Though many fans and pundits alike could scarcely hide their glee at Cornell’s most uncharacteristic first-half flop, the Big Red rose from the mat once more to contend for another heavyweight title. Once 2-4-0 in ECAC play, Cornell played out the remainder of the league docket 9-5-2 to wrest a first-round bye.
“We knew, obviously, going into the year, that losing the players we lost — three [of whom] are in the NHL this year, and one’s playing in an elite league in Switzerland — we knew we were going to have our hands full with the transition,” Cornell coach Mike Schafer said.
In the inevitable void left by grand-but-graduated goaltender Ben Scrivens, the Big Red net has been tended quite effectively by the tandem of junior Mike Garman and freshman (and Ithaca native) Andy Iles. The duo has a combined .917 save percentage and a 2.42 goals-against average, all while splitting time all but down the middle.
“Our goaltending was unproven, but we thought it was good, which it turned out to be. All that special-teams stuff — those [departed] guys dominated over the last few years — that could be an issue, and obviously it was early on. We had to find our way, as any team does in transition. That was a big void to fill.”
Much like Harvard in last week’s column, Schafer points to a pair of losses as the surprising seed of the Big Red’s revival.
“We didn’t play great at the start of the year and we dug ourselves a pretty deep hole. In December, we were in 11th place in the league. Then, obviously, through the months of January and February, we were able to get it going and learn how to win. We lost two really tough games down in Florida, to St. Cloud in overtime and to Maine in overtime, both games that we were leading, and that really stung. We got it going afterwards, and we found out a way to win.”
What’s equally surprising about Cornell’s second-half surge is that the Ithacans actually slipped up in the last weekend of the regular season, losing both road games at Brown and Yale. The evident lack of finish — the absence of what had been the Big Red’s innate killer instinct — didn’t end up costing Cornell the bye, but it did raise some eyebrows.
“We haven’t always been playing great hockey; some nights we’ve been fortunate to win, but inexplicably over our last two weekends we played very, very poorly,” Schafer said. “Maybe the opportunity to clinch a third-place bid is what led to it, or that we were a little dinged up with injuries, but everyone is. The game at Yale was arguably the worst game we’ve played this year. … We weren’t physical, we didn’t stick to any type of system, we were all over the place, we let one of the best transition teams in the country run rampant all over us. It has been up and down, and fortunately for us we had some time to get healthy, get some guys feeling better, and get some jump back in our legs and get a chance to retool before we hit the playoffs.”
That said, “I’m not worried,” he confided. “I told our guys, regardless of how we got in, I’m happy and I’m pleased that we were able to grind it out and find a way to get that home-ice bye. The playoffs are such a different animal. … When we were down in 11th place, our goal was just to climb back, and we did.
“We’ve played poorly at different times of the year, and been able to bounce back and play much better. That’s kind of our season: We’ve overcome adversity, and for our guys, they know how they have to play. It’s whether they’re going to buy in for the playoffs and play the kind of hockey that’s going to bring success in the playoffs. Especially against teams like Union and Yale: We played well against Yale at home I thought, but the other three games against those two opponents, we didn’t even come close to doing the things necessary to control two teams that are very good in transition, very good offensively, and so it’s something that — as we prepare for the playoffs — our goal now is not just to get to Atlantic City; we have to figure out what will give us the best chance at winning the championship.”
Schafer hasn’t spent a second’s time on self-pity. The veteran skipper has sailed these waters before, albeit with a different crew. He knew where the rough waters lay heading into the season, and he knows how treacherous the postseason journey can be.
“It’s no different than every year, what every Division I coach goes through, which is learning how to win,” he explained of his team’s development. “When facing adversity in a game where you give up a lead, or you give up a bad goal, you’re behind, learning — as a team — to overcome that and having the confidence that you are going to overcome it, I think that that was the difference from the first third of the season to the last part.
