Nearly a full year had gone by since the Cornell University men’s ice hockey team last stood atop the mountain known as Division I men’s hockey. The Big Red began this season ranked as the fifth best team in the nation, and after rattling of 10 consecutive wins at the get go, the squad appeared poised to retake the throne. On Jan. 13, with its record standing at 12–1–2, Cornell at last completed its ascension up the polls, earning the top spot in the country in both the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll. (Cornell was originally tied with University of North Dakota for number one in the US College Hockey Online poll, but has since broken out of that tie.)
“Last year we were ranked number one, but last year it lasted six days,” head coach Mike Schafer said. “I think our guys learned a lesson on that the previous year. It’s really nice – it’s nice for media, it’s nice for alumni – it’s nice for everything, but I don’t think inside the locker room the meaning and the purpose of it hasn’t really registered with our guys.”
This past Friday, the team was greeted jubilantly by the Big Red diehards when it returned to Lynah Rink to play its first match while holding the number one ranking. Though they settled for a 2–2 draw in the first of two games against then-17th ranked Northern Michigan University that night, the Big Red declawed the Wildcats in a 3–1 victory the following night, improving their record to 13–1–3 and broadening their unbeaten streak to six straight matches.
The team is now gearing up for two hefty home games on back to back nights: Friday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. at Lynah Rink against Dartmouth University, who owns the loan triumph over Cornell this year, and at the same time and place on Saturday against Harvard University, one of the most storied rivalries in college hockey lore. Cornell’s already beaten Harvard once this season.
Cornell’s defensive unit has been stout thus far this season, as the team is ranked second in the country in scoring defense, averaging 1.47 goals allowed per contest. Junior Goaltender Matthew Galajda gives up on average the second-fewest amount of goals in Division I men’s ice hockey at 1.46. Galajda’s .940 save percentage ranks third-best nationwide as well.
“I think the biggest thing for me is just being more calm, playing more composed,” Galajda said. “I think in year’s past I’d try to chase a play, and I think one thing that I focused on this year is just letting the play come to me and I think that’s been a big benefit to me this year.”
Senior defenseman Yanni Kaldis said the rest of the squad has provided the necessary padding to not put all of the pressure on Galajda as well.
“I think everyone is just playing their own game,” Kaldis said. “They’re not trying to be someone they’re not. Obviously, we have good defensemen. But it’s also our forwards that are helping out a lot. We have good defensive forwards that aren’t getting the credit that they deserve on the scoresheet.”
“We have players in particular that are matched up against the other team’s top line, and I think so far throughout this year we’ve really limited the other team’s top line, their best players, [from scoring] goals against us. I think that’s what they do best – they shut them out.”
Schafer said one aspect of the team this season that has gone unnoticed on both sides of the puck is its discipline in terms of committing penalties. Cornell has only been able to kill 76.36 percent of its penalties so far, but the squad has only committed 55 penalties in 17 matches.
“We haven’t had to kill a lot of penalties this year, and I think it’s, with the exception of one game against Providence, I think we’ve had more power play opportunities than we’ve had to kill,” he said.
Senior forward Morgan Barron has been the Big Red’s top threat offensively in the 2019–2020 season. Barron leads the team in points with 20 and is tied for 20th in the country in points per game with 1.18. He has also scored a team-high nine goals on the season and is one assist behind junior forward Cam Donaldson for the team lead in assists with 11.
“I just think he’s got a little bit more of a step offensively,” Schafer said. “Just little things on the power play that he continues to get better at. Changing speeds he’s gotten a little better at. Using guys around him he’s getting a little better at. He’s just someone that continues to progress as a player.”
Cornell has the seventh-highest scoring offense in the country at the moment, average 3.53 goals per game. While he is enjoying a successful season so far, Barron said the team as a whole has taken leaps offensively.
“Up and down our roster, I think the numbers have been good for everybody,” Barron said. “That makes it a lot easier when the puck is going in the net. When the team is winning that helps a lot, too.”
Junior forward Brenden Locke has been one of the most reliable players for the Big Red, according to Schafer. Locke has the second-most points on the team (17), third-most goals (seven) and fourth-most assists (10).
“I think he’s been more consistent from back-to-back nights, and that’s something that we harped on our team after the big Harvard win, that some of our games on the Saturday haven’t been as complete as we’d like to see,” Schafer said.
If the Big Red want to retain their position as top dogs of Division I men’s ice hockey, Schafer said the team is going to need to refine certain aspects of the game moving forward.
“Definitely, we need to improve our penalty kill,” Schafer said. “But all aspects of our game, we’re trying to get better … playing faster, playing with more poise and, something that we work practice all the time, getting more detailed in our faceoffs … who do we have offensively, where are we going offensively, those are just the little things we keep tweaking that we want to get better at.”
He also said some improvements can be made at the individual level as well.
“We have eight freshmen, and we think a lot of those guys can get better from here until the end of the year,” he said. “We think there’s some guys that can play better. There’s some team things that we could do better. We definitely haven’t reached our potential yet.”