a four-score performance is not something to take lightly — but now nearing the end of 2021 play, Dirven said he appreciates the progress he’s seen on the defensive end.
“I feel like as a team, we’ve come a pretty long way in a pretty short time, starting a little bit later than other programs,” Dirven said. “I feel like guys are starting to get a little more relaxed, fitting into the system now, understanding things, but I think we still have quite a bit of work left, and I know Coach Schafer is always pushing us to keep pushing our envelope.”
Looking into this weekend’s matchups, the Red is slated to play two of the most prominent teams in recent ECAC history. The Clarkson Golden Knights and St. Lawrence Saints have each won the last two ECAC Men’s Ice Hockey Championships, with St. Lawrence claiming the championship in 2021 over Quinnipiac in a tournament without Ivy League competition. The Red, meanwhile, has been on the doorstep each year, losing to Clarkson 3-2 in 2019 before having its season canceled as the top ranked team over the Golden Knights in 2020.
“I would say that there’s kind of a chip on a lot of guys’ shoulders coming back, especially returners,” Dirven said. “Obviously we wanted to play last year. I feel like we could have had a pretty good chance to go at [St. Lawrence] … They’re a really good team, so we’re gonna have to play pretty well, but I think a lot of guys are really excited for this weekend.”
Recently, St. Lawrence has underperformed compared to their title-winning season last year. In their last three games, the Saints have been outscored 21-3 with a tandem of goaltenders averaging each under .900 save percentage. The defense has struggled, while offensively through 13 games only one player has garnered more than two goals scored. Still, Schafer said he knows just how good this team can be and is taking every precaution to make sure his team is prepared.
“They’ve got off to some bad starts and had some bad recent games, but they’ve also played some pretty good teams,” Schafer said. “You go through cycles like that sometimes as a team. I said our guys today, we know they got a good team. They’re defending ECAC champions that didn’t graduate hardly anybody … They’re a good hockey team, and they’ll be ready to play. We get everybody’s best and I’m sure that they’ll be ready to fire out on Friday night and play hard.”
Clarkson, meanwhile, has shown no signs of slowing down. After a rocky start, the Golden Knights are on a six-game streak without a loss. Their primary goaltender, Ethan Haider, was named MAC Goaltending Goalie of the Week in the ECAC last weekend after impressive performances against Dartmouth and Harvard. Clarkson is extremely stout defensively and will be one of Cornell’s biggest challenges of the regular season.
“Man, they’re old,” said Schafer when asked about the state of Clarkson’s team. “They’ve got 11 or 10 seniors, three or four grad transfers. [Head Coach Casey Jones] has got a plan. They’re mature, they’re strong [and] they’re physical. They represent a lot of the Clarkson teams that we’ve played in the past, so they’ve got really good depth upfront.”
“We expect it to just be like any other Cornell-Clarkson game we’ve had over the years,” Schafer continued. “It’s going to be a hard game to play in. There’s not going to be much room on the ice to create anything. It’s going to be physical.”
Being the last game of the season before the start of 2022, a lot of momentum is riding on the Clarkson game to determine how confident Cornell will feel heading into the break. Knowing how stout the Golden Knights’ defense can be, coaches and players have made it a point of emphasis this week to crowd the net and make sure to block Haider’s vision when given the chance.
“Obviously they’ve dropped a few games, but that’s no indication of how they are as a team,” said Kovich while assessing his opponent. “They’re a really tough older team. As long as we get the first goal and get our bodies in and pucks-on-defense, pucks-on-net, it should work in our favor.”
Following these matchups, the Red will not have another game until New Year’s Day when it faces off against the Arizona State University Sun Devils in Tempe, Arizona.
For now, Cornell is slated to have the games begin at 7 p.m. on Friday at Appleton Arena against St. Lawrence University, followed by a game Saturday night against Clarkson University at 7 p.m. at Cheel Arena.