The most heralded player bolted early. With just one NHL-drafted player, there are no true superstars and they're not very fancy. And until this season, there were not many concerns about losing the graduating seniors of 2005. That is not to say that the class of '05 does not boast important cogs for the Big Red, but in general, most onlookers saw 2005-2006 as THE year for Cornell hockey. Coming into the season, each of seniors had distinct roles on the team, but none were considered irreplaceable. This has changed.
During Cornell's Frozen Four run in the 2002-2003 season, talk surrounding the class circulated almost entirely around Hobey Baker finalist David LeNeveu. After LeNeveu left to pursue his pro career in the summer of 2003, there was not much left to salivate over in the class. This did not change even when Mike Iggulden and Paul Varteressian finally cracked the lineup as regulars in the second half of the 2003-2004 season joining Mike Knoepfli, Charlie Cook, and Jeremy Downs. One year later, there is nothing spectacular or flashy about the class of '05, but their importance to the team has become substantial to the point where this year may be THE year for Cornell hockey.
Even with Matt Moulson's extraordinary goal scoring prowess and David McKee's spectacular goaltending, Cornell does not rely on individuals to garner them success. This is a key difference from the Frozen Four team. Every player fills a role, though perhaps not the role in which they thrive, often sacrificing individual accomplishments in the process. The seniors, who will be playing their final regular season games at Lynah Rink this coming weekend, have personified the "filling the role" mentality that carried the Big Red to its current ten game unbeaten streak. This is a team that has allowed three even strength goals during that span, including five straight games without allowing one. Where exactly do the seniors fit in to this equation? The five seniors, each filling a different role, are carrying the team on their backs in the sense that they are all doing their jobs and doing them well every night.
In the last year, Iggulden and Varteressian have grown tremendously, and in the process, they have gone from fourth line fill-ins to mainstays relied upon nightly to set the tone. Iggulden is without question the most improved player over the past year. He leads the ECACHL in short handed goals and has blossomed into perhaps the best defensive forward in the conference. Iggulden's awareness in the defensive zone, both even strength and short-handed, has been contagious for the Big Red as a team. Its defensive scheme has somehow managed to improve from its already dominant positioning at mid-season. Iggulden has become one of the most important players on the team, seeing the most important defensive minutes of any Cornell forward. He is no superstar, but he is the kind of player that is the ultimate difference for champions. Varteressian finally became a regular late last season, ultimately finding his identity as a physical, momentum-shifting forward. Like Iggulden, Varteressian has seen a lot of important defensive minutes and will continue to do so. The ascension of Iggulden and Varteressian in the past year has made an enormous difference for the class of 2005 and has been generally instrumental in the Big Red's success this season. As a side note, the fact that it took both players until their senior years to become regulars should be an example to the several Cornell hockey players that end up quitting after one or two seasons of not cracking the lineup. Not only did Iggulden and Varteressian finally crack the lineup, they have become substantial figures for the Big Red.
The other senior forward, Knoepfli, has had a different progression. He has been a regular since he began his Cornell career. Always solid in all zones, Knoepfli has continued his solid play, showing up every night and doing his job. Knoepfli is Cornell's most versatile forward, filling whatever role he is put in. Knoepfli has a certain presence off which the team has fed. He is not flashy, but personifies how the team has played for much of this season: not getting too high and not getting too low. He is another type of player that absolutely needed to win championships.
Blueliners Downs and Cook have also been regulars for their entire Cornell careers. Downs has very quietly bloomed into one of the ECACHL's top defensive defenseman while Cook has elevated his game to become one of the conference's premier offensive defenseman. Downs comes to play every night and sees a ton of ice time, almost exclusively against the opposition's top players. Cornell's ability to totally shut down the opposing team's offense five-on-five stems a great deal from Downs. Although undersized, Downs is very possibly the fastest player in the conference. Cook struggled with consistency for the first part of the season but has taken the example of his classmates and become more of a nightly producer. Cook has finally found his comfort zone on the powerplay, shooting the puck more than he ever did. The powerplay has thus been able to keep its pace even when Moulson's shot from the high slot is shut down.
For an unheralded, largely overlooked class, they are poised to possibly take home some individual honors. Both Iggulden and Knoepfli have to be considered leading candidates for ECACHL Defensive Forward of the Year. Downs will get considerable deliberation for ECACHL Defensive Defenseman of the Year. Cook is a candidate to land on the All-Ivy and/or All-ECACHL first or second teams. As is the nature of these players, it is unlikely that any of them care much about individual awards. They want to do what they have done for the majority of their Cornell careers: win.
With Cornell rising on the national scene and poised to take their third regular season conference championship in four years, it is the quiet, blue-collar senior class that is behind the team's success. As far as leadership goes, they are setting the tone every night. Cornell is in first place because they have not had any bad stretches in conference play, which is what separates them from the other four teams that have contended for first place. There may be nothing spectacular about the class of 2005, but make no mistake, they will be missed next season. They are proving they can lead this team with the poise and consistency needed to be a champion. With all the talk that next year is THE year, maybe, just maybe, this is THE year, too.
