Fifteen games into the season, Cornell is playing well, but there is little question that they can play at a considerably higher level. The Big Red handled Brown pretty easily on Friday and, despite losing the next night, they played relatively even with Harvard. Nobody, however, will walk away from the weekend thinking that they have played at the highest level they are capable of. Cornell played well this past weekend - certainly well enough to beat decent teams on a fairly regular basis. The top end of the ECACHL unfortunately is so strong this year that there will be very few weekends in which a team will play a pair of so-so or worse teams.
Brown was a team clearly below Cornell in nearly every area. Although they were on a seven game unbeaten streak heading into the weekend, their positive results came against average and below competition. Cornell won the game with ease, and contrary to what some Brown players have said after both games versus Cornell this season, the Big Red are vastly superior and would emerge victorious nine times out of ten.
The game against Harvard could have gone either way and with more favorable bounces, Cornell could have emerged victorious. But still, if Cornell were playing at their highest level, they would not need favorable bounces to beat Harvard. Make no mistake, Harvard has a very good team - certainly one better than the one that came to Lynah earlier in the season. Still, Cornell is a notch above, and they did not play to that level on Saturday night.
Defensively, Harvard is an equal to Cornell, if not actually superior. The Crimson clogged the neutral zone to absolute perfection, as the Big Red had almost no scoring chances off the rush. In the defensive zone, Harvard did a great job clogging up the middle and keeping Cornell to the outside. Their style greatly contrasted to that of Boston College and Maine, teams that both left the middle of the ice generally free, playing more of a puck possession style, allowing Cornell to consistently generate chances off the rush and win more of the physical puck battles.
Much like Cornell, no matter who the opponent is, Harvard will be a tough team to score on more than more than two or three times. The difficulty to score at even strength puts further importance on the powerplay to convert. Case in point Friday night when Colgate scored two of their three goals on the man-advantage.
It is always tough losing to your biggest archrival, and it is even tougher when you play pretty well in the process. The bright side is that there is a very good chance that Cornell has not seen the last of Harvard this season.
Cornell is playing good hockey for this stage of the season. They have been pretty solid in all areas, and at times have been spectacular. Perhaps most important is that they have been reasonably consistent with no definitively bad stretches and have generally improved as the season has progressed. A big issue with the team last year was that it had so many highs and lows and their play could turn on a dime as it did in the playoff series with Clarkson. This year's team has been far better in that area and will hopefully continue to improve in it.
For the time being, Cornell needs to elevate their game to the point where they are dictating the flow of every contest. As they are playing now, Cornell will continue to have success, but they are capable of playing at a higher level and need to reach that level if they are to distinguish themselves from Harvard, Colgate, and Vermont. At the mid point of the season, the Big Red are at a crossroads in which they can either continue to play good hockey or shift into the higher gear they are capable of reaching, and sustaining that level of hockey. The difference between the two echelons of hockey will be the difference between fourth place and first place in the ECACHL and more importantly an unfavorable pairwise ranking and a favorable one come NCAA selection time. The time to shift into that higher gear is now.
1. Raymond Sawada
Sawada had far and away his best weekend of the season and was one of Cornell's best forwards both nights He very much lived up to his reputation coming into Cornell as extremely physical and more than capable offensively. Sawada picked his spots much better this past weekend, generally connecting on checks a lot more than he has in prior games.
2. Charlie Cook
After struggling through the last few games, Cook has regained confidence and played much better. Cook did a good job of finding open ice in all zones and using his speed to breakaway from opposing players as opposed to always getting rid of the puck as he had been doing in recent games. Cook was curiously omitted from the first powerplay unit even after his two-point performance against Maine, but he did play well on the second unit, clearly improving its effectiveness.
3. David McKee
He likely played his best game of the season against Harvard, making several big saves. McKee was very focused throughout the game, and clearly elevated his performance from the past several games. Harvard out-chanced Cornell in the game and they could have won by two or three if not for McKee's calm and steady performance.
Is Cam Abbott's injury something to worry about?
