The cream of the crop finally met. The much-anticipated match-up between the top two placed central New York rivals certainly did not disappoint. In the two games, the competition was extraordinary and the defensive schemes were top-notch. Cornell may have taken three of the four points on the weekend, but they were probably not two points better than Colgate. The Red Raiders made one bad play in the third period on Friday that ultimately led to the only goal of the game and the eventual difference in the weekend. The two teams were an intriguing match-up not just because they are so strong, but because they are so similar. The Red Raiders and Big Red were mirror images of each other, both playing strong defensive, physical styles in which each coach uses the entire bench for the entire game. These two teams could play with any team in the NCAA and hold their own on a regular basis, but they are not the only ones.
The ECAC may have changed its name this season, but the league has done far more than just that. In 2002-2003, it was Cornell, then Harvard, then everybody else. In 2003-2004, there was nobody. In 2004-2005, it's a whole different picture with Cornell, Harvard, Colgate, Dartmouth, and Vermont, all legitimate teams in the national picture. The ECACHL is unquestionably better this year than it has been in a long time. There are five teams (possibly six with Brown on the fence) that are legitimate contenders for the ECACHL post-season title. Last season, there were perhaps even more teams that were legitimate contenders for the title, but that was not because the conference was top-heavy in high caliber teams. This season, the five or six teams at the top are not just competing for the ECACHL title. They are teams that will have the capacities to make significant noise in the NCAAs. Simply put, what had been widely regarded as the EZAC has been reborn and emerged from seemingly perennial mediocrity.
Cornell and Colgate are not the only two outstanding defensive teams in the ECACHL. Harvard and Vermont place right behind Colgate, allowing fewer than two goals a game each in ECACHL contests. Throw in Dartmouth, who despite being a step behind defensively, has the best offense of the bunch, and really anything can happen at the top. There is not much separation among the top five teams with Brown as a definite dark horse in the six spot. Cornell has fared well against the other teams of the top but has not exactly proven they are the absolute top team. This is not a knock against the Big Red, but a testament to how strong these teams really are. Look no farther than the five teams' out of conference results as evidence. Still, in the end, Cornell will likely be in first place, but in the playoffs, do not expect Colgate, Harvard, Vermont, or Dartmouth to be intimidated.
The ECACHL Final Four in Albany will be the best the tournament has been in years with this year's competition being so strong. Not only that, but the usually miserable consolation game could very well carry much higher significance this year. With three or perhaps more ECACHL teams likely destined for the NCAA's, the long-term ramifications of all the games in Albany will be extraordinary and directly impact each team's quest for a bid into the NCAA Tournament. The fact that these teams are so close to each other in terms of ability will make things in Albany very interesting and very exciting. Again, Cornell is the favorite at this point, but the three other teams in Albany will not fear them by any stretch. That's right: at 16-4-3 overall and 12-2-2 in the ECACHL, Cornell still has something to prove.
The Big Red did not sweep any of the top five teams this season. They are not overly superior to these teams as they were in 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 (except for Harvard those years, of course) but rather a slight notch above them. Cornell has played a lot of playoff-type games and has fared reasonably well. They are well-seasoned in that they have played every type of game and just about every type of team. This may be the case with the other teams, but the Big Red have proven themselves as evidenced by their first place status. Come Albany, none of this will matter, as any of the elite ECACHL teams have an equal shot at winning the championship. What will ultimately separate the winning team from the others? It will all come down to who is hottest at the time. Right now, Cornell is clearly the hottest team in the conference, but a couple weeks ago it was Colgate and in December it was Vermont. Harvard always seems to shift into its highest gear come playoff time and they are the most battle-tested in the playoffs of the five teams. Only time will tell, but more often than not, the unexpected occurs in the ECACHL playoffs.
Of course there is life after Albany and Cornell's very strong PairWise Ranking and relatively easy schedule the rest of the way almost assures that. One of the great parts of college hockey is wondering what will happen when two teams who never face each other match up. How the ECACHL elite stacks up to the powerhouses of Hockey East has been answered with several quality showings collectively including victories over the conference's top four teams: Boston College, New Hampshire, Boston University, and Maine. The question is whether the stellar defensive teams of the ECACHL will be able to handle the high-flying offenses of the west. Cornell did not seem to have much trouble handling Mankato State in 2003 and lower echelon ECACHL teams, Yale and Union have held their own against Wisconsin and Colorado College respectively this season. Do not be the least bit surprised to see two or three ECACHL teams still standing after the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And do not be surprised when you see one and perhaps even two ECACHL teams in the Frozen Four.
