Not until all is said and done can the final analysis be ascertained, but at that point it does not really matter much. Finally, 13 games into the season, the fog has subsided enough for onlookers to pinpoint Cornell's place on the NCAA food chain. The Big Red has played a wide variety of opponents, from Army to Boston College, and their performance has generally been solid.
At this stage of the season, the actual performance of the team is what is most important, not necessarily the outcome of games. The loss to Boston College is the best example in that Cornell lost, but they still excelled in many key areas to the point where they proved that they could hang with the best teams in the NCAA, not just to onlookers, but also to themselves.
It was almost upsetting to see Cornell ranked ninth in the weekly USCHO.com poll in mid-December after a couple idle weekends. They had not played against a lot of quality opponents and really had not proven themselves as being top-ten caliber, yet were being recognized as such by the generous voters. The polls mean practically nothing, but they still carry a certain weight and power. After falling to Boston College, Cornell will likely drop this week, despite proving that they belong with the top caliber teams. The pollsters seem to only care about results. But again, the polls just do not matter.
In the end, the only rankings that matter are the Pairwise, mathematical standings that indicate which teams will receive at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. In a perfect world, Cornell will win the ECACHL post-season tournament and cruise into the NCAA's. But with the ECACHL the most competitive it has arguably ever been, Cornell's standing in the Pairwise is incredibly important. Losing to a powerhouse Boston College will not hurt and beating a top 15 Maine will obviously help. The below average showing in East Lansing earlier in the season is starting to look much better after the Spartans defeated contenders New Hampshire and Michigan in the last week. Of course Harvard and Vermont's impressive results against the stronger teams of the NCAA will help as well. Cornell will absolutely have to continue their positive results for the remainder of the season in order to sustain their presence in the top-14 (or so) on the Pairwise rankings.
The Big Red will emerge from Florida a better hockey team than the one that entered the Sunshine State. It is now much more clear what areas they need work in and the areas in which they excel. Let us not forget that they outplayed Boston College for the majority of the game and had there not been so many penalty interruptions, the outcome of the game would have been more favorable to Cornell. Maybe they did not leave Florida as champions of the illustrious Florida College Classic, but their experience there will be greatly beneficial in the long run. Dare it be said, Cornell is on par with Boston College, which in turn means, they are on par with the best teams in the NCAA.
Make no mistake; Cornell did not play their best hockey in Florida. Of course the two games they played were totally to Cornell's disadvantage. The Big Red may be a decent special teams club, but as has been pointed out in this space before, they are a five-on-five team. The majority of the games Cornell is going to win this year are going to be from physically wearing down the opposition, by getting the puck deep in the offensive zone and cycling for a full sixty minutes. Against Boston College, there was roughly twenty minutes of even strength hockey sprinkled into the special teams marathon in which the Eagles finished on top. During the periods of even strength hockey, the Big Red was the better hockey team. In a normal hockey game where the officials are not in the spotlight, Cornell will be able to feed off the flow and get better as the game progresses no matter who the opponent is. The good news is that in the playoffs, the officials almost always take a back seat and let the players determine the outcome.
It is a new year highlighted by a new confidence, but not a new team. This year's team is capable of reaching high peaks and that was very much solidified in Florida by the little things exhibited in both games. They are not close to where they need to be in March, but the Big Red on very much on the right track to being there when that time does come.
1. Jon Gleed
Gleed has not disappointed since his promotion to the top pairing. He put forward a heroic performance against Maine, blocking several shots and logging a ton of man-down minutes. Gleed's decision-making in all three zones was flawless in the tournament, being not only Cornell best blueliner, but also best overall player. He is not the flashiest guy on the team or one that will show up much on the score sheet, but his value to the team is becoming substantial.
2. Topher Scott
Scott battled hard in both games, playing with conviction in all situations. He was Cornell's best forward against Boston College and then picked up two assists against Maine on very smart plays on powerplays. He displayed his deft decision-making and play-making ability and was generally noticeable every time he was on the ice.
3. Sasha Pokuluk
The lone Big Red player to show up on the All-Tournament team, Pokuluk displayed a high level of confidence compared to what he had shown in previous games. He picked up three assists in the two games and was clearly a major cog on the powerplay, which has its most successful outing of the season. He also initiated more physical contact than he had at any point during the season, showing that he is willing to use his massive frame.
Has the coaching staff finally found the right mix on the powerplay?
After all the changes that have taken place on the top powerplay unit from the beginning of the season, it was the original combination of Charlie Cook, Pokuluk, Shane Hynes, Scott, and Matt Moulson that broke the Big Red's powerplay out of its struggles. They moved the puck extremely well, and successfully utilized the one-time option to Cook, leading to two Big Red goals against Maine. This mix appears to be the right one and even if they have a bad game or two, the coaching staff should stay with it, as it is likely the best combination they have.
Why was Byron Bitz scratched for the game against Maine?
Bitz has struggled a fair amount since coming back from injury. He has been knocked around far too much for a player of his size and it was particularly evident against Boston College. He may have been injured in the game, but Bitz did not look very good and perhaps did not even warrant a lineup spot against Maine. There are questions as to whether Bitz has the offensive ability to center the top line as well as questions whether he is even a center at all. Regardless, Bitz needs to get into a simpler role where he needs to be physical and take care of his own end before the offensive end.
What line does Topher Scott fit best on?
Scott's play versus Boston College warranted his promotion back to the top line the next night. He has the playmaking ability to get the puck to Moulson and Hynes on a regular basis. The fact that he is so strong on faceoffs and battles so hard mean he can fit in anywhere, but when he is at his best, he best fits on the top line.
Has Doug Krantz solidified his lineup spot?
Krantz played his best hockey of the season in Florida, looking by far the most comfortable he has looked this season. His decision-making still needs work as his pinch led to an odd man rush and a goal against in the game against Maine, but it was far better than it had been in prior games. Krantz looked good rushing the puck and was able to get the puck to the next a fair amount. He also made more of an effort to use his size effectively. He clearly has the tools to be a very good defenseman at this level; it is just a question of him putting everything together and getting his confidence up. Expect Krantz to stay in the lineup and continue to get better.
Is the penalty kill Cornell's Achilles heel?
The penalty kill was not at its best over the weekend, particularly their three man unit, but it was not as poor as the numbers indicate (15 of 19 killed). Three of the four powerplay goals against came in five-on-three situations. Against Boston College, the penalty kill struggled to clear the zone when they had opportunities to do so and that failure led to their second goal. But against Maine, the penalty kill as stellar, proving that it is not just not an Achilles heal, but a strength, killing nine of ten penalties, including several in the third period.
After starting the season winless in five games (including a loss to the US U-18 team), Brown has played outstanding, going 7-1-1 in their last nine. Included in their current seven game unbeaten streak are back-to-back wins in the North Country, which is incredibly difficult. The Big Red dominated the Bears at Lynah earlier in the season, so expect Brown to come out fired up for this one.
Cornell 2 - Brown 2
Harvard has grown increasingly frustrated with Cornell in the last couple of seasons and is looking to put an end to a running five-game losing streak to the Big Red, dating back to the ECAC Championship in 2002. Harvard has been one of the hottest teams in the NCAA since mid-November, going 9-2-1 in that span. They have beaten some tough teams including Boston College, Boston University, Maine, and Vermont but recently lost to Merrimack. Harvard is the only team in the ECACHL that matches up with Cornell defensively but also has a very capable offense, led by freshman Jon Pelle.
Cornell 1 - Harvard 2