It may not be nearly as long as a professional sports season (unless a season is not being played at all of course), but the college hockey season is long and grueling. Teams like Cornell with deep post-season aspirations are not really even close to the end as they enter their final (and by far toughest) stretch. Cornell has experience with difficult stretches. They went through a 12-game set evolving into the team that is now recognized nationally. During this stretch, the Big Red was able to shift into high gear and play their best hockey.
Over that six-week, 12 game period, the Big Red faced seven teams who were ranked in the nation's top 15 at the time of meeting. After dropping a special teams-dominated affair to Boston College, Cornell rebounded the next day in dismantling Maine. The next weekend saw a win over streaking Brown and then an extremely tough to swallow loss at Harvard the following night. At the time, the Big Red was a respectable 9-4-2, yet somehow, that was unsatisfying. Perhaps the feeling was inflated from losing to their biggest rival. The Big Red was playing well as their record indicated, but they were clearly capable of more. They were playing with the abnormally large pack at the top of the conference, yet not performing at a level that would push them above the group. On their difficult 12-game stretch, the Big Red was 2-2 and it felt as if things could go in either direction. In Cornell's next game, they would battle their way to the positive direction.
Seemingly stuck in neutral, Cornell traveled to Schenectady for a game that was not expected to be much of a classic. Union had played very well to that point, and Cornell had always seemed to have trouble with the Skating Dutchmen, most recently losing to them in a key road matchup last season. The loss came just one night after a critical win over Rensselaer and would prove to be the difference in Colgate edging Cornell for first place in the conference. This game proved to be one of the best and most exciting of the season, virtually a playoff game in January. It was a physical tooth-and-nail battle that saw spectacular goaltending on both sides. The game tied after regulation, a most unlikely hero emerged when Mike Iggulden broke in shorthanded on Kris Mayotte. Mayotte for the third straight game against Cornell had stood on his head and been near perfect, but Iggulden, not known for his flash, made a staggering series of moves to beat Mayotte and bring Cornell its most dramatic victory of the season. Since that point, it has not been all roses for the Big Red, but their results have been. Including the win at Union, Cornell finished their difficult stretch 7-0-1, giving them a 9-2-1 record for the 12 game period. Overall, the win began a still-running 12-game unbeaten streak that has vaulted the Big Red up the pairwise rankings, effectively putting them in contention for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The season is not over yet, so this is not intended to put a final stamp on things, but for all intents and purposes, the win at Union was the turning point of the season. It turned a potentially great team playing good hockey into one playing great hockey. Since the Union game, they have played in several games much like it, and emerged victorious regularly (the tie against Colgate the exception). Cornell found that edge that separates the top tier from the second tier.
Two weekends ago in the most anticipated weekend of the season, Cornell won a dramatic game at Colgate and then outplayed the same team for a tie at home the next night. After capping the long, tough stretch of games starting way back in December, the Big Red would be treated to four games against the bottom four teams of the ECACHL. These games may not have been absolute blowouts, but none of the opponents could muster anything to come close to Cornell. None of Princeton, Yale, Rensselaer, and badly struggling Union had the horses to match up to the surging Red. The cellar dwellers are now out of the way, effectively ending the late-season vacation following what was an extremely challenging 12 game stretch. From here on out, it is going to get progressively tougher. There will be no more easy games or easy opponents.
Cornell did not play its best hockey in the last four games and they did not need to. They were battling injuries and simply did not have to be on the top of their game to beat the teams they played. The team battled hard and was clearly superior in each game, but they did not display the edge that they had against Colgate, though again, they did not need to. Every team at all levels of hockey has a stretch of a few games at some point of the season where they are not playing their absolute best, and if Cornell can do it in winning four out of four games, outscoring the teams by a combined 17-3 score, then it has been a wildly successful vacation. No easy games will get the Big Red away from the general concepts and schemes that have made them successful and dominant. Now, with Cornell on the NCAA's longest unbeaten streak of 12 games, it is time to shift back into high gear as greater competition and more important contests loom.
