Men’s hockey will start its 2022-2023 season this weekend in Duluth, Minnesota to face No. 19 Minnesota Duluth.
The opening weekend trip will be one of Cornell’s marquee matchups this season. Minnesota Duluth has won three national championships since 2011 and has established itself as one of college hockey’s blue chip programs.
“They’re a great hockey team,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86. “They’ve got great talent, great coaching and great culture.”
The Bulldogs (2-4), will be a tough test for the Red in its first action since March. Minnesota Duluth started its season three weeks ago, and has already played six games.
Despite opening its season ranked No. 4 and with Frozen Four ambitions, the Bulldogs have stumbled out of the gate. After sweeping Arizona State at home to start the season, Duluth was swept on the road against No. 5 Minnesota State and then was swept at home against unranked Wisconsin.
“I know if we got swept at home, doesn’t matter by who, I know how we’d come out and play the following weekend,” Schafer said. “I’d expect nothing less from them.”
The Bulldogs’ offense has dried up during their four game skid, with just three goals over the four losses. Still, Duluth has averaged nearly 32 shots per game, so keeping the Bulldog’s out of their end of the ice and clogging shooting lanes will be a priority for the Red.
Cornell will be poised to take advantage of the special teams battle. Eight of the 19 goals the Bulldogs have conceded in the young season have come on the penalty kill, and the Bulldogs are allowing opponents to convert a third of the time on power plays. This weekend will be the first real action of the season for Cornell’s experienced power play units after success on the power play in the team’s two exhibitions.
Minnesota Duluth’s recent losses should not be a reason to underestimate the Bulldogs, who have fallen to 19 on this week’s USCHO.com rankings, one spot ahead of Cornell. A pair of road games against a team with six games under its belt will be somewhat of a measuring stick for this untested Cornell team.
“You travel on the road, you’ve got to play a different style of hockey. I don’t mind going on the road, especially early in the year because you really see what you have,” Schafer said. “How we overcome adversity, how we’re going to handle visiting team crowds, stuff like that is what I’m looking forward to seeing.”
Last season, the Red went into an NCHC barn – if North Dakota’s state of the art, 11,000 seat arena qualifies as a barn – and swept one of college hockey’s elite programs. The series with Minnesota Duluth in the 6,700 seat Amsoil Arena is likely to be a similar environment, and similar challenge, this weekend.
“I mean, just knowing that we can play in a big rink against a big program like Minnesota Duluth, like North Dakota, they’ll have some confidence,” Schafer said. “But it’s a new year.”
The pair of games will have heightened importance as two of just seven non-conference games on Cornell’s schedule this season and seven against preseason top-20 teams (though UConn, who Cornell will face at Madison Square Garden in November, has climbed into the top-20 early on).
The important and challenging opening matchup has created an extra sense of urgency for the Red during training camp.
“We always try to make sure that we’re as ready as we can be for the first weekend,” said senior forward Matt Stienburg. “But I think it’s in the back of everybody’s mind that we’re going into Minnesota Duluth and they have a great team year after year and it’s a tough place to win.”
Cornell’s next win will be the 500th of Schafer’s coaching career. Schafer seemed poised to reach the milestone last season, but Cornell’s second half struggles and game three loss to Colgate in the ECAC quarterfinals left him sitting on 499.
Schafer expects to have depth back at the forward position this weekend. Freshman forward Dalton Bancroft and sophomore forward Kyler Kovich missed the final exhibitions with injuries, but both will be available. Junior forward Gabe Seger has been given the all clear by the NCAA after an eligibility delay related to his transfer from Union.
Minnesota Duluth’s freshman forward Isaac Howard, a first round NHL draft pick in 2022, will miss the series after receiving a suspension from the NCHC for cross-checking last weekend.
The weekend will be somewhat of a homecoming for Minnesota native Sam Malinski. The co-captain grew up closer to other programs like St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and the University of Minnesota, but he estimated that 25 or 30 family and friends will make the trip to Duluth.
Minnesota Duluth is a tough opening matchup. The six games the Bulldogs have under their belts will be an advantage for them, and they should come out hot after an embarrassing weekend against Wisconsin. Still, their recent struggles indicate they aren’t as infallible as they may have seemed when this matchup was announced over the summer. This will be our first real look at this Cornell team, but after a strong preseason there’s no reason to believe the Red can’t at least split this series.