2003-2004 Big Red squad still has big time potential
For coaches, players, and fans alike, the 2003-2004 season has been a very difficult one to endure thus far. When looking at overall record, the team is not even a shadow of what it was the past two seasons. It is imperative to note, however, that the disappointing record of 8-6-6 is not nearly enough in analyzing this year's Cornell hockey team. The record tells only a fraction of the story and really in no way offers an outlook for what is to come.
From the beginning of the season to this point, there has certainly been more than one version of this team. The beginning of the season marked a definitive change in complexion as the team was producing high-octane offense while severely struggling defensively. Last year's team, although known for its defensive forte, was indeed a powerhouse offensively with four lines that could score regularly, an offensively talented blueline, and a highly successful powerplay. Even so, the offensive capacity of this year's team was just as high as they returned an offensively gifted freshman class (Matt Moulson, Shane Hynes, Daniel Pegoraro, Cam Abbott, and Chris Abbott) along with one of the best offensive players in the team's history, Ryan Vesce. So it did not come as much of a surprise that they managed five goals or more in three of their first four games. To many, the defensive struggles exhibited in the first weekend of the season especially were surprising given coach Mike Schafer's highly regarded and highly successful defensive scheme. What was to be expected of a defensive corps that graduated half of its regulars, including two of the top ten defensemen in the country, and added three freshmen and a sophomore that saw limited action last season?
As the season has progressed, the team's defensive play has rounded back into the stingy and highly efficient form of recent seasons. Conversely goal scoring has not just decreased, it has almost completely disappeared. The sparse offense in the past three weekends has totaled an alarming six goals in the last seven games being shutout twice in that period and scoring more than one goal only once (Vermont). More alarming and closely related are the high number of injuries that have snowballed at a consistent rate in the past two months. The injuries coupled with Friday's third period disqualifications against Colgate led to just 16 skaters dressing (obviously with no healthy scratches) for Saturday's rematch in Hamilton. It is important to note that many of the players that are playing are playing injured. Theoretically, injuries really began to add up on the Union-RPI weekend, which is just about the time where the team's recent struggles began, highlighted by their offensive ineptitude. Prior to that weekend, goal scoring was not much of a problem scoring four goals in each of the games in Florida and five goals at Harvard the following weekend. The way the defense has looked in the last stretch, if Cornell can score three goals in a game against virtually any ECAC team, they should almost always win. In the last three weekends, scoring even one goal has seemed to be a challenge for the Big Red, however. The situation really is not as bad as it seems as far as the big picture is concerned.
It has been easy for Cornell fans to panic in recent weeks. Despite the fact that the team has been losing there have still been positives. At the top of that list has to be the play of freshman netminder David McKee. After clearly struggling early in the season, he has played spectacular in the last three weekends making several big saves in each game. As has been pointed out, his goal support has been minimal, thus contributing to his and the team's poor record during the recent stretch. It has really helped that the team defense has vastly improved, save two to three gaping mistakes a game. Right there was the difference in the Dartmouth game a couple weeks back when Cornell blew their late 1-0 lead in the third period to allow two late goals. McKee kept the score close in each of these games, always giving the team a chance to win. One cannot ask more out of their goaltender than to give the team a chance to win every game. Really, the team had no business being in the game at Colgate, barely mustering double digits shots on goal, yet they came very close to tying the game in the final minutes. As Schafer said before the season, McKee's task will be to make people forget about David LeNeveu, as LeNeveu's task was last to make fans forget about Matt Underhill. McKee's play in recent weeks has certainly made me forget -- well maybe not forget, but has definitely taken the focus off the team's goaltending as a possible shortcoming. The overall defensive scheme in front of McKee has clearly stabilized, highlighted by a spectacular penalty kill. I have never heard of a team killing off two five-minute powerplays in one game as they did against Colgate (then again, I have never heard of a team having to kill off two five minute powerplays in a game, but that is a different story). Five-on-five, the forwards have done a much better job in their own end than they did in the beginning of the season. In addition to McKee, the biggest difference in the team's vastly improved defensive play has been the defensemen. Senior Ben Wallace put together one of the gutsiest performances I ever saw at Colgate where he likely logged more than thirty minutes and scored a goal, all this with casts on both of his wrists. The rock solid play of Jeremy Downs has always been overlooked, but he also put in a spectacular performance at Colgate. Add in the vast improvements of freshmen regulars Dan Glover and Ryan O'Byrne as well as Jon Gleed's advancement and you have a very solid defensive corps that may not be as flashy as the one that boasted Doug Murray and Mark McRae, but one that is getting the job done. The improved defensive Cornell squad will very rarely allow more than two goals a game. Improved results are dependent on the offense that seems dependent on several forwards getting healthy.
A lot of fans have been reading the riot act after Cornell's collapse in the last seven games amassing a record of 1-5-1, all against ECAC teams. The team still has a respectable 8-6-6 record. Over the course of the next month, the team's forwards will progressively return to the lineup and theoretically, the offense will return as they do. The team must buckle down and win some games over this coming stretch. Four weekends; eight games; four at home, and four on the road. A top four finish should be the team's goal, as that would get them a first round bye in the ECAC playoffs and home ice in the second round. Being tied for fourth in the conference right now, a top four finish is certainly not out of the question, but the guys that are playing, even the ones playing injured, need to step up and figure out how to win at least five of the next eight games. There are a lot of players injured, many of whom are trying to play through those injuries. Every forward has to step up on the offensive side of the puck for the team to rekindle its success. Matt Moulson, Shane Hynes, and Mike Knoepfli, at least two of which have been playing injured, need to substantially raise their level of play and production if the team is to get their offense back on track. Additionally Byron Bitz needs to find the scoring touch that he exhibited early in the season. Improved play from all the forwards, including highly touted freshmen Mitch Carefoot and Mark McCutcheon is absolutely necessary in the team turning their season around. Everyone needs to step up. Every team goes through injury problems. Unfortunately for Cornell, the injury problems they face now are substantial. Everyone has grown a bit spoiled the past few years, as they have rarely run into much injury trouble. If they can muster two to three goals a game, they should regularly be able to squeak points out. An at large bid for the NCAA's is pretty much out of the question, but the ECAC is wide open and winning the post-season tournament is an absolute possibility. If this team gets healthy and can regain their offensive form from earlier in the season, combined with the outstanding defensive play and a confident Dave McKee, they could turn a lot of heads and make a big run that could even get them back to the Frozen Four. A lot has to happen before then, but it is not as far off as it may seem right now.