ITHACA, N.Y. — If they didn’t know already, it didn’t take long for Cornell to realize this year would be very different than last. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.
After all, Cornell didn’t allow more than two goals in a game at home last season, a season which it went 15-0 at Lynah Rink. The Big Red only allowed more than three goals in a game one time all season — five against Dartmouth, which included two empty netters.
So when Western Michigan took a 5-3 lead midway through the second period of Cornell’s season opener Friday night, it was a strange experience for the Big Red. The Big Red eventually came back to tie in the last minute, and the teams settled for a 5-5 final. It was different, it was exciting, but it was an experience that Cornell coach Mike Scahfer was vowing to never let happen again.
“I’m really disappointed with our mentality going into the game,” Schafer said. “I don’t know if that’s new guys in new roles, or it’s young guys trying to press, or what it was, but it will definitely be changed very quickly.
“I knew there was going to be a transition period, but the biggest disappointment is, I couldn’t believe our team would go in cheating on offense and not doing all the things that have been a staple of our program, and that’s defense first. We did it on the forecheck, we did it on scrums along the boards, we cheated on the offense side and it’s just not going to happen anymore.”
Coming off a trip to the Frozen Four, Cornell lost three stalwart defenseman and a Hobey Baker finalist goaltender. In their stead were two freshman and an inexperienced sophomore on defense, and a freshman goaltender who two months ago was still figuring he’d be back with the Texas Tornado in junior.
Given that Cornell was playing Western Michigan, a team known for its speed and its ability to score in transition, it made for the type of wide-open affair Big Red fans were not accustomed to.
The Broncos took a 5-3 lead with three straight goals in a 4:35 span of the second period. First freshman defenseman Ryan Marhrle faked out the Cornell defense with a left-wing move, and put it past a helpless Cornell goalie David McKee. Then Western Michigan scored a power-play goal from Brent Walton after Ryan Vesce stumbled at the blue line, and Walton followed it less than two minutes later with a wrister over the left arm of McKee.
“Ryan Vesce falls down, he hasn’t fell down and given up the puck like that in the three years he’s been here,” Schafer said. “They’re a great transition team and they capitalize on mistakes.
“Our team left [McKee] out to dry on numerous chances. … I told our guys, ‘There are things you’ll do tonight that you’ll never do again the rest of the year.’ And that’s how you learn.”
Cornell came out guns blazing in the third period, and picked up an early goal when freshman Byron Bitz picked up a loose puck in front and roofed a backhander. It was his second goal of the night in his first career game.
Cornell controlled most of the third period territorially, though the Broncos got some good scoring chances as well. But McKee had settled in nicely at that point, and the defense limited the open shots in the third.
That allowed Cornell to score the tying goal with the extra attacker, off a wild scramble in the closing minute. Chris Abbott lifted the puck from behind the net towards the front, and it deflected towards the crease. Broncos goalie Scott Foster appeared to have his glove on it, but somehow it trickled under his legs as the net was being lifted from the back. Referee Alex Dell ruled that the puck went in before the net came off, and somehow, Matt Moulson (1-3–4) was credited with the score.
“I expected them to come back in the third,” Schafer said. “That’s to be expected with the character we have in the locker room that they would bear down and get the job done. But we have to get back to square one with how this hockey team approaches a game.”
Cornell had a power play in overtime, on a holding called by the assistant referee behind the play. But it could not convert, as both teams had good chances in the closing minutes of the extra session.
Western Michigan took advantage of an early power play to take a 1-0 lead on a slapper by Mike Jarmuth. Cornell came back to tie when Mike Knoepfli blocked a shot, then took it end-to-end and beat Foster.
Vesce coming off a 19-goal campaign for the Big Red, picked up a power-play goal to give Cornell a 2-1 lead. For the night, Cornell was 1-for-6 on the power play, while allowing 2-for-5 for WMU. That will be another area of transition for the Big Red, who were used to dominating special teams last season. But this year, four-fifths of its dominant top unit have graduated, leaving Vesce with a batch of four talented, but raw, power-play mates.
The Broncos tied it before the period was out, and Bitz made it 3-2 Cornell with an early goal in the second, before the three unanswered by the Broncos turned it back around.
It was the kind of sloppiness you’d expect from a young and very talented freshman class, and from a team that was playing in its first game of the season compared to Western Michigan’s seventh. But it was nevertheless the kind of sloppiness that Schafer will not tolerate heading into Saturday night’s rematch.
“It wasn’t a great way to start the season … it was just chaos. There was guys trying to make reads off people who were doing things right, and there were other guys not doing things right. And against that team, you saw, they have great transitional offense. They’ve got guys who can put the puck in the back of the net, and that’s definitely the wrong approach against a team with as much offensive skill as they have.”
“It will change overnight, without question.”