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College Hockey:
Defense, goaltending again in spotlight for Cornell

Last year

Another year, another strong run out of Cornell.

The Big Red won five of its first six games and never looked back en route to its second straight 20-win season, and the first with a single-digit loss total since 2005-06. Senior netminder Ben Scrivens took home the Dryden Award as the league’s top goalie, and with little surprise — the Red allowed 15 fewer league goals (43) than ECAC Hockey’s second-best defense (Rensselaer, with 58).

Cornell then sliced through Harvard, Brown and Union to win the conference tournament in Albany, but upon returning to the same sheet six days later, found a vastly different result in the form of a 6-2 NCAA tourney throttling by New Hampshire.

Another year, another summer of “what if” in Ithaca.

The assets

It’s Mike Schafer’s Big Red wrecking crew. They’re gonna make you pay.

Regardless of personnel, Cornell will always be a solid defensive team. The program may have parted ways with Justin Krueger (plus-17), Brendon Nash (18 points in 33 games) and Scrivens (1.87 goals-against average, .934 save percentage), but trust me, Cornell will once again be among the league leaders in stinginess.

“I think our goaltending and our defense are going to be our greatest strengths initially, in the sense that five guys back and two pretty good freshmen on defense … we expect them to be very, very mobile,” said Schafer, who promptly dispelled any notion of a goaltending letdown.

“Mike Garman is probably one of the best-kept secrets in college hockey,” he said of the junior, no longer waiting in the wings. “He’s improved dramatically over the course of two years, but he also had a great starting point: He was able to beat out [last year's Denver star] Marc Cheverie for a job in junior hockey, and since then, he’s improved a tremendous amount. [With local frosh Andy Iles], I believe we have one of the best goalie tandems in the country, but we obviously haven’t had the chance to prove it because of Ben Scrivens.”

The weak links

There is no question that for as strong and consistent as Cornell is as a program, it lost a nautical ton of talent this summer. Much of the void will be felt up front, where the team’s top three scorers — and their 43 goals — disappeared with the late-winter frost.

“We have a lot of guys who are capable of offensive production, but have never really been put in that role or been depended on for that role,” Schafer said. “Guys like Locke Jillson, John Esposito, Patrick Kennedy, Joe Devin, Sean Collins — you go through a bunch of guys that are proven offensive guys, as far as you see in practice … that they can score and make plays, but in a critical aspect of a game when you’re down a goal, or you need a goal, or your power play is out and the pressure’s on them to score, they have to rise to that occasion and they’re all excited because it’s a great opportunity for them. But as a coach, you’re excited to see which one of those guys, or which group of those guys are going to step forward and capitalize on that opportunity and become an offensive leader for us.”

The trio of Riley Nash, Blake Gallagher and Colin Greening also embodied a three-year run of quality power-play performance, one that tallied 20 of Cornell’s 32 PPGs last year.

“We don’t have a seasoned power play,” Schafer said.

That’s another reason why it all comes down to defense in western New York.

“You have to be solid defensively no matter what, because in times like these when you’re waiting for your new guys to prove themselves offensively, you can still win,” Schafer said. “It’s a building block of having good success, but at the same time when … you’re waiting for those guys to grow up, waiting for those guys to mature, to show more poise offensively, you can still win by being really solid defensively.”

Prediction

Never, ever bet against the Big Red. It may look like a down year on paper, but it will still be in the mix for a bye when March rolls around. It may not get it, but it’ll be scratching and clawing, the big bear’s breath hot on the heels of anyone ahead of him.


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