Cornell is not the only team dealing with a constant deluge of strangeness these days, but it’s certainly a glimmering example.
After having a season shut down just before the postseason while rated No. 1, having to take a year off from playing and squashing any chance at making another run, losing your No. 1 goaltender, and trying to integrate two classes of 14 players into college hockey — Cornell was doing pretty well so far this season, all things considered.
Then Omicron came along, and knocked the Big Red down a peg.
Again, Cornell is certainly not the only one dealing with this, but it came at an unfortunate time. Right after blowing a four-goal lead to Clarkson on the road with five minutes left (and losing in a shootout), Cornell went on its exam break before two huge road trips to Arizona State and North Dakota. Those trips would define the season, in a way, with big Pairwise implications, and show whether Cornell was going to be able to sustain a push to another NCAA Tournament berth.
But because of the virus, Cornell was unable to practice much, if at all, during the exam break, and went to Arizona State cold. The rust showed in two losses.
So the Big Red licked their wounds, and then faced the task of heading to North Dakota, desperate to turn around their fortunes.
And it would do so while still juggling its goalie situation, playing a freshman that never started a game before.
And then they went down 3-1 in the third period of Friday’s game.
So all that happened next is Cornell came back with three straight goals to win Friday, overcame a 1-0 deficit Saturday, and went on to become the first ECAC team to ever sweep North Dakota in its home building. Cornell won with two of its top scorers — Matt Stienberg and Ben Berard — still out of the lineup, but did it by getting back to Cornell basics.
“We knew they didn’t give up much defensively. It’s the age-old answer to beating good teams, get pucks to the net quick and be around the net for tips, deflections and rebounds,” Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. “We want to create chances with that type of play. Some nights that works some nights that doesn’t.”
Schafer himself missed Saturday’s game, forced to sit back at the hotel because of his own COVID issues. He will also miss the team’s upcoming trip to Yale and Brown (note, the Yale game has since been postponed). Half the team was shut down before the ASU series. Coaches hate to make excuses, but facts are facts.
“Guys were gassed coming off of COVID,” Schafer said, noting that there are a lot of strange results every weekend in college hockey because of all the players constantly in and out of the lineup. “No one knows what the other team is going through. No one is going to say they’re out of shape. But you have to assume everyone is going through different things at different times. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not going to be said in the media. Even my own self, going through it, I don’t know how (the players are) going through it, I’m gassed and I’m doing nothing but sitting in a room.”
Though Cornell got off to a good start, relatively speaking, its hallmark — goaltending — was still working itself out. With three goalies on the roster, including two freshmen, the Big Red started the year leaning more on freshman Joe Howe. Then it was senior Nate McDonald, getting his first crack at major playing time and writing a tremendous story through 55 minutes of the Clarkson game in early December.
When things didn’t start out too well in Arizona, Schafer made a move to the other freshman, Ian Shane, who had yet to see any college action.
Against North Dakota, he allowed four goals on 55 shots, including 32-of-33 in Saturday’s 3-1 win, and demonstrated poise and a solid glove hand.
“The other guys looked more consistent in practice (to start the season), but practice is a weird animal,” Schafer said. “His game was getting sharper, but we were winning with those other guys. … But when we went down 3-0 at Arizona State, I’d seen the other guys and hadn’t seen (Shane) in a game situation. We threw him in there and just like any other athlete, he capitalized. We’re fortunate in facing adveristy that we found out somehting about him.”
In both games, Cornell had to face late-game situations with the other team’s net empty, preserving a win. Twice before this season, Cornell had collapsed in that situation, once at Dartmouth (though it rallied to win the game in regulation, crazily), and once at Clarkson, when the Knights scored three extra-attacker goals. And North Dakota coach Brad Berry is one of those guys who likes to pull his goalie sooner than later.
“That can happen to you, you can be nervous after the second time that happens,” Schafer said. “We gave up somes chances, but our goalie made saves and we blocked some shots. We changed some things. I took responsibility (after Clarkson). We tried something different and it didn’t work.”
Schafer mentioned that he was playing it more like a penalty kill, with defensemen collapsed down low. But they needed to make it a more straight up defensive structure.
“We went back to doing our normal D-zone system, so that the whole team knows what’s going on rather than relying on just two different units (like a penalty kill),” Schafer said. “That was an oversight as a coach. You’ve got to have everybody on the team knowing what’s going on now, because teams pull their goalie so much earlier than they used to. We learned from it.”
Offensively, things have been going probably better than anyone would’ve expected so far this season, with the team near 4 goals per game. One of the highlights has been the emergence of freshman Ondrej Psenicka, a 6-foot-5 presence from Prague, who played in Waterloo of the USHL last season. He has 7 goals and 10 points in 15 games and is second on the team in plus-minus with a plus-12.
Psenicka assisted on two third-period goals in Friday’s comeback, and scored the game winner Saturday.
“He’s fit in from day one,” Schafer said. “His hockey sense allowed him to understand how to play, and he’s got really good hands for his size, so with that reach, he’s in position a lot and can use that reach. He’s also figured out how to be around the net, and he’s scored a lot of his goals on rebounds and deflections and using reach to his advantage. He’s a really good penalty killer. He’s around the net on the power play, and he’s good defensively. His hockey sense fits into our style really well. He plays well with linemates, he doesn’t waste other guys’ time. He can still be more physical but he does a good job getting his stick down and getting turnovers that way.
“True hockey sense in all situations is the hardest thing to know about a player. You don’t really know what you have until you see him (in college games). I didn’t know the true extent. You try to understand it by watching video, but in recruiting you get fooled — some kids show more hockey sense, or some have a lot less than you thought.”
All of this has Cornell back on track, sitting at No. 14 in the Pairwise going into the weekend. It still has a lot of work ahead to secure another NCAA Tournament bid, and it’s going to take time to be No. 1 again, like it was in March 2020.
But Cornell is Cornell again, and isn’t going anywhere. That has to at least be comforting in these crazy times.