Although he did not play in either game on the weekend, Abbott was on the road trip, indicating that his injury is not serious and is likely day-to-day. Expect him to be back next weekend playing alongside Daniel Pegoraro and Raymond Sawada who both had good weekends. That line is a wildcard in that could potentially be extraordinary once they are all clicking and Sawada's emergence signals that that time could be approaching.
Is Doug Krantz improving?
Krantz has clearly become more comfortable as the season has progressed. Against Brown, although he had two assists, Krantz was brutal in his end. His giveaway in the opening minutes led directly to the first Brown goal and there were a handful of other dangerous plays in his end to his fault as well. To his credit, Krantz did play better as the Brown game progressed and he played well the entire game against Harvard. Krantz possesses very good offensive instincts and has an ability to get the puck to the net. His decision-making and quickness are both issues of concern, but both have and should continue to improve. Although Dan Glover is a more solid and reliable defenseman, Krantz has higher upside and will likely continue to get the nod on the third defensive pair with Ryan O'Byrne.
What line does Topher Scott fit best on?
His offensive numbers (15 GP 1-5-6) do not reflect his offensive ability. Scott is a versatile player that is solid in all three zones and thus can fit in anywhere, but his creativity with the puck indicates that he should pivot an offensive line. With Cam Abbott likely to return to the second line with Daniel Pegoraro and Raymond Sawada, and the top line battling inconsistency for much of the season, it would make most sense for Scott to step back between Shane Hynes and Matt Moulson. The trio was reunited against Maine and performed very well. They clearly have chemistry as has been displayed on the first powerplay unit. Scott battles hard every shift and has the ability to get the puck to Hynes and Moulson on a regular basis off the rush and out of the cycle.
Where does Byron Bitz fit?
Bitz has struggled since coming back from injury against Michigan State. He still does not seem to be at 100%, with his skating not quite up to par. His biggest issue has been his lack of physical presence. The fact that he has been playing out of position at center and away from the boards has seemingly gotten Bitz away from his bread and butter - using his large frame to win battles along the boards. He has clearly felt the pressure of getting the puck to his talented linemates and his general instincts have been sacrificed as a result. Bitz is a winger who needs to use his size on a regular basis. He is not necessarily a top line talent and he thus should be playing a simpler, physical two-way game with less offensive responsibility. Eventually, Bitz could be a major power forward presence on an offensive line, but for the time being, it is best that he become comfortable being a solid, consistent physical presence rather than a top line center and pointman on the powerplay. Bitz should be playing on the wing on either the third or fourth lines and in the corner/half boards on the second powerplay unit.
Is the recruiting class of 2005 all set?
Cornell will lose five players to graduation after this season, and according to Chris Heisenberg's website, they already have six committed for next season. However, of those six, only one, Taylor Davenport, is a defenseman. Seeing as Cook and Jeremy Downs are both top-four defensemen, it seems necessary that at least one more defenseman be added for next year's recruiting class. Gleed has become a top pair defenseman and O'Byrne has that ceiling as well. Pokuluk and Krantz will theoretically both be top four defensemen next season (the former already is). Glover is solid and reliable and is a good third pair defenseman and Evan Salmela has never really been tested. Regardless, seven defensemen is not enough so expect at least one more blueliner in next year's recruiting class. Up front, Cornell will boast extraordinary depth, as they will have 17 forwards with the five incomers.
The Big Red faces a big test Friday night in Schenectady when they play the 7-3-0 (in the ECACHL) Dutchmen. Union is a notch below Harvard, Vermont, and Colgate, but they are not far behind, proving that with a 1-0 victory over Dartmouth on Saturday. This game is a big test for the Big Red, as they need to have more favorable results against the top teams in the conference.
Cornell 3 - Union 0
RPI has struggled this season with the low point being Friday's 9-1 loss to Dartmouth on home ice. Cornell is superior to RPI in nearly every area and should handle them without much of a problem. That being said, the Engineers are clearly not pushovers with some quality results this season, so the Big Red will have to bring their A-game into the Houston Fieldhouse on Saturday night.
Cornell 4 - Rensselaer 1