It has already started, and is only going to get worse. That is, of course, until there's no longer any question that the hottest team in college hockey is as good as its results indicate. It's that time of year when the ECACHL elite are bashed and looked down upon by the western supremacists. After a down year, Cornell has re-emerged in dominating fashion, going 22-4-3 overall. Shockingly, that is not good enough for many spectators. Very few supporters of Cornell hockey would admit that Cornell is quite as good as the record indicates. It is not as if they are seeing the college hockey world through rose-tinted glasses and think that the competition of the ECACHL is top notch, or that a non-conference schedule that includes the likes of Sacred Heart, Army, and Canisius is an extremely tough one.
The ECACHL is clearly not at the level of Hockey East or WCHA, but it is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in 2004-2005 with the possibility that three of its teams could be playing in the NCAA Tournament. The fact that some WCHA powerhouses have not played difficult out-of-conference schedules is of no significance because they play an extremely difficult conference schedule. Surely the same cannot be said of Cornell's conference schedule, but the point is that it's been much tougher this season than in recent years. With two games against Harvard and Dartmouth (both ranked in the top of the PairWise Rankings), two against Colgate and Vermont (both ranked in the top twenty of the PairWise Rankings, and both with wins over top out-of-conference opponents), the Big Red has played their share of tough in-conference opponents. In the eight games against these four teams, Cornell went 4-2-2, a very respectable record considering the competition, and ultimately the difference in Cornell finishing at the top of the ECACHL regular season standings. Again, the top echelon of the ECACHL will never be mistaken for that of the WCHA or the Hockey East, but this year the group has been better than the CCHA and has been good enough to warrant three possible NCAA Tournament berths.
Cornell's out-of-conference schedule this season has not been much to salivate over. Their results have been even less exciting. At 4-2-1 in seven non-conference games, the Big Red posted three of the wins against Atlantic Hockey teams. Of course they didn't just beat these three opponents as would be expected, they destroyed them by a combined 24-2 score. They dismantled them the way a team of their theoretical position amongst the nation's elite would. The loss and tie at Michigan State are probably what have the naysayers sounding off most. The Spartans have underachieved with a .500 record this season and are not considered among the top-tier teams in college hockey. To Cornell's defense, however, Michigan State was the first high-caliber team they faced this year (when Cornell met Harvard in their third game, the Crimson had not yet established themselves as a premier team) as well as the first games they played away from Lynah Rink. Had the two teams met later on the season, favorable results would have been more likely, although the Spartans are better than their record suggests, evidenced by their win against Michigan earlier in the season. Down in Florida, Cornell had clearly ascended from their early-season growing pains. In the only game they played this season against a national powerhouse, Cornell played very close to Boston College. The Eagles won the special-teams-dominated affair, but certainly felt fortunate to come out on top. Cornell proved in this game that they could play with the best in college hockey, but unfortunately, doubters of the Big Red only see the end result, and are dissatisfied with a sample size of only one game. Perhaps the most telling game indicating Cornell's overall standing was their final match against an out-of-conference opponent, Maine. The Big Red's 4-3 win over Maine was not actually that close. Cornell dominated large portions of the game and clearly established themselves as a notch above the secondary contending Black Bears.
How Cornell has played of late is even more noteworthy. It is well documented that they are unbeaten in 14 games, but the critics insist that the competition has been only marginal. Even if that were the case, going two months without a loss is an extraordinary accomplishment. The wins over Dartmouth, Vermont, and Colgate during that stretch were hardly against easy opponents. Also in that stretch are two wins over St. Lawrence and one over Brown, both teams with RPI of over .500. Then there are teams with less-than-stellar records such as Princeton, Yale, Rensselaer, and Union. If beating these teams is so easy, why couldn't Wisconsin beat Yale, or Northeastern beat Rensselaer? It may not say much, but it says that Cornell did not just coast to wins over the lesser teams they have played. Even the lower tier teams need to be beaten - they do not just roll over.
