Nobody said it would be easy. And it will not be for the players, coaches, or even fans. In a season where the Big Red has not bumped into many obstacles this season en route to achieving an extraordinary record. Although there have been few occasions where the entire team has been healthy, they have never run into major injury epidemics. In wake of backup goaltender Troy Davenport leaving the team in January, David McKee has not gotten tired or injured and thus the coaching staff has not been forced into a possibly dire situation. The team only had one bad stretch of games where they lacked intensity and struggled to score goals. Since January, they have cruised with pretty much no points of negativity. It was inevitable that they would bump into difficulty at some point and that near-certainty has finally occurred. A team that is without question the hottest in college hockey, going 17-0-1 in their last 18 games and winning their conference's regular season and post-season championships, is seemingly being punished in getting sent to the University of Minnesota for the NCAA Regionals.
The draw itself is not of particular concern. Cornell finished fifth in the PairWise Rankings and thus will be in the same quarter of the draw as the weakest number one seed (Minnesota), and as a result will avoid the undisputed top three teams in college hockey - Boston College, Denver, Colorado College - until the Frozen Four if they are to get that far. There are many who think that Cornell is the best overall team in the regional, citing Minnesota's extreme vulnerability as a likely hindering factor for the talented, but inconsistent team ranked ahead of the Big Red. Ohio State is also a very talented team, but they are young and undisciplined. Maine is perhaps the team that is the favorites to come out of the regional despite being the number four seed. They have a wealth of experience being just a year removed from the National Championship game. Judging by the fact that the Big Red has already beaten the Black Bears this year, they are certainly a team that Cornell can beat. It is not the teams themselves that is generating distress in the world of Cornell hockey as Cornell really has no weaknesses are points of definitive susceptibility.
It is almost funny to think that had Cornell played just a shade below the extraordinary level that they have played over the last two months, they would be headed to Worcester or Amherst. Certainly a team that has accomplished what the Big Red has this season should not feel like they are being punished in being sent not just all the way to Minnesota but to the University of Minnesota to play on their international ice surface in front of their fans. Any team playing on home ice for what is supposed to be a neutral, do or die game, is an unfair advantage let alone a team that is playing on an ice surface with different dimensions than what the opposition has been exposed to on a regular basis this season. As far as location, it is without question the worst-case scenario for the Big Red. In response, only one thing can be done: overcome each and every obstacle. To put it bluntly, the situation sucks and is borderline ridiculous, but it is the situation the Big Red faces all the same. They need to beat the teams primarily, but there are clearly other forces in which Cornell will need to get through in order to be still alive Sunday night.
People love to characterize Cornell as a big and slow team quite simply because they have a lot of big players. And as a result, there are not too many people who think Cornell can win this regional. Many of these same people would pick the Big Red on a North American surface, but these detractors feel as if their style is just not conducive to the bigger ice surface. They may have a point. After all, Cornell is a big team that does not boast an extraordinary level of skill or speed. However, this is a team that can succeed on the big ice as they are well coached and perhaps the most well-balanced and diverse team in college hockey.
They will obviously have to make adjustments to have any chance at success this weekend. It is the smaller, more skilled players who succeed on the bigger ice. These types of players have built Middlebury's extraordinary level of success over the years in Division III. Cornell relies upon its forwards to be physical and consistently put pressure on the puck. They can still play that style, but the emphasis on positioning and not getting caught behind the play will be magnified in that odd man rushes will quickly develop with any miscalculations. That is particularly true with the skilled forwards Minnesota has and their experience playing on the bigger ice.
Perhaps the biggest concern on the bigger ice is the Cornell blueliners coming out of the defensive zone. Some of the defensemen have struggled in this area at times even on regular sized ice against less talented, lesser forechecking teams. Both Ohio State and Minnesota (if they play them) will pressure the Cornell defenders a great deal. The Buckeyes boast a great deal of size up front while the Gophers have quick, shifty forwards who always look for and capitalize on turnovers. It is the big, immobile defensemen who struggle on the big ice. Colgate's Joey Mormina and his lethargic strides would be regularly victimized by opposing forwards with the extra room he would need to move whereas he is fine on North American ice.
