While the roster is similar – actually, almost identical – the goal is that the result is not.
There is no shortage of talent on the 2016-17 Cornell University men’s hockey roster and those at Lynah Rink know it.
The Big Red return all five of its top scorers and all but one of its nine defensemen. They still have top-notch goaltender, Mitch Gillam, who again is named to the Mike Richter Award watch list for the best goaltender in Division I hockey.
As senior Patrick McCarron put it in regards to specifically his defensive unit, “It’s really an eight guys helping one kind of thing.”
With all of that returning talent, there’s a lot of expectations on the group. The most pressing: that the team won’t drop off late in the season as it did last year.
The Big Red had a strong start, but in a three-week span in late January the team failed to get a victory, going 0-5-2 in a return to Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) play after the holiday break.
“I think that we fell off the pace. You can go back and dissect; there’s a lot of things that occurred in that time when we fell off,” head coach Mike Schafer said during media day last week.
The streak included three overtime games, two of which were back-to-back 1-2 losses to St. Lawrence and Quinnipiac. Then No. 1-ranked Quinnipiac ended Cornell’s season in the ECAC quarterfinals, winning two games to one in the series before going on to finish as national runner-up.
“I thought we righted the ship a little bit too late going down the stretch drive,” Shafer said. “But I think there was a statistic that came out in the summer that over the last six years, seven years, we are one of the top eight programs in the country as far as our NCAA ranking.”
At 16-11-7, Cornell was on the bubble and narrowly missed an at-large berth in NCAA tournament. It will look to make it back to the dance on ice for the 20th time this year, a place it hasn’t been since 2012.
“We don’t want to be that team (that just misses) this year, so that means one extra win, one extra tie,” Shafer said. “But, you know, these guys got to understand that importance because they are an experienced group, they understand that it takes one tie and it knocks you out.”
The five top returning scorers are led by senior Jeff Kubiak, who more than doubled his point total from his first two years by scoring 27. Kubiak is part of the “JAM” line, flanked by sophomore wingers Anthony Angello and Mitch Vanderlaan.
“I think everyone has had a lot of fun,” said Kubiak, an alternate captain who will likely miss the first two to four weeks with an injury. “We’re getting to mix up a lot of guys through the captain skates here through the preseason. Obviously we hope we play together some more and (that) the chemistry is there to start the year off.”
Angello is one of the best freshman goal-scorers in Shafer’s 21 years as CU head coach, putting 11 in the back of the net last year. He had 24 points, second on the team, and Vanderlaan had 19, good for third.
Sophomore Alec McCrea and senior Jake Weidner, who will wear the captain’s C this season, round out the top five with 15 points each.
The 6-foot-2 Weidner led the team in faceoffs the previous two seasons and will look to lead the Big Red in work ethic.
“We may have gotten ahead of ourselves a little bit too much last year after going on that hot start,” he said. “I think we’re going to need to be ready for every single opponent each night to be more consistent.”
“We laid the foundation last year and you can start to build off of things a little more than you could last year,” said alternate captain, McCarron, who played in all 34 games last year. “We kind of lost ourselves for a bit there, but coach did a great job of getting back on track.”
In net as a strong last line of defense, Gillam posted the third-longest shutout streak in program history by keeping opponents scoreless for 213:17 minutes in November. The senior had seven shutouts, tied for third-most in the country and in a single season in Cornell history.
“We’ve talked about taking that one extra step, you know, to carry us from being a good team to a great team,” Shafer said. “He kind of shoulders that responsibility, but at the same time (junior) Hayden (Stewart) had a great summer too and so it’s not just turning the reigns over to him automatically, it’s just like everybody else: the two of them have to battle.”
Gillam started all 34 games, averaging 2.16 goals against with a .926 save percentage.
“Mitch has obviously got a hold on that position right now and he’s got to show that he’s going to keep it and move forward because Hayden’s breathing right down his neck,” Shafer said.
Five freshmen will also look to make an impact, led by British Columbia Hockey League first-team all-star Yanni Kaldis. The defenseman had nine goals and 54 assist for 63 points over 58 games and led the league in power-play assists with 35.
Cornell begins its season Friday, Oct. 21 with a home exhibition against the University of Ontario Institute of Technology at Lynah Rink, 7 p.m. It will play another exhibition Saturday night against Brock University before beginning the regular season with five road games against Ivy League competition.
The Big Red return home Nov. 18 for a rematch against Quinnipiac, ranked third in the nation in the USA Today and the USCHO.com preseason polls.