Transition defense an improvement area for tested Cornell

One of the first things anyone looks for from Cornell is, paradoxically, its opposition. This year’s schedule doesn’t disappoint, as five of the Big Red’s seven non-conference opponents played in the NCAA tournament last spring.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity not just for our team but for our league,” coach Mike Schafer said.

The table includes tilts against Michigan (at Madison Square Garden, no less), Ferris State, Denver, either Maine or Minnesota-Duluth and a season-opening deuce at home against Colorado College — the only non-tourney team on the Red’s non-league docket.

Within the program itself, Schafer is looking to the team to make major strides in its commitment to defense — not a statement you’d expect to hear from one of the most defensively savvy coaches in the game. He feels that junior goalie Andy Iles was better than his numbers last year, and that the discrepancy lay in the hands of lax or poorly managed defense-in-transition.

“We can help [Iles] improve. There were games last year where I didn’t feel we played very well defensively in front of him,” Schafer said. “It was a little bit of a learning process. To combine that offensive flair with playing solid defense, that’s probably the biggest challenge we had as a young team.

“We have good offensive guys, but to do that responsibly … there were times last year where I felt we left Andy hanging out to dry.”

Despite the growl of firepower up front, goaltending is still a focal point in Ithaca, where generations of peerless pipe-tenders have made Cornell hockey’s version of Southern California’s “Tailback U.” Maybe call the school “Goalie U.”

“He’s obviously the most different goaltender I’ve had, as he’s only 5-[foot-]8,” Schafer said. “Most guys have been 6-1 or 6-2 or 6-3, but at the same time he ranks right up there because at the point of the shot, Andy is out there and he’s square and he’s set. That’s the challenge for goaltenders, is to be in those three spots, getting there, and Andy can do that. He ranks right up there. He was the most consistent goaltender — last year, start to finish — of any goaltender I’ve had here.”

Beyond the crease, Cornell will look to rested and recovered forwards John Esposito (senior) and Brian Ferlin (sophomore) to help pick up the slack left by departed striker Sean Collins. Schafer’s incoming class is beastly, with three of the five newcomers topping 6-foot-3. Defensemen Gavin Stoick (6-3) and Flyers prospect Reece Willcox (6-4) will cause some commotion on the blue line, while monster forward Christian Hilbrich (6-6, 208) will only become more monstrous once strength and conditioning coach Tom Howley gets after him.

About the Big Red

2011-12 overall record: 19-9-7

2011-12 ECAC record: 12-4-6 (second)

2012-13 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Second

Key losses: F Sean Collins, F Locke Jillson, D Sean Whitney

Players to watch: D Nick D’Agostino, F Greg Miller, G Andy Iles, F Dustin Mowrey, F Brian Ferlin

Impact rookies: F Christian Hilbrich, D Reece Willcox

Why the Big Red will finish higher than the coaches’ poll: Iles will have his best season yet, and the team will take great steps forward in the transition game leading to more responsible defense without a drop in offensive capability.

Why the Big Red will finish lower than the coaches’ poll: Lapses and injuries haunt the Big Red, keeping the team from ever quite jelling and limiting Iles’ numbers to the mediocre range.