In the National Hockey League - may she rest in peace - the two-month-long Stanley Cup playoffs is commonly referred to as a long marathon as opposed to a sprint. It is the teams that can sustain their level of play for the longest that can get deep into the playoffs. Sometimes that team happens to be the "best team" in the draw, but often that is not the case. It would be difficult to describe the college hockey postseason as a marathon, as it takes the same number of games to win the National Championship (once in the NCAA Tournament) as it does to win one playoff series in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but many of the same concepts apply. In a sense, the college hockey playoffs start in October. Every game is a playoff game, and thus it is a marathon to the finish. The whole idea behind the best-of-seven series in professional sports is that teams are inevitably going to have bad games so they should not be fatally penalized when they do occur. The Boston Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS would of course be a good example of that. College hockey (and college sports in general) differs in this respect, however, because once a certain point is reached (the NCAA Tournament), there is no margin for error. Not to beat a dead horse, but Cornell was the superior team to New Hampshire in almost every respect in 2003, yet they played a bad 15 minutes and lost the game, ending their season prematurely. So in the big picture, teams are now entering the final stretch of the season-long marathon, which is, perhaps confusingly, a sprint.
They are hot right now, but the Big Red now enter the final stretch in which they cannot falter and need to get better with every game to keep advancing. St. Lawrence and Clarkson are not exactly the top echelon teams that Cornell will be facing in the coming weeks, but a road trip to the North Country will be the perfect bridge from the recent four-game stretch against sub-par competition to the gauntlet that is the ECACHL playoffs and eventually the NCAA Tournament. It is never easy to win in the North Country, especially when you have a big target on you as Cornell now has as the hottest team in college hockey. The Big Red have become very experienced and have been extremely successful in the tight, playoff-type games they have played this season and will play with regularity from here on out. The competition and opposition will get better with every game, so Cornell must in turn raise the stakes in order to keep on winning and keep on playing.
There were quite simply four unconditionally worthy players of recognition this weekend.
1. David McKee
He was tested a lot more against Union than Rensselaer, and came up just short of his 13th career shutout in Saturday night's affair. He was sharp when he had to be against the Engineers, but that was not much. Against the Dutchmen, Cornell had several defensive miscues leading to more chances against than in any game since possibly the loss to Boston College way back in December. McKee was spectacular, making a several great saves - a handful of them eyepopping. He keeps his composure so well, almost totally relying on position and reflexes to make stops. It seems ridiculous at this point that there could be any doubt that McKee is the best goaltender in college hockey, and at the very least worthy of being one of the final candidates for the Hobey Baker Award.
2. Shane Hynes
Hynes really stepped up his game this past weekend, being a noticeable force in both games. He really had two goals on Friday night as he was the final one to touch the first goal against the Engineers, but ultimately did not get credit for it. Still, he posted a goal and an assist, but perhaps his most noticeable contributions were the minors he took on both nights. After Matt Moulson received a cheap shot cross check that appeared to injure the Big Red sniper, Hynes wasted no time to come to his linemate's defense. He may have nullified a powerplay, but he sent a very important message to Rensselaer: stay away from Moulson. Hynes is a no-nonsense, physical force that wins nearly all of his battles and all of the above applied this weekend. He set the tone every time he was out with edgy play. With Varteressian graduating, Hynes is poised to become the new sheriff in town. Expect him to have a letter on his chest next season.
3. Matt Moulson
Moulson actually had not had a multi-goal game since all the way back on November sixth against Brown. He scored on three totally different plays on Saturday, getting his season total to 19 in 26 games. Moulson has still not gone more than two games without scoring a goal the entire season. With his three markers against Union, he has now surpassed his previous career high for goals of 18 set last season. Moulson is one goal away from being the first Cornell 20-goal scorer since Brad Chartrand scored 24 nine seasons ago. If Moulson can keep his pace, he could find himself as a First Team All American and possibly sharing ECACHL Player of the Year honors with McKee.
4. Charlie Cook
Cook has bloomed in the second half of the season, becoming one of the top offensive defensemen in the ECACHL. The fact that the offensively gifted Sasha Pokuluk has been out of the lineup has been absorbed by Cook's emergence. His grown confidence in shooting the puck on the powerplay has eased some of the pressure off of Moulson to shoot. Cook worked really hard in his final home weekend at Lynah and was very confident with the puck. He got goals in both games and did an outstanding job of finding open ice coming out of the defensive zone - something the other Cornell blueliners struggled to do with regularity.
Have Harvard and Cornell separated from the pack?