1. Mike Iggulden
Another incredibly tight game, another clutch goal from Mike Iggulden. Iggulden converted the only goal of Friday night's game with just 1:33 on the clock on a 2-on-1 that developed way back in the Cornell zone. For four games now, the line centered by Iggulden with Paul Varteressian and Mitch Carefoot on the wings has totally shut down the opposing top lines. They are not just keeping them off the score sheet, they are controlling the puck the majority of the time they are on the ice and effectively preventing the line they are playing against from even getting scoring chances. Iggulden is making a strong case for honors as the ECACHL's top defensive forward.
2. David McKee
McKee is probably the best goaltender in college hockey right now. He was outstanding in the first game, making at least three spectacular saves that almost no other goaltender can make. In the third period on Friday he made a post-to-post save on Colgate's powerplay that his highly touted predecessors could not have made. The two goals he let in on Saturday came with the team shorthanded, and on good plays by Colgate. In the last seven games, McKee has allowed two even strength goals. In a season where Matt Moulson has been the definitive backbone of Cornell's offense, McKee is giving him a run for his money, not only as team MVP, but as ECACHL MVP.
3. Raymond Sawada
In the first game, Sawada had a couple of scoring chances but was a consistent physical presence. He really stood out in the second game, constantly punishing Colgate players with his bone-crushing checks. Sawada is developing nicely and has grown more comfortable playing with Chris and Cam Abbott. If he is at Cornell for four years, it is barely conceivable how imposing and dominant Sawada will be.
Is the blueline in trouble?
Jon Gleed has now missed four straight games and Sasha Pokuluk left Saturday's game early on. The defensive corps managed without much problem without those two against offensive powerhouse St. Lawrence as both Dan Glover and Evan Salmela were inserted into the lineup. Glover has now played in four straight games and fits in seamlessly in Cornell's outstanding defensive scheme. Charlie Cook and Jeremy Downs have both elevated their play. Doug Krantz has played very well and Ryan O'Byrne has played relatively well. If Gleed returns soon and Glover continues his strong play, the defense should be fine. If Pokuluk is out for an extended period of time, it may be difficult to fill his offensive void.
Why doesn't Hynes score more?
He is a great offensive player, but has struggled to put the puck in the net this season. After scoring 11 goals in his freshman season and nine last season, Hynes is well behind those paces with just four tallies so far this season. Hynes gets more chances than anyone on the team by a wide margin, getting numerous chances on the doorstep each game. At the same time, Hynes gets robbed more than anyone on the team. He needs to do more with the puck when he gets it on his stick on the doorstep. He is a big strong player that is not going to be knocked down easily so he has the luxury of taking his time more than he has been. Off the rush, Hynes is extremely underrated. He should carry the puck more often through the neutral zone. Sooner or later, Hynes is going to absolutely burst out and start scoring at will.
How important is it that Cornell wins the ECACHL regular season title?
Gone are the days in which a team is rewarded for regular season supremacy. In the ECACHL, one has to wonder what the point of the regular season is at all considering every team makes the playoffs. It's a double-edged sword because it makes for great parity, as was seen last season when two marginal teams in the regular season, Clarkson and Harvard, played in the ECACHL championship game. It is a different year in the ECACHL. Two of the four teams that will get first round byes will not be excited about their second round match-ups. For Cornell, finishing first will mean home ice throughout the ECACHL playoffs. The coaching staff very much relies on line match-ups, and a first place finish will therefore give them that advantage in every game.
Although their record is not going to scare anyone, Princeton has improved a great deal since last season and they proved it when they came to Lynah in December. The Tigers do have a formidable offense, scoring just one less goal than Cornell has in ECACHL games. Princeton does have the 16th best powerplay in the NCAA and did convert on it when the two teams met earlier this season. Defensively, the Tigers have struggled, allowing over four goals per game in ECACHL contests. If Cornell plays their game and stays disciplined, they should not have any trouble. The only way they can lose is if they take a lot of penalties and the Tigers live off their powerplay.
Cornell 4 - Princeton 1
It has been a season to forget for the Elis. Yale is one of the worst overall teams in Division I, but they have proven that on any given night, they can give any team all they can handle. Yale is coming off a 5-2 win over St. Lawrence and a tie against national powerhouse Wisconsin just over a month ago. They have proven they can put the puck in the net, but they really struggle in their own end. Cornell's well-balanced offense should again have a field day with Yale's slower, less physical defense.
Cornell 4 - Yale 0