“We’re far from a perfect team, but with the exception of at Brown, we’ve gotten to overtime, things have been extremely close, and the thing is that we’ve been comfortable in those close games, and that’s the sign of a team that’s learned how to be patient, to be successful, and has learned how to win. That’s where the journey took us in January, was to get that confidence to get into overtime, or when a goal is scored on us we don’t get down. That was a big difference for our hockey team. [In the season opener] we gave up a goal to UNH 15 seconds into the game, and you’d almost think the world came to an end. We definitely got the season off to the wrong start, literally right off the bat on the first shift against UNH, and it’s been a learning process ever since to develop and be comfortable in those tight games.”
Solid as a rock
Of all the runs, slides, streaks and slumps that ECAC teams have experienced this year, it’s almost baffling to consider that the No. 3 team in the conference didn’t really enjoy — or suffer — an exceptionally noteworthy stretch of results. Dartmouth’s longest unbeaten streak this season was four games (4-0-0); its longest losing streak, two games (twice).
The granite of New Hampshire is in their muscles and their brains, indeed.
“Consistency is a huge thing, and that was a focus from the start,” coach Bob Gaudet said. “We give ourselves a chance by working hard — I like the skill level on our team, but I think the biggest skill you can have is work ethic.”
The Big Green haven’t put up much in the way of gaudy numbers — at least, not since junior goalie James Mello’s goals-against average rose above 1.00 — but production has been steady, and defense has been Job One since the get-go.
“The biggest thing is depth,” Gaudet said of his team’s assets. “We had two guys hit the 100-point plateau in the last week of the regular season, in [seniors Adam] Estoclet and [Scott] Fleming, but we haven’t been a team that’s had to rely on one line or just a handful of players to carry the load. We’ve been able to have changes in our lineup and make them relatively seamlessly.”
The even-keeled, reliably resilient team has been its own perpetual motion machine, deriving all the energy and resources it needs from within.
“We have some guys who are wearing letters, in Fleming, Estoclet, [seniors Joe] Stejskal and [Evan] Stephens, but we also have guys like Robby Smith — a fifth-year senior who was injured for a full year two years ago — who came back and is having a phenomenal year,” said Gaudet. “He does everything well, and is doing a super job of leading without the letter. There are other guys, older guys, whether they are juniors or seniors, who have done a really great job. There are young guys who are doing their jobs, like [rookies Eric] Robinson, [Taylor] Boldt, and [Matt] Lindblad obviously, that are really good young players. This is an interesting team, leadership-wise, because we have a lot of guys who have stepped to the forefront. I look to those guys wearing the letters, though — they lead by example every day.”
Some have pointed out that Mello’s numbers were significantly — if not critically — worse in the second half of the season, but his coach doesn’t see much cause for alarm.
“I think it’s just the ebb and flow of the season,” he said. “James has done a really good job for us, consistently giving us an opportunity game in and game out. We have a lot of faith in him. If he’s dropped off a little in the second half, it’s not due to anything I can put my finger on — I think it’s just ebbs and flows and cycles during the course of the season. You battle through things.
“James is the calmest goaltender that I’ve ever been around. He’s unflappable. He’ll be the first to admit when he should’ve had a puck, but he typically has the next one. If he has a game that he’s not completely pleased with, if you look at his body of work, his next game tends to be really, really good. He’s one of those guys that has a short memory. He goes out and he plays, and if a bad one goes in, he gets ready for the next one, and if he makes a good save, he just gets ready for the next one. I really admire that, because I played the position: His ability to just take things in stride is phenomenal to me. I wish I had that attitude,” the coach laughed.
Now working just as hard studying for finals as preparing for archrival Harvard, the Big Green are feeling confident about the state of their team.
“The last couple weekends, in terms of W’s, weren’t exactly what we wanted (1-3-0 in their final four regular-season games),” Gaudet admitted, “but in terms of how we played and how hard we played I really liked our effort and energy. We put ourselves in a good position.
“We’re not where we want to be completely, as a team. I think we have another gear, but I’m pleased that the guys put themselves in a good position through the regular season, and now my hope is that we can reach that next gear.”
More to come!
Check out the weekend-picks blog entry on Friday for my analysis of this weekend’s quarterfinal series.