So much of the game of hockey is mental. How a team approaches a game and responds to certain situations is what separates the good teams from the great teams. The great teams, the championship teams have a swagger about them, a way about them that instills almost definitive confidence in their success. Entering the much-anticipated ECACHL Championship game with Harvard, Cornell had gone unbeaten in 17 games since falling to the Crimson way back in January. During that time, Cornell had elevated their game from playing good hockey to very good hockey. On Saturday night, the Big Red stepped it up another notch en route to dominating Harvard to win the ECACHL Championship and ultimately earn the right to play at the University of Minnesota at the NCAA West Regionals next weekend.
Against almost every team in the ECACHL, very good hockey from Cornell has been more than enough to generate success. That level of hockey brought them the 22-2-2 record it boasted against conference opponents. It was very good hockey that got past Clarkson in the quarterfinals and the same level of hockey that got them past Vermont on Friday in the semifinals. It was that same level, however, that saw Cornell trailing 1-0 after the first period against Harvard in the championship.
In the opening frame against Harvard, Cornell played well. Of course playing well was only enough for them to get outplayed by the Crimson who enjoyed not only the edge on the scoreboard but the advantage in puck possession and quality scoring chances (despite getting outshot). By no means did the Crimson dominate the opening frame and the score could have been tied or in the Big Red's favor just as easily. A decent period where they found themselves trailing turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. A new team arrived for the second period as the Big Red shifted gears once again, from playing very good hockey to playing outstanding hockey.
As such, the remainder of the game did not at all resemble the first period. Cornell dominated every aspect of the game in the remaining portion and most importantly outscored the Crimson 3-0 to ultimately seal their second post-season championship in three years. The middle frame was without question the best period Cornell has played all season. They outshot Harvard 14-2 with half of the Crimson's shots coming from the defensive side of the red line. Harvard did not record a shot until well after the mid-way point of the period. Cornell's system was at its best, continuously pursuing the puck and cycling deep in the Harvard zone. Right from the first shift, the Big Red forwards were buzzing. And though Harvard goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris was able to fight off the first few legitimate scoring chances of the period, there was no way he was going to be able to stop the relentless attack of the Big Red.
The mentality of battling through whatever stands in their way is one that the team will call upon again before long. The Big Red did not play like champions in the first period against Harvard; they played like a good hockey team at a level short of that needed for success at this stage. After the first period, it was almost as if the team collectively flicked a switch that elevated the team to the level it needed to achieve if they were going to be successful, not only in that game, but in the difficult contests that lie ahead.
It was a beautiful thing to watch for Cornell fans as their team displayed an attitude, an edge, which stated that it simply did not matter what Harvard, was going to do. Even with one of college hockey's most outstanding goalies in net, Cornell came out after the first period totally unfazed by him and the aura that Harvard has generated in recent years. Nothing mattered anymore except for what Cornell did. That is the true mentality of a champion. And ECACHL champions they now are. Yet something about the way Cornell was flying on Saturday night indicates that they will not be satisfied with just a conference championship. It is the spectacular cohesiveness and unyielding attack exhibited in that game that will get Cornell through whatever team stands in their way, regardless of the game's location and the dimensions of the ice surface on which they are playing.
1. Daniel Pegoraro
There are a lot of theories out there as to why Cornell has been so much better this season than last. One not talked about enough has been the play of Pegoraro. A year ago, he was out of the lineup and seemingly useless as he could not get his offensive game going like he did as a freshman. A new player showed up this season, and he played his best games at Cornell when it mattered most. He only picked up two assists on the weekend, but it was his overall play that stood out so much. Pegoraro was all over the ice in both games, making great play after great play each shift. Even more impressive was the grit and hard work he continuously displayed. He blocked two big shots in the third period against Harvard and took well over half of the defensive zone faceoffs for Cornell.
2. Charlie Cook
It is unbelievable now that at mid-season Cook was actually taken off the first powerplay unit. Cook's emergence on the powerplay since mid-January has been one of the factors in Cornell's extraordinary 18 game unbeaten streak. He has added a deadly shot to his skill set and that shot has kept the powerplay pumping even with teams keying in on Matt Moulson. Since the loss at Harvard on January 8th, Cook has recorded six goals and seven assists in 19 games. Those are good numbers for a forward and outstanding for a blueliner. His play in the defensive zone cannot be overlooked, either, as Cook was excellent in both games over the weekend, working hard and staying in position. He continued to be Cornell's best defenseman at effectively breaking the puck out of the zone.