It appears that after one year out of the penthouse, the Big Red and Crimson have ascended above the rest of the conference. Vermont, Dartmouth, and Colgate have flirted with prominence but have proven themselves a step below Cornell and Harvard. The bitter rivals will likely take the top two ECACHL regular season spots, setting up a rematch of the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 post-season championships. Harvard of course was there last year and will be looking to make their fourth straight championship game. Regardless, they have a good shot at qualifying for the NCAA's. In short, Cornell and Harvard are the top two teams in the ECACHL and are a head above any other team.
Can Cornell compete with the WCHA powerhouses?
It will certainly be interesting if and when Cornell crosses paths with one of the high-flying WCHA teams. Playing North Dakota or Minnesota will likely be comparable to when Cornell played Mankato State in 2003. Both are very strong offensively, but will be overwhelmed with Cornell's defensive scheme. As for Colorado College, Denver, and Wisconsin, these are arguably the top three teams in the NCAA. Contrasting from the norm of the WCHA, these teams are far better balanced than perhaps the cookie cutter team from the conference. They have the ability to win the tight, low-scoring games that become more common in the playoffs. Cornell will be able to match up with them in that they will be able to keep them from scoring a lot of goals. A concern may be that they will have trouble playing less in the offensive zone than they are accustomed to. The powerplay will thus only grow in importance.
How did Sasha Pokuluk do in his freshman season?
It is not certain that his season is finished, but if it is, a final report is appropriate. Pokuluk seemed to change a bit as a player this season. As would be expected, he became far more acquainted with the finer points of defensive hockey than when the season started. Pokuluk has extraordinary offensive upside and displayed it sporadically during the season. As he grew more comfortable defensively, he seemed a little more tentative offensively, frequently leading to him being taken off the top powerplay. It is not as if his offensive ability vanished, but Pokuluk is simply a young, developing defenseman. A very positive thing is that Pokuluk started using his 6'5" frame a lot more in the latter part of the season. As he continues to develop, Pokuluk will learn how to better balance the offensive and defensive parts sides of the game and he could ultimately be one of the top defenseman in college hockey with his imposing size and offensive ability. With Charlie Cook graduating, Pokuluk and Doug Krantz will be handed the offensive defensemen duties.
How tough will it be for the blueline to recover from losing Jeremy Downs and Charlie Cook?
It is often overlooked when looking towards the 2005-2006 season, but the Big Red will need to figure out how to cope without their top two defensemen. They are not Cornell's best blueliners per se or most talented, but they are far and away their most reliable and consistent. Ryan O'Byrne and Jon Gleed will be the most called upon to take up the big minutes. Both have been very good at times this season, but will need to develop more consistency for them to be as reliable as they will be needed to be. The powerplay duties will fall on Krantz and Pokuluk, who have both shown that they have substantial ability and could theoretically end up impacting the powerplay as Doug Murray and Mark McRae did. How quickly the incoming freshmen defensemen, Taylor Davenport and Jared Seminoff, adjust will also factor in. Hopefully, they will be able to step right in and play significant minutes like Cook and Downs did as freshmen. But regardless, Dan Glover and Evan Salmela have proven that they can carry out significant duties. The overall defensive unit they have next season could conceivably be better than this year if every player improves and steps up their contributions. Again, reliability and consistency will be the biggest area in question after losing the consistently steady and dependable Cook and Downs.
The Saints are a dangerous, underrated team that proved they could play with Cornell just a couple weeks ago. St. Lawrence gets a lot of recognition as an offensive team, but they were very strong defensively against Cornell when the Red barely edged them 1-0 at Lynah. St. Lawrence has just one win in their last eight games, but that came against a very good Brown team last Friday night. With little chance of moving out of seventh place, St. Lawrence is in a situation where they have nothing to lose. They will be playing at their best to psychologically prepare themselves for the playoffs, where they are a definite sleeper.
Cornell 2 - St. Lawrence 2
Clarkson is far more dangerous than their record indicates with recent victories over both Colgate and Vermont. The Knights have stumbled a bit recently with three straight losses in which they were outscored 15-3. Clarkson is looking to gain momentum heading into the playoffs as they did last year and they seem to have a good deal of confidence against Cornell, especially after winning the third period of the game they played at Lynah earlier in the season. The fact that their offense has struggled works very much in Cornell's favor, but Clarkson is a tough team to beat at Cheel Arena.
Cornell 2 - Clarkson 0