So what does it all mean? At a time of year where rankings, past results, and other things occurring away from the actual games being played seem to be of particular importance, most of this does not matter. Unfortunately for all the critics who are losing sleep over Cornell's high PairWise Ranking, where they are ranked will ultimately not matter at all. This is not college football where the statistical rankings factor into the eventual final standings. If Cornell is in fact overrated, they will not win the National Championship, and will lose well before the title game is ever played. Really, it is too tough to tell how good Cornell is, but that can be said for any of the NCAA's top teams. Cornell very well may be among the NCAA's elite, but it will hurt that they have not played more top-tier teams, much as it may have in 2003. Note that this team has players who have played in five career NCAA Tournament games. Perhaps more importantly, the coaching staff is well conditioned to playing big games against the best of competition. Whether they are overrated or not will thankfully be answered by the team, on the ice, and not on the message boards of the internet.
1. Mike Knoepfli
The captain has brought his game to a whole new level, currently on an eight-game point streak. His emergence has taken some of the scoring load off of Matt Moulson, while giving opposing teams another shooter to focus on. Knoepfli scored the game-tying and game-winning goals at St. Lawrence on Friday, almost single-handedly lifting his team to a victory after an uninspired performance. On Saturday, he continued to produce with a goal and an assist. Now with eleven goals on the season, Knoepfli has set a new single-season career high for goals, and he's one point away from tying his single season career high for points. Of course, Knoepfli's contributions always extend far past the score sheet, with his leadership and his defensive responsibilities. He is not necessarily a guy that lifts spectators out of their seats, but he is one of the players that has elevated the Big Red to its current dominance.
2. Ryan O'Byrne
After missing last weekend due to injury, O'Byrne exploded upon his return this weekend. He scored 16 seconds into the St. Lawrence game and was a force throughout the game. Against Clarkson, he picked up two assists, extending his point streak to five games. O'Byrne was also a force in the defensive zone, being ultra-physical as usual. He was notably very effective in rushing the puck out of the zone, relying more on his skating to beat forecheckers rather than always looking for the pass. On one occasion against Clarkson, he flat-out beat two Clarkson players coming out of the defensive zone and got the puck through the neutral zone, ultimately leading to the Matt Moulson goal.
3. David McKee
McKee saw a lot of work on the weekend compared to what he has seen for large portions of the season. He faced several point-blank shots against St. Lawrence but was mostly equal to the task. Against Clarkson, he was not as busy, but did make one spectacular save, totally robbing Shawn Weller. McKee continues to boost his resume and will soon receive the individual awards that go along with the spectacular numbers he is putting together. More specifically, McKee is a shoo-in for All-ECACHL First Team and All-Ivy First Team honors. He also has to be considered the leading candidate for both ECACHL and Ivy Goaltender of the Year and Player of the Year honors. On a national level, he is a near lock to make either first or second team All American and a definite candidate for the Hobey Baker Award.
When Cam Abbott returns, how will the lineup shake out?
If precedent is an indicator and nobody else gets injured, Mark McCutcheon will come out of the lineup when Abbott comes back. With Mike Knoepfli's offensive emergence, it would make a great deal of sense to put him in an offensive role with offensive players. Stepping onto the left side with Daniel Pegoraro and Topher Scott would be a good fit. Paul Varteressian would take Knoepfli's spot on the shut-down line with Mike Iggulden and Mitch Carefoot. Cam Abbott would then take Varteressian's spot on the line with Chris Abbott and Raymond Sawada. The top line would remain intact.
What team would be the best-case scenario second-round matchup for Cornell?
