The ECACHL brass didn't name David McKee the league's Goaltender of the Week for the second consecutive week, but his play this past weekend was more worthy of the honor.
The first two weekends of the season, McKee simply didn't do enough to earn much praise; he was hardly tested, making only a handful of big saves in the first four games combined. The two games at Michigan State drastically altered McKee's workload. While the team in front of him was inconsistent at best, McKee was spectacular. His play was the only reason the team did not lose both games in East Lansing by wide margins.
McKee's dominating performances should come as no surprise to the Lynah Faithful. Interestingly enough, David has shone most on the road. In particular, he does well when facing a lot of shots. Friday night, the Spartans sent a barrage McKee's way, but only beat him once on 37 shots. Make no mistake, the high shot total was not inflated, as the Big Red struggled in their defensive zone coverage. McKee faced several quality chances, many from point-blank range. His mental game continues to be outstanding; he's not intimidated by big-time offensive players or by tough situations like the one he faced at Colgate last year when several Cornell regulars were out of the lineup. Despite the team's sub-par weekend, the Faithful can take solace in Cornell's last line of defense. McKee proved that he is not just the product of an excellent defense, a perception that has plagued many Cornell goaltenders in the defense-first Mike Schafer era.
The fact that Cornell played so poorly on Friday against one of the NCAA's top teams--don't be fooled by Michigan State's lack of recognition in the polls--yet still escaped with a tie illustrates not only how well McKee played, but how good this team can be if playing at its highest level. This was the team's first test on the road and it came against an underrated team with big-time talent and depth, not to mention the fact that the Spartans had played four more games. In the end, McKee was the difference netting the team a tie on Friday and then keeping Cornell within striking distance in the second game. (Of course, had Michigan State's goaltender Dominic Vicari not played a flawless game as well, the results would likely have been more favorable for Cornell on Sunday afternoon.)
No team goes deep into the post season without stellar and timely goaltending. This past weekend reaffirmed what many onlookers believed last year: David McKee can provide the goaltending needed for success.
In his short time at Cornell so far, McKee has done what Mike Schafer challenged him to do prior to last season: make people forget about his predecessor. David LeNeveu did it with Matt Underhill and Underhill did it with Jason Elliott. There is little question that it will be challenging for Cornell's next starting goaltender to make people forget about McKee.
Where did the goals go?
Cornell's three seven-goal games came against teams with below-average goaltenders. Against much stronger goaltenders in Dov Grumet-Morris and Dominic Vicari, the Big Red were not nearly as effective offensively, garnering just three goals in three games. In game two against Michigan State, Vicari was the difference in the game, totally shutting the door on a highly capable offensive unit. It hurts that the Big Red does not boast any true game-breaking superstars, although it could be argued that Matt Moulson, Shane Hynes, and Cam Abbott have that potential. Cornell will have to win games 1-0 and 2-1 against strong defensive teams and teams boasting good goaltending. However, against the majority of the ECACHL teams, the Big Red should not struggle to score as they did against the Spartans, and as the season progresses and players become more comfortable playing with each other, offensive consistency will improve. Cornell will not be able to run and gun, but if their defensive scheme is as strong as it can be, they will not have to. They will just have to score two or three goals, and that's completely within their potential.
Is Michigan State a better team than Cornell?
The Spartans, although dominant at times on the weekend, were not clearly superior to the Big Red as some onlookers have suggested. Cornell carried the play for portions of both games, showing that they have the capacity to play with tough non-conference opponents. The Spartans clearly had advantages in several key areas, which should be no surprise, given that they had played more games and Cornell was on its first road trip of the season. But talent-wise and depth-wise, these teams are not far from each other. I was reminded of last season's games against Ohio State, another non-conference team with comparable talent and depth. When they played early last season, the Buckeyes won 3-2, but when they played again later in the season, Cornell won 4-3 in overtime. If Cornell were to play Michigan State in a couple of months, or if the Michigan State games had been played at Lynah as they will be next season, then the results would have likely been different.
When will the National Hockey League commence again?
On this matter, I will say the same thing I said 12 months ago: There will not be NHL hockey as we know it until the 2006-2007 season. Speculation is rampant that the board of governors led by Gary Bettman will look to declare an impasse in September 2005 and go with replacement players from the AHL and European pro leagues. At that point, between 200 and 300 NHLPA members will immediately cross the picket line and return to the new NHL. Despite what union reps insist, at least half of NHL players have no clue why they are fighting a salary cap. They just know what they are told by Bob Goodenow, Ted Saskin, Trevor Linden, and company: that it is the devil's work. The NHL owners will not fold any time in the next five years. After all, many owners are losing less money by not operating. Players, however, especially the ones that are making under the NHL average salary of $1.83 million in 2003-2004, get increasingly more restless with each paycheck they do not receive. The NHLPA will collapse eventually. Almost every week a lower-tier player speaks up for a salary cap (and then later retracts his statement after the NHLPA slaps him on the wrist).
So when all is said and done, there will be no 2004-2005 season. In the 2005-2006 season, we will see an NHL with AHL players, European imports, and a portion of NHLPA members. The portion of NHLPA players will grow as more players cross the picket line, and by 2006-2007 the NHL will be back to normal in the sense that they will have the best players in the world again.
But it will take years to regain lost fan support. Markets in Miami, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Nashville, Phoenix, Carolina, and Anaheim might never recover. Perhaps it will lead to franchises relocating to the likes of Winnipeg, Quebec City, Hamilton, Portland (Oregon), Seattle, Milwaukee, and Kansas City. The latter group represents markets with stable fan bases, unlike the former's markets.
The Burlington-Hanover trip could shape up to be one of the tougher ones in the ECACHL this season. Vermont has made a big statement in the last three weekends, going 4-0-2 against some very good teams, including Minnesota-Duluth and St. Lawrence. The Catamounts seem to have turned the corner after several trying years and could finish high in the ECACHL this year. Cornell matches up very well with Vermont, however, being bigger and deeper in all positions. If the Big Red exploits these areas, they should come up victorious in Burlington on Friday.
Cornell 3 - Vermont 2
After perhaps the highest preseason expectations in the program's history, Dartmouth is off to a slow start, highlighted by losses to Quinnipiac and Princeton. In their most recent game, they defeated St. Lawrence, showing that they can be competitive without their star forward, Hugh Jessiman. Dartmouth will match up with Cornell physically, but depth-wise, they will be at a disadvantage. Although Cornell is a stronger overall team, Dartmouth possesses more top-end talent and thus it will be a pretty even matchup, one that could go either way.
Saturday night games in the ECACHL this year for Cornell will almost always favor the Big Red as they will play a team that is likely to be worn out from playing an equally-formidable opponent the night before. The same can be said for Colgate. No traveling partnership is as formidable as the Cornell-Colgate pairing, and it will work to both teams' advantages when they play physically.
Cornell 2 - Dartmouth 2
In general, the Big Red will have a renewed hunger after a disappointing showing at Michigan State. They will be out to prove that they can play on the road at the same level that they play at home, and the bigger offensive players will answer the call after non-existent showings in East Lansing.