The ghosts of 2004 have been slain and now it is on to a bigger stage and a bigger challenge for Cornell. The Big Red head to Albany, unbeaten in 16 games, but not as vulnerable as that impressive run may indicate. The results may have been very favorable during this stretch, but Cornell has not been outstanding in every game. Two games in particular, the game at St. Lawrence and Game 2 of the ECACHL Quarterfinals against Clarkson last weekend, stand out as games where Cornell was not at their best. Still, the team came away with 3-2 overtime victories in each game. It is not as if they fool themselves into thinking they are unbeatable, and those games have affirmed that. Those games served as wakeup calls and there is no question that poor performance from here on out will leave them with far less favorable results. Coming off a dramatic win in which the team was not at their best, Cornell could not be more ready to face what lies ahead as they know what it takes to win as well as what it takes to lose.
The field is set and there is no question that this year's crop is the best ECACHL Final Four in a long time. It has been years since the four teams in Albany were so strong top-to-bottom to the point where any one of them is capable of winning at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. Statistically, Cornell is the favorite to win their second conference post-season championship in three years. But since when have statistics mattered in the playoffs? As was pointed out in this space a few weeks ago ("No Longer the EZAC"), this is not a one- or even two-horse race. Handicapping the four teams in Albany is not a simple task as all four are worthy of playing in the NCAA Tournament. The fact that recently-eliminated Dartmouth is also worthy and could still potentially qualify for the tournament speaks for how strong the top echelon really is this season. Even though multiple teams will likely be playing beyond this weekend, only one team will win two games and walk away league champion. Accomplishing this task will be the most difficult undertaking any one of these teams has faced to date.
On one level, Harvard has to be considered a favorite because they have the most post-season experience, playing in the last three ECAC Championship games. They have also had the most success against strong out-of-conference competition. At the same time, Colgate has the most seniors of the four teams, with nine. Vermont is the only team that has played a top-notch opponent in a playoff series this year, meaning they have a bit of a jump on the other three teams. Cornell, however, has to be considered the best team top-to-bottom.
So many other factors come into play in the post-season aside from the ones above, especially when it is single elimination. The best team does not necessary win. Sometimes it is the most disciplined team or the team with the hottest goaltender or merely the team with the most luck. Regardless, the fact that the four teams are so strong while strikingly similar means that any one of them can win. All four teams are defense-first teams who play very well within their systems. Furthermore, they all enjoy excellent goaltending, meaning that absolutely anything can happen over the two-day period in New York State's Capital. How then will Cornell separate themselves from the other teams, and ascend as champion? Though similar, Cornell is the strongest overall team. Consequently, if all four teams play at their best and all other things hold constant, it is Cornell that will emerge victorious.
Special teams, Cornell's strongest area after their general defensive scheme, will need to be at its best, as has been the case for most of the season. In a weekend where each of the four games played promises to be incredibly tight and low scoring, special teams will very likely be a major factor in the outcome. Against Vermont in particular, their powerplay will need to be efficient as there is no question that it is the Big Red's main offensive catalyst. Now there is no question that Cornell can produce five-on-five, but they are far more consistent and comfortable up a man. This may seem like a given, but it is not that simple as you get deeper into the playoffs. Powerplays will be far less frequent this weekend than they were last when Cornell ran into a highly undisciplined Clarkson team. Vermont has had problems taking penalties but the officials will be keeping the calls to a minimum with the stakes so high in a one-game elimination format. Cornell has an advantage that perhaps no other team in college hockey does: having two proficient powerplay units. Not only that, but both units are very diverse and well-conditioned to converting against varying penalty killing styles. If the Matt Moulson (first unit) and Mike Knoepfli (second unit) high slot shot options are taken, Topher Scott (first unit) and Daniel Pegoraro (second unit) will have more room to work their magic on the half-boards and isolate an open man in front of the net or a one-time pass to the far point. With teams totally shutting down the Moulson/Knoepfli option the last month or so, the other players on each unit have really stepped up and contributed, taking advantage of the diverted attention. It can be expected that Cornell will only get three or four powerplays in each game, but perhaps unlike the other teams, that should be enough to convert at least one goal.
On the other side of the special teams equation, Cornell's penalty kill has been nearly impenetrable the whole season and there will be a great deal of pressure to continue that steadiness. For the first time in several years, Cornell's offensive abilities in man-down situations should factor in. The penalty killing forwards have grown incredibly confident and they will be looking for the right opportunities. Shorthanded goals are worth more than just the one goal recorded on the scoreboard as they give a team a confidence that is often the difference in games. Any chance of Clarkson giving Cornell a run in Game 1 was abolished when Cornell converted shorthanded early in the first period. Regardless of their potency on offense, the penalty killers will need to be at their best in order to keep the special teams equation at least even, but hopefully to allow their powerplay goals to be the difference.
It is a cliche used quite a bit this time of year, but playing their game is the recipe for success for Cornell. Extreme responsibility in the defensive zone for all players, a strong and consistent physical forecheck in the offensive zone, overall disciplined play, and their general puck pursuit/possession style will all have Cornell at the top of its game. Especially on Saturday, playing physically and rolling four lines will be a big difference-maker for the Big Red as they will be able to outlast the opposing team that played the later game on Friday.
To put it bluntly, the competition this coming weekend in Albany will be the toughest Cornell has faced all season. The opposition the following weekend in the NCAA Regionals will then surpass it as the most difficult they have faced. That is what the playoffs are about, getting better with each game, and the competition getting tougher with each game. The outstanding leadership of this year's team has brought back the intensive focus that made the 2003 team so successful down the stretch and into the playoffs. It is that focus that has really raised the team to the level that it is at now, a level which nobody expected them to reach this year. There is no denying that there were high expectations for this year's team, but not a 24-4-3 record heading into Albany. The leadership and overall focus will be the difference maker for a Cornell team that is certainly favored to win the post-season championship this weekend.