With a reasonably large gap between seven through nine and ten through twelve, it seems unlikely that there will be any extraordinary upsets in the first round of the ECACHL playoffs. Therefore, the most likely opponent will come from the Clarkson-Union series. Clarkson would be ideal for obvious reasons. The Big Red have pretty well dominated the Knights this year, but still are plenty hungry for revenge against the team that shocked them in the second round last year. From a more technical perspective, Cornell matches up better with Clarkson as they are less physical and less deep than Union. They may boast more skill than the Dutchmen, but that will be hardly noticeable against Cornell's defensive scheme. In addition, Clarkson is far less disciplined (leading in the ECACHL in PIM) and Cornell's powerplay will have a picnic in a best of three against them.
Why didn't Cornell run up the score against Clarkson?
Judging by the fact that it was 3-0 after the first period, Cornell could have definitely built upon their lead. Although they did not sit back after the first period, they did not charge the net with the regularity they had in the first period. Part of this was that it was Clarkson's Senior Night and the coaching staff did not want to embarrass the Knights. Another is that Clarkson is undisciplined and could do some stupid things if the score got out-of-hand. With the Knights being a very possible playoff opponent in the second round, the coaching staff likely did not want to give them more motivation coming into Lynah. As was pointed out in regards to the Varteressian-initiated fight with Matt Nickerson at the end of game one of last year's playoffs, 'you don't want to give the opposing team more reason to want to beat you (Scotty Bowman).'
Why may the win at St. Lawrence be a key turning point in the season?
Many were saying that Cornell was not only due for a loss this pass weekend, but a loss was possibly necessary at this point of the season. It was argued by some that it is not a good thing to head into the playoffs feeling so invulnerable with such a lengthy unbeaten streak. If this were the case, the game in Canton on Friday may have served the purpose of losing in that Cornell played one of its poorest games of the season. They accomplished this, yet still won the game and avoided a hit in the PairWise Rankings. The team got the idea that they are not immortal and that they have to come to work for sixty minutes each night. The Big Red responded the next night by playing one of their best games of the season with perhaps only two shifts the entire game in which they were not fully in control.
5. Dartmouth vs. 12. Yale
Dartmouth is probably better than their position indicates, and is thought of by some to be the best team in the conference. Despite the fact that Hugh Jessiman is one of the most overrated players in college hockey, his return to the lineup will give the team a huge psychological boost. They finished the season with wins in nine of their final eleven games and appear to be firing on all cylinders. Yale, meanwhile, is among the worst teams in college hockey and is at the tail end of a long season. They might be able to keep the first game close, but there is no way they will be able to compete with a team of Dartmouth's caliber for a full series.
Dartmouth in 2
6. Brown vs. 11. Rensselaer
Brown stumbles into the playoffs, losing five of their last six games. Although they are clearly not the caliber of the top teams in the conference, the Bears are solid at all positions and have to be considered favorites against the Engineers. That being said, Rensselaer actually took the season series with a win and a tie, including a dramatic final minute win at the Big Red Freakout on February 12th at Houston Fieldhouse. The Engineers are more talented than their standing suggests, but have not meshed well as a team and have not been disciplined on a regular basis. They could be a dark horse if they get the bounces, but ultimately, Brown is a better team top to bottom.
Brown in 3
7. St. Lawrence vs. 10. Princeton
The Saints had a very inconsistent season, but finished on a high note, playing very well against Cornell and Colgate in the final regular season weekend. St. Lawrence has an important intangible in that they have a lot of seniors and that could potentially carry them far. Both teams have high-powered offense, so expect high scoring games in this series, just like the regular season games between them. Princeton finished the season pretty well and is playing with a good deal of confidence so don't expect any sort of blowout. St. Lawrence in 3
8. Union vs. 9. Clarkson
This could potentially be the closest series of the first round as these two teams are pretty evenly matched. Union is better than their second half collapse would indicate and is looking for redemption after last year's two lopsided home playoff losses to Clarkson. The Knights meanwhile have struggled of late, especially scoring goals. Clarkson has a lot of big-game experience and a lot of underdog experience after last year's huge run so they will probably have the edge in this one.
Clarkson in 3