1. Mike Iggulden
With a short-handed goal in each game on identical, double-deke to the forehand breakaways, Iggulden has become one of the premier penalty-killing forwards in college hockey. His contributions to the score sheet pale in comparison to how he actually played. He was arguably the best forward on the ice in both games, seemingly moving at pace a notch above the other players.
2. David McKee
The numbers do not tell the whole story. Cornell may be the premier defensive team in the NCAA, but that would not be the case without McKee. He has been simply outstanding, not allowing an even strength goal in five straight games. The Big Red did not play their best defensive games of the season this weekend, making a few mistakes that led to a handful of very good chances both nights. McKee was equal to the task, making it look easy, stopping 42 of 44 shots on the weekend.
3. Matt Moulson
Moulson has adjusted his game in response to the added attention he has seen. He continues to be Cornell's biggest offensive catalyst despite the lack of room he is getting on the ice. He had a goal and three assists on the weekend as he looked more to make the pass than the shot as well as sporadically moving out of position to throw the opposition off.
What would have happened if Chris Higgins came to Cornell?
Rumor has it, the former Yale All-American and World Junior Championship standout had committed to Cornell prior to going to New Haven. (This seems to be highly unlikely considering Cornell has had almost no scouting presence among New England Prep schools since the mid-1990's, and Higgins played at Avon Old Farms. Sam Paolini was Cornell's last prep school player and he had to "talk his way on to the team.") It seems pointless to speculate, but had Cornell landed this offensive superstar, they may have had a totally different fate in 2003, one that more than likely would have included a national championship. Higgins would have likely left after that season like he did at Yale, but had he stayed, Cornell would have been a totally different team last year and this year. Regardless, had Higgins come to Cornell, the complexion of the class of 2005 and the program, as a whole would be totally different.
Where does David McKee stack up with his predecessors?
He has done what Head Coach Mike Schafer challenged him to do before his Cornell career began: make people forget who his predecessor was. McKee has become perhaps the best goaltender in college hockey and has done so as a sophomore. Being an undrafted free agent, it is unlikely that he will leave early, so the best is likely yet to come for the Texas native. It is always difficult to compare goaltenders across different eras, which played on totally different teams. It will all come down to the big games. There is no question that he will be included in Cornell's goaltending dynasty, but whether he surpasses his predecessors is up to him. He has three chances to do it.
What team will be Cornell's biggest competition come playoff time?
For much of the season it has looked as if it would be Cornell and Colgate as the top contenders of the ECACHL. The Red Raiders have really struggled, just coming off a four game winless streak with a victory over Princeton. They are very well still a contender, but Harvard has surpassed them in the standings. The Crimson have a bit of a weird team with mixed results, but they have proven to be really tough in the conference. They are the most tested in the playoffs, playing in the last three ECAC championship games. They have also had the most success in out-of-conference games. The Crimson always seem to elevate their game at the right time and expect nothing different this season. Dartmouth has really come alive in the last month, living up to preseason expectations. They have the best offense in the conference and have become a legitimate contender. Albany is going to be unbelievable.
Will Evan Salmela stay in the lineup?
It makes a certain amount of sense that Salmela got the nod to replace the injured Sasha Pokuluk over Dan Glover, as it is Salmela that boasts the superior offensive skills. Salmela played pretty well in the two games over the weekend in limited overall ice time, but surprisingly did not see much time on the powerplays, which are his bread and butter. The coaching staff probably likes the added offensive presence on the backline as opposed to the stay-at-home Glover. Glover is the better overall defenseman and fits better into Cornell's system, so expect him to get back into the lineup soon especially if Salmela is not getting powerplay time.
When will the National Hockey League season be canceled?
At this point, Commissioner Gary Bettman is totally wasting everybody's time. The season will be officially canceled any day now and thank goodness for that. Neither of the two sides appears to have any interest in making a compromise, or forming a "partnership" as Bettman calls it, and are both dead set on winning. That clearly is not going to happen. The Players Association has never had the upper hand and is getting killed in the PR battle. They will be the ones to crack when one side does.
Cornell will see a radically different Rensselaer team on Friday night than the one that barely put up a fight on January 15th at Houston Fieldhouse. On that night, the Engineers did not even appear to be trying, effectively humiliating themselves, and what was once one of the most prominent and respected programs in college hockey. The Engineers have bounced back, winning four of their last seven, and coming off a huge home win against Brown. They also accomplished a rare feat in sweeping the North Country in late January. In that span, they lost to conference powerhouses Vermont, Dartmouth, and Harvard, but gave all three teams tough games. RPI is not a team of the Yale or Princeton mold, but rather is more of an equivalent to Brown, meaning Cornell will need to bring their A-game.
Rensselaer 1 - Cornell 2
By looking at the statistics, there is no reason why Cornell should not handle Union easily. That being said, the Big Red has always seemed to have trouble with the Skating Dutchmen. Union has struggled mightily, dropping eight straight ECACHL games, starting with a dramatic 2-1 overtime loss to Cornell in Schenectady on January 14. Goaltender Kris Mayotte has always seemed to save his big games for Cornell, and despite getting lit up in recent weeks, he will likely be on his game Saturday night. Like Rensselaer and unlike Yale and Princeton, Cornell will need to bring their A-game to get past Union. They work incredibly hard and will not just beat themselves.
Union 0 - Cornell 3