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Home cooking keeps Cornell goalie clicking

by Bob Snow
Cornell goaltender Andy Iles (pronounced "Isles") wanted to go away to college to develop his trade of protecting the 24 square feet of prized real estate in every hockey program.

Just how far away did he go?

Don't count on the Iles family racking up many frequent-flyer miles or Marriott points, given Iles' final decision two years ago about his NCAA landing site.

"My house is 8-10 minutes from campus," Iles told Sunday night after dinner with his folks. "Grew up here in Ithaca."

December Players of the Month

University of Maine forward Spencer Abbott, who led the nation with 15 points in December, is the Hockey Commissioners' Association National Division I Player of the Month for December.

A 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior from Hamilton, Ontario, Abbott scored 6 goals and added 9 assists, averaging 1.2 goals and 3 points per contest in leading Maine to a 4-1-0 record. He was also named Hockey East Player of the Week on Dec. 5, after piling up 5 goals and 9 points in the two-game series vs. Vermont in Burlington on Dec. 2 and 3. He scored the game-winning goal in each game against the Catamounts.

Abbott capped off the month by being named the Shawn Walsh Memorial Most Valuable Player of the 2011 Florida College Classic in Estero, Fla., the last weekend before the new year, recording 6 points in two games.

Abbott is second in the nation with 12-26-38, and likewise in Hockey East with 10 goals and 27 points.

Freshman goaltender Andrew Walsh at Bemidji State University is the choice as HCA National Rookie of the Month for December.

Walsh posted a 4-0-1 record in five starts between the pipes for BSU, posting a 1.04 goals-against average, a .961 save percentage and two shutouts. Twice named the WCHA Rookie of the Week last month, he helped the Beavers log an impressive 6-1-1 team record and in his four victories, allowing just two goals on 109 shots for an 0.50 GAA and .981 save percentage. He also put together a shutout streak of 163:02 over four games.

-- Bob Snow
Part of that growing up included a state championship when Ithaca High School won the Division 1 championship in 2007 with Iles between the pipes. 

"A public school, and we won the Division 1 state title," a still excited Iles said about the achievement made before heading to the Salisbury School in Connecticut and then the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor his senior year.

Was the Cornell campus and Lynah Rink -- one of the most hallowed hockey barns in NCAA history -- a familiar place his formative years?

"I grew up coming to games at Lynah," he said laughing, leading to a long-held secret he disclosed, "and actually I'd be rooting for the other team and their goalie. Cornell was so strong, I enjoyed seeing the other goalie play the best he could to try to win."

"But it's definitely not that way today."

Iles' final choice was based on the two main pieces of Cornell's "strong" offerings.

"After sitting down with people over a two-year process, this was the best fit," he said. "The education piece was huge; both my parents went to college and worked hard their whole lives. So they put a lot of emphasis on education. And it's a program with a rich hockey history."

Indeed, Iles now occupies the exact space of one Ken Dryden, who led Big Red to their first NCAA title in 1967 before winning six Stanley Cups with the Canadiens in the '70s.

Iles also plays for Mike Schafer, who came back to his alma mater 17 years ago, and was behind the bench when Iles was in the stands. 

"I knew I needed to make the most of the opportunity I had," Iles said in regards to Cornell hockey history.

Opportunity also led Iles to a backup role to Jack Campbell on the 2011 U.S. World Junior team, and playing every second of every game so far during the 2011-2012 season for Big Red.

The last NCAA goaltender to do that was John Muse at Boston College in 2010; the Eagles won the national championship that year.

"So much at stake in every game," said Schafer, who has led Big Red to eight NCAA tournaments and one Frozen Four since he came home. "Andy is in tremendous shape and he's handled this load. It's good to see."

Cornell goaltender Andy Iles. (Courtesy: Cornell University)
What's also good to see is Cornell atop the ECACHL in what appears to be a dogfight with new-league powerhouse Union with five weeks and 10 games to go.

Cornell also has the same home and road record at 5-1-2, compliments of the Schafer trademark of stifling defense -- and that goaltending factor.

Big Red has the best team defense in NCAA league play.

In 1,141 minutes, Iles has an overall 2.01 goals-against average and five shutouts as a pure and undrafted sophomore to keep him atop the league's annual Dryden Award candidates for the ECACHL's best goaltender.

The complement in front of Iles runs deep, including six NHL draft picks: forwards Joel Lowry (Los Angeles), Sean Collins (Columbus) and Brian Ferlin (Boston), and defensemen Nick D'Agostino (Pittsburgh), Braden Birch (Chicago) and Kirill Gotovets (Tampa Bay).

D'Agostino also leads the team in scoring (8-9-17), the only NCAA defenseman to hold that honor to this point. It also highlights not only a Big Red annual concern of enough offense, but the need for Iles to put up Dryden-like performances on most nights, especially in March.

Big Red and age-old rival the Harvard Crimson played to a 2-2 OT tie at Lynah Saturday night in their 137th meeting, Cornell's sixth overtime game and typical of the many OT and low-scoring one-goal outcomes.

"There's a whole extra juice when Harvard comes in," Schafer said Sunday morning. "It's like when the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs play."

True, but how do Schafer and Iles assess the squeeze-need for a few more goals?


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"Still trying to find the best combinations to roll out these remaining weeks to the playoffs," Schafer said. "(Alternate captain) D'Agostino is a defenseman who puts up a lot of offense from the blue line with Joakim Ryan, and Keir Ross is our captain with great leadership. (Alternate captain) Sean Collins up front has played the best of his career, and plays between two freshmen, Joel Lowry and John McCarron. Freshman Brian Ferlin has had a great transition to college hockey. Overall, good firepower up front and good balance.

"Erik Axell and Vince Mihalek play great hockey, but have maybe a goal and an empty-netter between them. Last night they had four or five great chances. We get those guys going a little bit here and there, that will help our hockey team.

"Our offense is producing enough to get that magic three goals a game that will win for you most nights."

Maybe, but three can only be a charm if a little cushion is added and Iles keeps the opposition to a pair or less.

"All I can focus on between myself and our defensemen," Iles said, "is hunkering down and doing our jobs to give the opportunity to win. We have confidence that will happen and the guys up front will put the puck in the net."

The NCAA tournament has 16 slots en route to four regional pairings -- five for the league tournament winners and 11 at-large. Ranked top-10, Cornell is poised for one or the other.

"Pieces are coming together," Schafer said. "We need to get ready to play our best hockey these next five weeks."

"Once you get to the NCAA tournament," Iles said, "anything can happen. If you win few games there, you're in the Frozen Four."'s Top 10

1. Minnesota-Duluth 17-4-3
2. Boston University 15-6-1
3. Minnesota 17-9-1
4. Notre Dame 14-9-3
5. Merrimack 13-5-5
6. Ohio State 14-7-4
7. Boston College 14-10-1
8. Michigan 15-9-4
9. Cornell 11-4-4
10. Mass-Lowell 14-7-0
These next five weeks, the Iles family will continue that conversation over frequent dinners, while Cornell's iron man between the irons continues to enjoy the benefits of living a slap shot away from his roots.

"I love being in Ithaca, especially over the summer around campus; sometimes the NHL guys come back," Iles said.

That list is led by the Islanders' Matt Moulson, the Sharks' Doug Murray, and the Senators' Colin Greening, one of the rookies recently selected to go to the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game. Ryan O'Byrne with Colorado is another, and Ben Scrivens (Toronto) and Riley Nash (Carolina) made their debuts this year.

In the meantime?

"My mom has my laundry basket right now," Iles said, laughing, "so I'll get that back the next couple days."
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