3. David McKee
The numbers still do not speak for themselves, as there are still doubters as to whether it is McKee or the defensive scheme in front of him responsible for the team's astronomical defensive success. It isn't even that he stopped 42 of the 43 shots that he faced over the weekend. It is the types of saves he makes and their timing that continues to bring the Big Red so much success. His value in that regard was very much personified on Friday against Vermont. Early on, it was the Catamounts who enjoyed the bulk of the chances and pressure. Then just a few minutes in, McKee made one of those saves where every person in the building thinks the puck is going in the net. Shortly thereafter, Topher Scott gave Cornell a lead it would not relinquish. In the third period, with the game still in question and Cornell leading by the same 2-goal margin that it squandered earlier in the season in Burlington, Vermont went to the powerplay. On a perfectly executed play, the puck came in hard on McKee and took a big deflection on the way. It was not quite as amazing as the save he made in the first period, but all the same, he got his glove up and grabbed the seemingly scary shot. He did so making it look easy. Yes, the defensive scheme in front of him is the best in college hockey, but McKee is fitting in very well with it and that is something that is not actually so simple (see McKee last year). McKee will now have the best opportunity he has had to establish himself as the best goalie in college hockey in the team's upcoming contests.
How did Sasha Pokulok play in his return to the lineup?
Pokulok saw regular five-on-five shifts in both games and not surprisingly looked sporadically uncomfortable. No blueliner that has been on the shelf for a month makes a seamless adjustment upon returning, especially not a freshman. It would not have been safe for him to return in the NCAA Tournament, but he should be in good shape now that he has two high-octane games under his belt. Pokulok will be challenged a great deal on the bigger ice surface, especially coming out of the Cornell zone. An area in which he struggled even before his injury was his decision-making on the breakout. He needs to keep it simpler in either making a decisive pass or just putting the puck high off the glass. The team cannot afford to have him turning over the puck and unnecessarily reversing it against the more dangerous offensive teams they will be facing.
Why was Mike Schafer sporadically mixing up his line combinations throughout the weekend?
In both games, there were occasions when Chris and Cam Abbott played a couple shifts together with Shane Hynes or Raymond Sawada on the right side. Every time this makeshift line came together, they created a buzz. The Abbotts can be electric when paired together and just one shift can cause a major momentum swing for the Big Red. It makes a certain amount of sense to keep them separated for the bulk of the time as it will throw off the opposing team's coaching staff when they do get a shift or two together. Furthermore, Chris Abbott's role is primarily a defensive one while Cam Abbott is reminding fans how dangerous he can be offensively. The line combinations should remain largely intact, but expect Schafer to make adjustments if the team is struggling to get offense going or is looking to get the momentum back on their side. The Abbotts will be especially dangerous on the bigger ice surface with more room to maneuver and work their magic.
How does this year's team compare with the 2002-2003 squad?
The two teams definitely contrast in many ways and are not as similar as certain media-types would like to characterize them. The team from two year's ago, although deep, relied upon a core of players: Ryan Vesce, Sam Paolini, Stephen Baby, Mark McRae, Doug Murray, and David LeNeveu. This year's team is deeper in that it relies on every player to contribute in a certain role and if they do that successfully, the team is going to win. No player is relied on to play spectacularly, such as Colorado College with their Hobey Baker candidates Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling. As was seen in the WCHA Championship Game, if their line is shut down, the Tigers have a lot of trouble winning. LeNeveu did not elevate his game in the NCAA Semifinals in 2003 and the team lost as a result. There just is not that reliance on any one player to be outstanding for the team to win. At one point, people thought if Moulson was shut down, the team couldn't score. At another point, people thought if McKee faced a lot of shots or was scored on early, the team would fold. This Cornell team has two successful powerplay units, successful penalty killing units, four lines that can score and play defense, two centers who can take defensive zone draws (Vesce took virtually every single defensive faceoff in 02-03), and a well-balanced defensive corps. The similarity is that the two teams both are extremely responsible at all ends of the ice and have outstanding leadership.