Game 1 of the quarterfinal series between ninth seeded Clarkson and second seeded Cornell could only be described in one way: absolute domination. It was Cornellís best game of the season. They busted out of the gates firing on all cylinders looking very much like a national contender again. All four lines were making an impact, special teams were clicking, and they were physically controlling all over the ice. Just about everyone at Lynah on Friday was looking towards Albany, except for Clarkson who were likely looking forward to going back to beautiful Potsdam with at least their dignity.
And then with just a couple of minutes remaining in the third period, the complexion of the best-of-three series was dramatically altered. On a shift where Clarkson freshman standout Matt Nickerson was hacking Cornell junior Paul Varteressian like he was chopping down a tree, the latter had about enough, and dropped the gloves. He got Nickersonís helmet off and landed a few shots drawing the astonished faithful to deafening cheers. Nickerson, known by most for his short temper (he was rated the meanest player in the 2003 draft by the Central Scouting Bureau), surprisingly did not retaliate and thus did not receive a game disqualification. Varteressian threw punches and without any debate was handed a game disqualification. Nickerson had a rough night to that point, throwing his share of cheap shots drawing the ire of the Cornell crowd and players. Just before Nickerson went out on what would prove to be his final shift of the game, Clarkson coach George Roll leaned over his shoulder on the bench most likely telling him not to lose his temper, as there was still a game to be played the next night. This came as a result of Nickerson getting a double minor after trying to coax Cam Abbott into a fight a few minutes prior. Nickerson left the ice after the one-sided tussle with Varteressian clearly infuriated, his eyes looking like the eyes of a madman. The Lynah crowd loved it. The Big Red players slammed their sticks on the boards in applause for Varteressianís efforts. Unnoticed, what was happening on the Clarkson bench is likely what was most important at the time. The Knights had woken up.
Perhaps most happy with what had materialized late in the third period of the opening game was Roll. His team, clearly energized for the weekend after dominating a higher placed Union squad the week before was extremely demoralized and frustrated in the third period of Game 1. Simply put, they had gotten their asses kicked in just about every facet of the game. It wasnít that they had played a poor game; they were just outmatched. It was obvious to every person on hand. But the events that occurred late in the third period in Game 1 reenergized the Clarkson squad. On Saturday night, a new Clarkson team arrived and the course of the series shifted.
In game 1, Cornell's captain and glue among many other things, Ryan Vesce, re-aggravated his groin that had kept him out of four games in February. He took the pre-game skate Saturday night and determined that he could not go. Sophomore Daniel Pegoraro thus frantically dressed between warm-ups and the first period to replace the injured captain. As a result of Vesce's injury, instead of simply inserting Pegoraro into Vesce's spot on the top line between Shane Hynes and Matt Moulson, Cornell coach Mike Schafer opted to move Byron Bitz up to center the top line. Mitch Carefoot moved up to the line with Mike Iggulden and Mike Knoepfli while Pegoraro stepped in on the fourth line between Mark McCutcheon and the also newly-inserted Kevin McLeod who was replacing the disqualified Varteressian. On the powerplay, Pegoraro stepped into Vesceís position.
As should have been expected, Clarkson flew out of the gates Saturday night in an even more hostile Lynah atmosphere than they had seen the previous two games. The Knights clearly had jump. Nickerson, who received the brunt of the hostility, set up a goal just a few minutes into the game, which clearly set the tone for Clarkson. This was only the beginning of a wild first period that saw Clarkson blow 2-0 and 3-1 leads to the equally high-flying Big Red. The crowd was entertained and the Big Red was likely confidant that the Knights would falter after blowing two two-goal leads in opening frame. Down the hall, the Knights were likely salivating at the fact that they scored three goals on Cornell net minder David McKee, as the last time McKee had let in more than two goals in a game was the first game of 2004 at Harvard. The Knights battled on, retaking the lead in the second period only to see Cornell retie on a late 5-on-3 goal. The third period saw the Knights retake the lead for good on a powerplay goal. It was not the first goal of the night that a Clarkson player was able to sneak into the slot untouched and able to clean shot off.
Another huge turning point of the series occurred late in the third period when Lynah's favorite whipping boy Nickerson handed the puck to Cam Abbott on a silver platter at the Clarkson blueline for an uncontested shorthanded breakaway. Abbott made a couple of moves, but could not solve Clarkson goaltender Dustin Traylen and that was the game. Clarkson would go on to win.
Game 3 was different than the previous two. Cornell dominated the first. The second was fire wagon hockey that was high scoring with lots of chances both ways for the full 60 minutes. Game 3, although not dominated by Clarkson, was controlled by the Knights from the opening drop of the puck. Clarkson was beaming with confidence all over the ice, whereas Cornell was very unsure of themselves. An early Knights tally really cemented their confidence and Cornellís uncertainty. The refs were quite generous to Cornell throughout most of the night giving them plenty of powerplay chances to even up the score. Then, late in the second period on a powerplay with the score still 1-0 in favor of Clarkson, a nearly identical situation to the night before unfolded. But this time, it was a Cornell player giving away the puck and a Clarkson player going on a short handed breakaway. The only difference was the Clarkson player scored. The rest of the game is too painful to put into words.
