It is well documented that Cornell struggled mightily to find the net last season and a major factor in their offensive futility was the lack of contribution from the blueline. Rarely would a defenseman join the rush or get the puck to the net in the offensive zone. In 32 games last season, the defense combined for a total of only nine goals, a far cry from the 24 in 2002-2003. Even after Mark McRae and Doug Murray, Charlie Cook (3), Ben Wallace (3), Jeremy Downs (3), and Travis Bell (1) still scored more goals in 2002-2003 (10) than the unit could muster in 2003-2004.
The defensive corps showed a great deal of offensive ability in the first weekend of the 2004-2005 season, scoring five total goals in the two games. This is a very good sign because almost any potent offensive team at any level of hockey requires an ample contribution from the backline. This is evident when comparing Cornell's offensive output in 2002-2003 to 2003-2004.
The overall philosophy of the team's defense seemed to be different than what was seen last season. It was not just the defensemen being more skilled or talented. Almost all the defensemen were using the open ice that was available to them in the defensive and neutral zones. Instead of putting the puck high off the glass or attempting a pass, blueliners showed more patience and skated the puck in if that was an option. In skating the puck, blueliners would draw opposition players to them, thus opening up better passing options in the neutral zone. In the offensive zone, the backliners regularly threw the puck at the net, rather than just putting it back into the corners. With the ability of the Cornell forwards to generate traffic and generally wreak havoc in front of the net, the importance centers around the pointmen just getting the puck to the net, and not necessarily at a high speed. Regardless of how good a goaltender is or how good a team is in the defensive zone, it is very difficult to defend against pucks frequently thrown at the net with constant traffic in front.
Four of the Big Red's seven defensemen scored goals on the weekend, with freshman Sasha Pokuluk scoring twice. Ryan O'Byrne was the only defenseman who played in both games (actually the only Cornell skater who played in both games) not to record at least one point. O'Byrne's contributions on the offense were of note, however. He regularly saw time on the second powerplay unit, and although he did not look totally comfortable, he did look as if he could grow into the role and thrive in it. He does possess decent puck skills and a hard shot (although not a quick release), and he has underrated speed.
The Big Red's primary offensive defenseman, Charlie Cook, was much more aggressive and decisive with the puck than he has shown in the past, regularly carrying the puck the length of the ice and making quicker decisions on the powerplay, including occasions where he even threw the puck at the net, a rarity last season.
Jeremy Downs and Jon Gleed both get involved in the offense for a similar reason: speed. Both possess excellent speed and can join the rush late or even lead it from time to time. Downs does not have the reputation for providing much offense, but he was deep in the offensive zone on a few occasions, including his opening goal against Army. Gleed has good offensive instincts and they were on display when he cheated in from his point untouched to score against Army. Reading the play and deciding when to pinch in from the point is of great importance to successful offensive blueliners and in turn successful offensive teams. Teams like Cornell that cycle a lot rely on their defensemen to pinch in at the right time.
Perhaps the biggest standout on the entire team on the weekend was Pokuluk. Although he was not a highly talked-about recruit, he certainly generated plenty of talk over the weekend, especially after his third period goal against Sacred Heart. Pokuluk dodged more than one player, the final one with a gorgeous move, then moved in alone on Sacred Heart goaltender, Kevin LaPointe. He then proceeded to place the puck perfectly into the far top corner. His powerplay goal against Army the night before was shot to the same spot in the net, only Pokuluk threw it at the net from the point. Pokuluk's offensive upside is considerable, possessing good hockey sense and an extremely heavy and accurate shot. The fact that he stands at 6'5" and is only 18 years of age most likely has NHL scouts' attention. His defensive play and skating could use a little work, but Mike Schafer will handle that and when he does, Pokuluk could be one of the most dominant blueliners in the NCAA as well as a first round pick (if there ever is another NHL draft).
