After a 12-3-1 start to its 2021-2022 season, men’s hockey seemed well on its way to reclaiming its spot among college hockey’s top teams when the team returned to campus for the spring semester.
Then the freefall began. The injuries piled up. The head coach was forced out of action. The puck didn’t bounce the Red’s way.
Cornell won just one of its next eight contests, but bounced back with four wins in its final five, only to be eliminated on home ice in the ECAC quarterfinals against Colgate.
Head coach Mike Schafer ’86 attributes last season’s second half struggles to the coaching staff’s failure to build a strong foundation in the fall.
“We as a coaching staff made some mistakes early on in building the building blocks for our season,” Schafer said. “You can’t go back in January and February when things are going wrong if you haven’t established the proper culture, the proper way we want to play.”
Now, on the eve of the 2022-2023 campaign, the Red is ready to learn from last year’s struggles and, it hopes, leave them in the past.
“We went back to the drawing board this summer and said we’re going to take over the program like it’s my first year,” Schafer said. “We’re going to make sure we establish the necessary things to have success.”
Entering the season ranked 20th in the nation and picked to finish fourth in the ECAC, Cornell will have to battle a daunting schedule to earn its first trip to Lake Placid since 2019.
The Red opens its season with a trip to Minnesota Duluth for two games against the Frozen Four contender Bulldogs. The next weekend, Cornell travels to Connecticut to face preseason ECAC favorites Quinnipiac before heading to the North Country to face Clarkson the following week. A matchup with a formidable UConn team at Madison Square Garden after Thanksgiving and the Harvard game at Lynah six days later round out a difficult first half.
“We are definitely going to find out a lot about ourselves,” Schafer said. “Being at Duluth and then Princeton, Quinnipiac, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, we are going to have to fight tooth and nail over those first three weekends. Fight not only to win the game, but fight to get better.”
Cornell will not play at home until Nov. 18, when it hosts Yale to start the fourth weekend of the season.
The Red’s formula for success this season figures to remain the same as in recent years: rely on great defense and goaltending and score on the power play.
In net, Cornell will turn to sophomore Ian Shane, whose surprise second half emergence last season resulted in a dominant .933 SV% and a 1.72 GAA. Despite Shane’s impressive play and the departure of the rest of last season’s goalie room, Shane and the coaching staff don’t view the position as settled. Cornell is bringing in a highly touted prospect in freshman Remington Keopple, who was included on Team USA’s roster at the World Juniors this year.
In front of Shane, the Red returns almost all of one of the nation’s best defenses last season. The blue line will miss the reliable presence of Cody Haiskanen ’22, but the group will have no shortage of experience. Co-captains Sam Malinski and Travis Mitchell will lead the defense, and sophomores Hank Kempf and Tim Rego will look to build on strong rookie campaigns.
On offense, nine of the Red’s top 11 scorers will return this season. Alternate captains Max Andreev and Matt Stienburg will lead the forwards, and Ben Berard and Jack Malone will feature prominently on the power play in their senior years. Rounding out the forwards is a versatile group of rookies, including 6’3 Winter Wallace and 5’9 Nick Desantis, and junior Gabe Seger, who transferred from Union.
The depth and experience of the senior class should be an asset for the Red. The nine seniors – including Andreev, who was granted an extra year of eligibility – are the lone returners from the 2019-2029 No. 1 team. Almost all of them have been regular contributors on the ice throughout their careers.
“That group has played two years of college hockey, one as a freshman and then last year as upperclassmen, so they’ve kind of skipped a big part of their development process,” Schafer said. “They’ve done a tremendous job… they’ve grown, they’ve gotten better and they’ve also provided good leadership for us this fall.”
Stienburg is returning after considering turning pro over the summer. The Colorado Avalanche 3rd round pick put up 29 points and four power play goals while battling injuries last season.
“I knew we were going to have a really good team this year with the staff that we have and everybody coming back, so I felt this was the best place to develop and take the next step,” Stienburg said. “And there’s the social aspect. Being here for three years you get really close to your teammates. Being able to graduate with them and get the full Cornell experience is something I wanted.”
Stienburg said that he talked through his decision with former teammate Morgan Barron, who also considered leaving Cornell early to turn professional. The two forwards grew up near each other in Nova Scotia before both attending St. Andrews College and Cornell.
Shane’s strong rookie year should be another reason for optimism. The California native’s brilliant performances kept the Red in big games, including against No. 1 Quinnipiac and a road sweep of North Dakota. The Red’s chances rest in large part on whether Shane can replicate last season’s performance.
“That’s the goal for everybody, to be able to put themselves and put the team in position to win a national championship and an ECAC championship,” Shane said. “We have the group to do it. For me, it just comes down to stepping up in [big] moments.”
The big question for the Red, as in any grueling college hockey season, will be health. Last season, injuries to key contributors like Andreev, Stienburg and Berard plagued the Red during its rough patch. The preseason has already generated cause for concern, with Sullivan Mack, Dalton Bancroft and Kyler Kovich suffering injuries in the Red/White game and the first exhibition game against Ottawa. Schafer is optimistic about their availability opening weekend in Duluth.
If Cornell stays healthy, its biggest obstacle will be the strength of the rest of the ECAC. Quinnipiac, which reached the top spot in the national rankings last season, returned most of its top talent and climbed into the top three in the rankings early in the current season. Harvard features the most NHL draftees in the country. Clarkson was picked to finish third in the conference, but has struggled out of the gate. Upstate rival Colgate is hoping to build on its semi-finals appearance last season.
Last season, Cornell demonstrated that it could compete with the best teams in the conference. Cornell swept Quinnipiac, split the series with Clarkson and played Harvard close on the road and tied the Crimson at Lynah. The Red’s inconsistency against the ECAC’s lesser teams likely cost it a shot at the Cleary Cup.
“We were near the top of the conference last year,” Schafer said. “Quinnipiac set a good lesson for us – they were dominant against the bottom eight teams in the league… We’ve gotta take that lesson of how hard they play and how consistent they are against everybody. I think the way we’re practicing will give us that mentality.”