Men’s hockey is in the midst of its worst slump in six years. Cornell is winless in its last five games – its longest drought since January 2016. The Red has not won in regulation since Jan. 15; it has fallen from eighth to 16th in the USCHO.com poll and from 13th to 25th in the Pairwise, effectively killing its chances of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
A lot has gone wrong for Cornell during this stretch. The team is without its veteran head coach, its top lines have been ravaged by injuries and its special teams units, once a strength, have been ineffective. But the best answer to the question of what’s wrong with this team might be the simplest one: nothing.
Cornell has done the things that have normally made it successful. It has outshot its opponent in four of the past five games, including in losses to Brown and Colgate. The Red was previously 8-2 when outshooting opponents. Cornell has also held each of its opponents to three or fewer goals during its five game winless skid, a feat that yielded an 11-2 record during its first 13 occurrences.
Despite a 1-3-3 record in its last seven games, the Red’s goal differential in that stretch is only minus two. It has fallen narrowly on the wrong side of a series of close games.
“Sometimes it just feels like it’s not happening, and that’s how it feels right now,” said senior tri-captain Kyle Betts. “These last two losses, in a different part of the season, would’ve been wins.”
Though they look bad when strung together, the players and coaches insist that a few tough-luck losses and ties are not the result of any changes in Cornell’s game.
“We’ve proven that when we play as a group and play the right way, we’re tough to hang with,” Betts said. “Just because the bounces aren’t going our way right now doesn’t mean you deviate or change what makes us, us.”
The confidence that it’s playing the right way means that Cornell has no plans to change things up.
“It’s frustrating, but there’s nothing we can really change,” said junior forward Jack Malone. “What we’ve been doing has worked in the past, and we trust that it’s going to work for us now. We’ve just got to stick to the process.”
Even if there’s nothing to blame but bad luck for this stretch, there are clearly obstacles that are working to the Red’s disadvantage.
The injury bug has bitten Cornell in recent weeks, knocking some of its most important producers out of the lineup.
Senior forward Max Andreev, the team’s leading scorer at the time of his injury, has missed the last seven games. Junior forward Ben Berard, one of the team’s most talented shooters and an integral part of the top power play line, missed both games against Colgate last weekend. So did senior defenseman and tri-captain Cody Haiskanen.
The injuries have paved the way for new contributors, like senior forward Zach Bramwell and freshman defenseman Michael Suda.
“At any given moment, somebody is going to be in or out of the lineup, and your role might go from not being in the lineup to being a big part of the lineup,” Bramwell said. “You have to be able to jump in and play your role and be an impact player on the team and on the ice.”
In addition to providing continuity, players like Bramwell and Suda can light a much needed spark for a struggling team.
“[I’m hoping they bring] an energy boost and some spirit that new guys interject in the lineup,” said Associate Head Coach Ben Syer.
They almost provided that spark last weekend, with Suda hitting a post and Bramwell just missing a scoring opportunity on Saturday night against Colgate.
“All those guys that haven’t really seen much time in the first half came in and did a great job, played Cornell hockey and did the things that we needed them to do to give us a chance to win,” Betts said. “Certainly, I don’t think injuries are the reason for this slump.”
Nevertheless, Cornell would benefit from the return of its top contributors. Syer said Berard’s and Andreev’s absence has likely contributed to Cornell’s season-long shooting percentage falling from 13.3 to 11.6 over the last seven games.
The Red might get some good news soon, as Syer said that Andreev and Haiskanen could return this weekend.
Cornell’s special teams units have struggled during its five game winless streak.
The power play has gone 3/24 over the stretch, dropping its season long percentage down to 17.4
The penalty kill has gone 8/14, which has dropped Cornell’s season long PK percentage to 81.7. Six of the 13 power play goals Cornell has allowed this season have come in the last five games.
“It’s not good,” Syer said. “We need to find a way to capitalize on clears, to be aggressive in winning loose puck battles and finding a way to finish off kills.”
Allowing power play goals has been extremely costly in a series of close games. Cornell has tied or lost by one goal in all of its last five games and has allowed a power play goal in all five, including when it allowed two power play goals in a 3-2 loss to Colgate last Friday.
Head Coach Mike Schafer ’86’s absence from the bench seems conspicuously aligned with the team’s recent struggles. Schafer tested positive for COVID during the team’s trip to North Dakota in January and announced last week that he had a cardiac stent placed after recovering from COVID.
The team is 3-3-3 without Schafer behind the bench, which naturally leads to questions about the relationship between his absence and the team’s lack of success.
But the team has not been left without experienced leadership during this stretch. Syer, who is in his 10th season working alongside Schafer and who directly recruited most, if not all, of the current roster, has led the team in Schafer’s absence.
Syer isn’t new to stepping up as an acting head coach. He went 9-0-4 in his first 13 games, filling in for Schafer and Rand Pecknold, who he spent 12 seasons under at Quinnipiac.
“Coach Syer has definitely picked up right where Coach Schafer left off,” junior forward Zach Tupker said. “Those two have been together for so long, and they’ve had success together.”
Indeed, Syer’s leadership, both in terms of strategy and culture, seems largely indistinguishable from Schafer’s. What’s more, Schafer has been around the team at times during this stretch and talks to Syer multiple times a day to discuss strategy and gameplans. So, while Schafer hasn’t been behind the bench, Syer is a highly capable replacement who does things similarly to Schafer.
Still, there may be some intangible wisdom or experience that the team has missed without its leader for the past 26 years.
“He’s run one of the most successful programs in the country for quite some time, so to not have him around on a regular basis certainly does change things a little bit within the locker room,” Syer said.
How can Cornell End its Slump?
If some combination of nothing and all of these factors is to blame for Cornell’s slump, then how can the Red get back on track?
With a win, the players say.
“I think once we get that first bounce back win, we’ll be rolling again,” said junior forward Jack Malone. “Everybody wants that win so bad. As soon as we get it, we’re going to start to build off of it.”
Betts, Haiskanen and Bramwell all pointed to a “gutsy” win at Harvard three years ago that broke the Red out of a slump.
“We went through a pretty tough first half my sophomore year,” Betts said. “The turning point in that was a real gutsy win at Harvard … I think a win like that really propels a team and gives you confidence again.”
With a pair of road games against the two teams right behind it in the ECAC standings on tap this weekend, Cornell could really use that rejuvenating victory.
“This weekend could be a big opportunity to turn the page,” Bramwell said.
With Cornell narrowly holding on to the last first round bye, this weekend’s trip to the Capital District will be Cornell’s most important series so far this season.
Cornell travels to RPI on Friday and Union on Saturday. The puck drops at 7 p.m. both nights.