Putting everything in perspective, this was Army and Sacred Heart, two of the worst teams Cornell will play this season. So getting too excited about the defense's offensive output, let alone excited at all, should be done with caution. There is no doubt, however, that the Big Red blueline will do more than just prevent offense this year. They will need to do more if Cornell is to have the same high-octane offense that it possessed in 2002-2003, and certainly shows the potential for in 2004-2005.
1. Shane Hynes
He put up two points each night and was a threat every time he stepped onto the ice. He was an absolute force in the corners and in front of the net. Hynes scored a goal and an assist against Army and had two assists against Sacred Heart but could have had more both nights, coming close on several occasions. Something not talked about much with Hynes is his playmaking ability. After winning battles in the corners, Hynes regularly made outstanding passes to the slot. Feeding Matt Moulson for a whole season will likely garner Hynes a lot of assists. As was evident this past weekend, the lower-caliber NCAA teams will have a great deal of problems against Hynes because of his size and skill.
2. Mike Iggulden
He was easily the team's hardest worker both nights, and was strong on both sides of the ice. Scoring a goal and assisting on three others, Iggulden was constantly driving to the net hard and sustaining pressure with Mike Knoepfli and Mitch Carefoot. It cannot be stressed enough how important a player like Iggulden is to a team because he does everything well, and this was clear on the weekend.
3. Sasha Pokuluk
He scored a powerplay goal on Friday and a highlight-reel goal on Saturday. If only for the latter, he deserves a star as it was one of the prettiest individual-effort Cornell goals in recent memory. He played exclusively with Cook, both 5-on-5, and on the first powerplay unit both nights.
When Byron Bitz returns, whose spot will he take?
Mark McCutcheon had an outstanding weekend, very much solidifying his spot. The only skater that comes to mind is Daniel Pegoraro. Although he played well, displaying his offensive prowess frequently, he seems to be the only logical choice. Paul Varteressian could move back to center the fourth line and Chris Abbott could move up to the second line center spot, reuniting with Cam. Bitz would then step in on the wing with Varteressian and McCutcheon. It still seems that Bitz is not yet close to returning.
Will the second line stay together?
The line of Raymond Sawada-Daniel Pegoraro-Cam Abbott had a decent weekend, but struggled at times. At one point, they were all a minus 2. Normally, this wouldn't be a horrible thing, but when the team only allowed two total goals on the weekend and scored as much as they did, it is certainly eyebrow-raising. On paper, this line looks dynamite, but there are some question marks. Raymond Sawada is going to be an outstanding player, but it will take him time. Cam Abbott is occasionally electrifying but sometimes unnoticeable. Daniel Pegoraro has excellent playmaking ability, but there are questions about his hockey sense and defensive play. To be fair, the line did combine for a pretty third period goal by Cam Abbott and was sporadically an offensive threat. It is early, and if Bitz is still out for a while and this line can generate some chemistry, they could become Cornell's deadliest offensive threat.
Krantz or Glover?
After Krantz had a mediocre game against Army, a presumably healthy Dan Glover got the green light against Sacred Heart. These are two different defensemen. Krantz is far more gifted offensively, but has looked out of place in the defensive zone at times. Glover has an excellent reputation as a solid defensive defenseman and that was highlighted in the game that he played. After the weekend, the edge goes to Glover, but expect Krantz to improve and play if the offense falters. More than likely, the two could end up splitting time.
What will Cornell's policy be on throwing fish this year?
I have no guess on this one, but hopefully the administration will allow for fish being thrown when Harvard comes out for the first period and then make the announcement forbidding it from that point on. This will theoretically keep everyone happy, allowing a tradition to be continued, and keeping the players safe with only the one initial delay.
With ECACHL play really getting started this coming week, I have compiled a prediction of the final season standings. I, of course, have the hindsight of the first few weeks of non-conference play.
1. St. Lawrence
Harvard 1 - Cornell 4
Brown 0 - Cornell 3