Riding a four-game win streak, including an overtime win over then No. 3 Quinnipiac on Saturday, Jan. 20, Cornell men’s hockey (10-4-3, 5-4-1 ECAC) will travel to New England to face Harvard (3-11-3, 3-6-3 ECAC) and Dartmouth (5-7-6, 3-4-4 ECAC).
As February nears, each weekend holds more and more weight for Cornell. Early season slip-ups have crafted a path of must-win contests for Cornell. Cornell currently sits in sixth place in the ECAC with 17 points in 10 games played, but the ECAC standings aren’t exactly representative of play thus far. Cornell has played as many as three fewer conference games than those above them in the standings.
“[The points] are huge. Obviously, on the road at this point in the year, every weekend is kind of like a playoff weekend,” said junior forward Jack O’Leary.
Clarkson (20 points in ten games played) and Colgate (18 points in ten games played) are the most comparable to the Red in terms of positional standing, as other teams in the top five have played upward of twelve games. Clarkson has only played teams in the bottom half of the ECAC and still has two upcoming games each against Quinnipiac, Cornell and Colgate. Colgate has the same conference record as Cornell (5-4-1) but has one more regulation win than the Red, giving the Raiders the edge in points.
As such, Cornell has been off to a strong start in the new year, looking to right the ship and avenge its previous first-half falters. Losses to Harvard, Princeton and Colgate in November and December dealt Cornell a tough road back to the top of the ECAC, as well as a severe blow in the PairWise rankings.
“I’m looking forward to the Harvard game. There was a huge buildup for the last one, and it didn’t go the way we wanted,” said freshman forward Jonathan Castagna, fresh off an ECAC Rookie of the Week honor.
Heading to Lynah East, the newly-minted No. 13 Red will seek revenge on its contentious rival. Cornell last faced Harvard this season on Nov. 11, where the Crimson handed the Red its first loss of the season. It was also Harvard’s first win of the season after beginning the season 0-1-3. Since then, the Crimson has only mustered two more wins, including a string of nine straight losses.
“No games in this league are easy. But if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll be fine,” Castagna said in reference to the upcoming Harvard game.
This season’s loss against Harvard was spotlighted by special teams struggles, particularly on the power play. The Red went 0-5 in the game on Nov. 11, even with a 5-on-3 opportunity. More recently, Cornell notched a power play goal in its recent 3-2 overtime upset of Quinnipiac on Saturday, Jan. 20, its first extra-man tally in nearly 11 periods of play.
“We have a lot of things we can improve on. Our special teams have to get better,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86.
On the other end of the ice, Harvard’s power play has been particularly lethal as of late, with power-play goals in each of its last seven games (nine goals total). Despite its record, this Harvard team is more than meets the eye.
“You know, we’re gonna have our hands full again with the offense that Harvard has, and with Ryan Healey and a couple [of] others,” Schafer said, referring to Harvard’s leading scorer, Healey, who has amassed 16 points in 17 games played as a defenseman.
This year’s team is different from the one that suffered a 6-2 defeat at Bright-Landry last year. Cornell’s most recent series against Princeton and Quinnipiac was trademarked by a lineup consisting of nine first-years, including four defensemen. And while, for other programs, it might seem abnormal to instill so much trust in its freshmen, Cornell doesn’t falter.
“I think they’re past being freshmen here. They’ve already played [Boston University], Arizona State, Quinnipiac and [at] other places, and they’ve learned their lessons… and that’s what you want in your freshman group,” Schafer said.
Sophomore and junior defensemen Jack O’Brien and Michael Suda have missed the last couple of games with upper body injuries, allowing freshman defenseman Marian Mosko to slot into the lineup as of late. Mosko is coming off a stint with team Slovakia at the 2024 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship.
However, Schafer suggested that one of the two d-men have practiced and should slot back into the lineup come Friday and Saturday.
On Saturday, the Red will face the Big Green, another matchup not to be taken lightly after
Cornell narrowly snuck past Dartmouth with a 2-2 tie on Nov. 10. Cornell got the extra ECAC point by overcoming the Big Green in a shootout.
Dartmouth’s biggest asset comes from between the pipes –– Cooper Black, a 6’8”, 240-pound sophomore, has been a catalyst for Dartmouth’s resurge over the last two years. Black has allowed two or fewer goals in eight of his eleven games this year, amounting to a 5-5-6 record.
“You’ve got to have people right in front of him, and you’ve got to have sticks around him,” Schafer said. “We need to shoot for sticks, for rebounds, and you have to find spots to get through them and not hesitate, just because he’s so big.”
There are a couple of keys to success this weekend: Cornell, along with continuing its stifling defensive play, will look to capitalize offensively on a pair of teams with permeable structures and occasional defensive lapses –– no Harvard goaltender has accumulated a save percentage above .900 in any game it’s played so far. Conversely, Dartmouth has the worst scoring offense in the country at 2.22 goals scored per game on average.
Cornell has seen success on the road, with a 5-2 record this season. While Dartmouth and Harvard present vivid atmospheres for the Red, Schafer and his staff are all but worried –– the young team has matured immensely, largely attributable to the Red’s tough out-of-conference tests and buy-in mentality.
“We’re a different team than we were before the break,” Schafer said. “You could ask our players about the things we’re working on and the results we’re getting, and they can verbalize the things we’re practicing and why we’re getting better. It’s always good as a coach that you’re seeing that transition from practice to games.”
Puck drop is slated for 7 p.m. on Friday against Harvard and the same time the next night against Dartmouth. Both games will be streamed on ESPN+.