If for some reason somebody went to Game 1 then fell off the face of the planet for two days and reappeared on Monday, he would collapse in seeing that Clarkson, not Cornell, was the team headed to Albany.
What the hell happened?
Ryan Vesceís omission from the lineup obviously hurt the Big Red very badly. Special teams and face-offs were the physical areas affected most by his absence. Since Vesce takes roughly 75% of the teamís face-offs, Clarkson was able to dominate the dot in Games 2 and 3. Cornell's special teams were brutal in both Games 2 and 3. Simple as that.
Although certainly a factor, Vesce's injury was not the reason Cornell lost to Clarkson. Even without Vesce, Cornell was a superior team to Clarkson. The problem was that the big name players and the skill players did not step up. The Knights did a good job making sure these players did not factor in. The lunch pail, hardhat players of the Big Red, the Greg Hornbys, the Mike Igguldens, the Mike Knoepflis, the Mitch Carefoots, the Paul Varteressians, the Ben Wallaces, the Jeremy Downs, the Dan Glovers, and the Ryan OíByrnes were the team's standout players on the weekend. Where was Matt Moulson? Where was Charlie Cook? Where was David McKee?
Simply put, the powerplay was powerless on Saturday and Sunday when it mattered at the crucial points of the two respective games. Sure, they got one or two man advantage goals on the weekend, but they did not convert when it mattered. Moulson and Cook struggled mightily in running the powerplay in Vesceís absence. Saturday, it was Pegoraro who got a chance to step in for Vesce but could not get it done. Sunday, it was Evan Salmela. Same story.
McKee would likely be the first to admit that this was not his best weekend of the season. Since the beginning of December, McKee was outstanding; Cornell's best player many a night. This weekend, he just did not have the goods for whatever reason. He looked like the timid goaltender of early season that was not challenging shooters regularly (coming out of the crease to face shooters; cutting down the angle) and just did not look comfortable. It was not a coincidence that the Big Red's defensive zone was chaos at times, badly struggling to clear the zone and clear players from the middle on a regular basis.
In Game 1, the line of Bitz-Iggulden-Knoepfli was the best on the ice for the third straight game. Bitz was looking the most comfortable he has looked since the beginning of the season when he was scoring at will, controlling the boards and corners and using his big frame to knock off players and get open in the offensive zone. The same could be said for the other two players on the line that were both playing their best hockey of the season. Yet Bitz was taken out of his comfort zone and put back at center when Vesce went down. Although Carefootís injection on the Iggulden line reaped immediate returns (two goals in Game 2), the fourth line was no longer a factor with Carefoot and Varteressian gone. This was a big difference in Game 2. Ask George Roll, who had a much easier time getting his preferred line matchups as a result.
Cornell's skill players were almost all non-factors on the weekend. As viewers have been accustomed to, Shane Hynes was brilliant at times, and invisible at others. When Matt Moulson is not generating offense, he does not stand out much, as was the case this weekend. Clarkson had him checked, especially on the powerplay, all weekend making him a non-factor. The Abbotts could have been better and were better in last yearís playoffs. They just did not seem deadly in this series except on occasion. What has happened to Pegoraro? He only played in Game 2, but got a huge opportunity to get himself out of the doghouse playing on the first powerplay unit. His skill set makes him a perfect fit for the point position on a powerplay as he showed last year, but for whatever reason, he could not get the powerplay going and was scratched in Game 3 as a result.
What Does It Mean?
Many are proclaiming their moderate satisfaction for the 2003-2004 campaign. What is to be satisfied with? Some may disagree, but this team was capable of going deep into the playoffs. Instead, they barely even flirted with them. Ask any one of the players or coaches and they would affirm that this was an underachieving season. This affirmation has nothing to do with the success of the last two years. Cornell was better than the ECAC quarterfinals.
If the Big Red did not suffer so many injuries in January, they would have easily won the regular season ECAC title. Although things were much closer in the ECAC this year than the prior two, Cornell was still the best team in the conference. The fact that they had so much playoff experience from runs in the NCAAs the previous two years only added to Cornell's potential deadliness in this year's playoffs.
The team clearly made strides in many areas this year as evidenced by their early season struggles and their late season surge that saw them win eight of their last nine games before the two losses to Clarkson. They seemed to find their identity down the stretch and looked poised for another long playoff run. It can be assured that National contenders such as North Dakota or Boston College had Cornell circled as a team they did not want to face in the NCAA regionals.
In general, stronger teams at any level of any sport are judged on how they perform in the playoffs. Cornellís fade against Clarkson on home ice after winning the first game shows a failure with or without Vesce in the lineup. They were perfectly capable of success without Vesce as they showed at Dartmouth. Make no mistake, this should go down as one of the bigger upsets in Cornell history.
So now what? Well, Cornell is only losing four seniors. Three of them played significant roles, but all three omissions can be absorbed next season. With six freshmen coming in, personnel-wise, the Big Red will boast more depth on the backend and up front next season. Cornell will have the potential to return to their status as one of the top teams in the country. As we learned just recently, however, the playoffs are a whole different story. A killer instinct, a hunger, a desperation is needed for success this time of year. The 2003-2004 Big Red seemed to lack that. The good news is that the bitter, premature finish to this campaign will make Cornell a better team in the coming years. Rest assured, they will not be upset at home again.