It is no secret that some of the Cornell blueliners are less speedy and more immobile than others. Coming out of the zone, all of the defensemen will need to work together more than they are used to. It helps that Cornell's system has the wingers coming to help if there are problems on the breakout as well as the center always being present down low. Doug Krantz, Sasha Pokuluk, and Ryan O'Byrne are going to need to keep things simpler than usual and utilize their partners when they are being pressured coming out of the zone. If they do not see an option, the puck needs to quickly be iced or put high off the glass. There cannot be any hesitation. Certainly a positive is that none of the three defensemen listed above are paired with one another. Jon Gleed, Charlie Cook, and Jeremy Downs are their partners (respectively) and they can skate their way out of trouble, even moreso on the bigger ice. Regardless, with the additional room, the bigger blueliners who are not fleet of foot are going to get the puck and often be forced to skate with it. When they do, they will need to keep their feet moving and make quick decisions to avoid turnovers and ensuing penalties.
Positioning all over the ice changes with the extra real estate. In the defensive zone, blueliners especially need to keep their mentality of staying between the puck and net and keeping their eyes up, playing the man at all times. The quicker, skilled forwards thrive off the extra room and are far more able to get to the net on the bigger ice. In the offensive zone, the defensemen will not play as close to the boards as they are used to, staying closer to the middle. Both Ohio State and Minnesota have some big time skaters who when they see open ice, they explode much like Mike Iggulden and Daniel Pegoraro do. It is particularly important that the center or third forward stays high. This will not be much of a change to the system Cornell already employs, but it is not nearly as safe to allow 3-on-2's on bigger ice against skilled teams. Cornell's best defense has always been its play in the offensive zone and that will be of particular importance this weekend. The wingers must continue their physical pressure in the corners but can never get too far behind the puck even if the team still holds possession. A team like Minnesota relies on turnovers in their high defensive zone to get odd man rushes to fuel their offense. In general, it is about being more aware and more responsible.
The powerplay, Cornell's most dangerous and consistent source of offense, will generally be unharmed except for everyone needing to be more aware and responsible which will be the case everywhere. The penalty kill will need to adjust though. Angles are perhaps the biggest difference on the bigger ice both for defensive zone play and for goaltenders. It is this area which is the most likely to victimize Cornell against Minnesota should they play, because adjusting to the new angles is something that only happens with experience and is not a simple adjustment.
No matter how hard they try, the forwards will not get as much play on the boards as they are used to. They will therefore need to stay well positioned at all times and look for the more skilled forwards. Cornell has a lot more skill than many people like to give them credit for. One could think that the top line of Matt Moulson, Byron Bitz, and Shane Hynes will be less of a factor without as much physical play. Everybody knows that Moulson has extraordinary puck skills, but Bitz and Hynes are more known for their size. The latter two are very skilled and dangerous with the puck. Cam Abbott, Chris Abbott, Topher Scott, and Daniel Pegoraro will be particularly effective with more room to work. The fact of the matter is that Cornell is has an extremely diverse and well-balanced group of players, meaning they can make the adjustment. The same cannot necessarily be said 2002-2003 squad who would have been more vulnerable to the situation that the team will face this weekend.
Every team in any sport at any level will face a less than ideal situation. It is the teams who fight through that adversity rather than being shell shocked by it who are successful. Herein lies an opportunity of enormous proportions for the Cornell hockey program. The Big Red is a better team than the other three teams headed to Minneapolis. Minnesota unquestionably has more skill and Ohio State likely does as well. Maine is a stronger skating team. But Cornell has proven throughout the course of the season that they are far better than the sum of its parts. The team that went 9-4-2 to start the season was about the sum of its parts indicating that the individual players are quite good, but it is the team that has bloomed since January who can beat anyone, anywhere. Again, with this gargantuan, almost unthinkable task, comes an opportunity. An opportunity for Mike Schafer to establish himself as perhaps the best coach in college hockey as far as preparation. An opportunity for the several hundred Cornell fans to show the several thousand Minnesota fans what it is to be a real fan. An opportunity for the team to show that it is as good as they believe they can be - so good that it can such a lousy situation and fight through it. Really, that is their only option if they are to continue playing. And that is what every team plays for now - the right to continue playing and continue winning until there are no more games to winFirst Round Predictions
Bemidji State 1 - Denver 4
Harvard 3 - New Hampshire 2
Mercyhurst 0 - Boston College 3
Boston University 3 - North Dakota 2
Colgate 1 - Colorado College 2
Wisconsin 4 - Michigan 3
Maine 1 - Minnesota 3
Ohio State 1 - Cornell 3
Harvard 1 - Denver 3
Boston University 1 - Boston College 2
Wisconsin 2 - Colorado College 4
Cornell 3 - Minnesota 2