The 3-1-2 record against the three other teams headed to Albany speaks for itself. The 1-0 loss at Harvard was a great example of where Cornell played averagely and not dictating the flow of the game. Although things will be awfully close, Cornell has the highest capacity to separate itself from the other teams if they are able to reach the level of play that has brought them so much success this season. Quite obviously, any mediocre period, such as the opening frame against Clarkson in Game 2, will cost the Big Red any games from here on out with the stakes only getting greater with each game. They are the best team in the conference and they have proven it by finishing six points higher than second place Harvard in the regular season. Again, it is doing the things that got them there that will see the Big Red standing when all is said and done on Saturday night. The same will apply the next weekend and hopefully beyond.
1. Topher Scott
This wasn't a very tough decision, with his heroic game-winning goal in Game 2. Scott also picked up three assists on the weekend in his usual hard-working manner. Scott's adjustment to college hockey has coincided with the powerplay's ascension this season. He has gotten more confident and was very creative with the puck on the powerplay, allowing it to stay effective, even with the Moulson and Cook options pretty much shut down by Clarkson. Although Scott was certainly not a player who would be expected to score such a dramatic overtime goal, watching him afterwards is one of the more pleasurable experiences one can have. Aside from leaping several inches into the air after scoring, Scott exhibited pure joy and excitement. The guy just loves to play and Lynah Faithful in turn loves him for it.
2. Shane Hynes
Hynes has always picked up his play come playoff time and this weekend was no different. He was Cornell's best offensive weapon recording a powerplay goal and an assist in each game. Hynes got involved every time he was on the ice, whether it was getting the puck to the net, physically dominating Knight defensemen, or taking penalties. He is an emotional player who wears his heart on his sleeve, hence his strong performances when the games matter most. Don't expect his production to drop off one bit.
3. Daniel Pegoraro
His one assist on the weekend may not have lit up the score sheet, but Pegoraro played an integral role in the series. He was outstanding on the penalty kill, frequently hustling his way to man-down scoring chances. He made an outstanding play to get the puck back to Iggulden on the 2-on-1 in Game 1 that saw the latter convert shorthanded to ultimately put the game totally out of reach at 4-0. Pegoraro stepped up most late in Game 2 after Chris Abbott left the game with an injury. For the third period and overtime, he took the vast majority of the defensive zone faceoffs as well as logging major penalty killing minutes. His forte may be his offensive skills, but Pegoraro has really rounded out his game and become one of the most important two-way forwards on the team.
Will Cornell end up at the Minnesota regional?
It may seem like a bad situation now looking at the PairWise rankings, but the reality is that there is a good chance that Cornell will not end up in Minnesota. The best part about it is that Cornell's fate is mostly in their hands. What other teams do will have an effect, but if the Big Red are successful in Albany, there is little chance that they will end up in Minnesota playing on an Olympic sheet of ice. There are deeper specifics, but in short, cheer against Denver and Boston College this weekend and cheer for Minnesota and Maine. But again, if Cornell wins both games, there is a very small chance of them going to Minnesota. Therefore, do not worry about the PairWise rankings and other team's results so much like a certain idle Ivy League team will be doing this weekend, just worry about how Cornell does.
How did Cam Abbott do in his return to the lineup?
Abbott returned this weekend after missing six straight games due to injury. He was readjusting to the speed and returning to game shape, but Abbott was generally outstanding. People may have forgotten how much of a threat he is offensively, but they were quickly reminded in Game 2 when Abbott rifled a snap shot from a seemingly harmless angle that blew by Clarkson goaltender Dustin Traylen yet somehow managed to hit both posts. Abbott was a key player in the overtime game winner in Game 2 wrestling the puck away from a Clarkson defenseman in the corner and getting it to Raymond Sawada who immediately fed classmate Topher Scott for the game-winning goal. Abbott is very dangerous offensively and will give the Big Red an additional offensive dimension, in addition to the Moulson-Bitz-Hynes line and Iggulden-Knoepfli tandem.
Just how much has Mike Iggulden improved?
Put it this way: if anyone had said three years ago, two years ago, or even one year ago that Mike Iggulden would be the most dangerous shorthanded goal scorer in college hockey, that person would be sent to an insane asylum. Iggulden came out for his senior season looking far better than he had at any previous time in his career. It was not until 2005, however, in a game at Union where Iggulden really came into his own. The shorthanded overtime marker opened the floodgates for the assistant captain and he now has four man-down markers on the season, good enough for a first place tie in all of Division I hockey. Iggulden has become exceptionally hungry for goals every time he is out on the ice, specifically when he is killing penalties. Take away the shorthanded goals and he is still one of the premier penalty killers and defensive forwards in all of college hockey. Iggulden has added an edge to his game, an edge that he has passed along to the rest of the team. His leadership and overall emergence as a player in 2005 has been one of the key difference-makers for Cornell this season. This is a guy that was not a regular in the lineup mid-way through his junior year. Perhaps the better question would be "just how much has Iggulden's improvement affected the team?" Well, since that magical night at Union way back in January, Cornell is 15-0-1.
As was said above, special teams situations, though not plentiful, will factor heavily to how the weekend goes. Goaltending will also be of great significance as any one of the team's goaltenders are capable of stealing games. Expect all four games to be extremely intense, low scoring, tight defensive battles.
Semifinal 1: Vermont 1 - Cornell 2
Semifinal 2: Colgate 1 - Harvard 2
Consolation: Vermont 2 - Colgate 3
Championship: Harvard 1 - Cornell 2