There is no guaranteeing National Championships, not for any team. Not even for this team. They could have the best personnel in college hockey but that is not gong to be enough. Every season, there are a handful of teams that are legitimate contenders to take home college hockey's greatest price and this year will be no different. For the fourth time in the last five years, Cornell will be in that group. The Big Red, however, will have it tougher than the other national powerhouses. Thanks to the Ivy League and the clueless suits who run the show, Cornell is always handicapped by playing fewer total regular season games and fewer games against out-of-conference foes. This has hampered the Big Red in recent years in a couple of ways. Cornell is not getting enough opportunity against the top competition during the regular season and thus is that much less prepared for that caliber team when they will inevitably face them in the NCAA Tournament. Only being allowed to play 29 regular season games, with 22 of them in the ECACHL, only leaves seven games against out-of-conference competition. With the unwillingness and obvious fear of many stronger programs to come to Lynah Rink for games, that further reduces the pool.
Last year when the Big Red played three legitimate out-of-conference teams in Michigan State, Boston College, and Maine, in addition to other high-caliber teams in their conference, Harvard, Colgate, Vermont, and Dartmouth, the total strength of that group pales in comparison to what the other national contenders will see on their schedules. Contrary to what the coaches and players may say, it is not so simple to play ECACHL teams for the massive majority of the season and then play teams who have been playing far tougher schedules in the NCAA Tournament. Even if Cornell is superior or equal to these teams, it takes time to adjust to that caliber of play. It took them half a game to get accustomed to that level of competition against Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and it almost cost them the game, forcing them to rally back from a 2 goal deficit to win the game.
Of course last season's biggest controversy for the Big Red was the fact that they put together a 26-4-3 record prior to the NCAA Tournament seeding, not to mention winning the ECACHL regular season and playoff titles, yet could not crack the top four of the PairWise Rankings. A nearly perfect season was not good enough for the intensive formula that goes into NCAA Tournament seeding process. As a result, they got extremely unlucky and had to go out to Minnesota and play on an Olympic sheet of ice and play the Gophers in their home rink. Now many Cornell supporters blame the process for this seemingly unfair outcome, but it was not the procedure's fault. The Big Red did get the top number one seed in the 2003 NCAA Tournament despite losing to both Maine and Ohio State in out-of-conference competition. All that being said, this is not the time to analyze the process but to say that Cornell is perfectly capable of grabbing the top spot of the PairWise Rankings despite being in a seemingly inflexible spot with their schedule. Whether they are the best team in college hockey is not significant because they once again have more potential than any other team in the ECACHL and that is a big step in getting them to where they need to be in the PairWise Ranking. That is, of course, if they can fulfill that potential.
As has been noted, the Big Red will play a far easier schedule than the other contenders, but even with that schedule they can get to the top of the PairWise mountain. The key is obvious: winning the out-of-conference games. Winning almost every, if not every, in-conference game goes without saying and should be an expectation at this point. The ECACHL as a whole will not be as strong as it was last year and even then Cornell went 18-2-2. Cornell can win every game this season. Now this may seem a little ridiculous and off-base but it is not like Cornell has not accomplished this feat before and they have not been far off in two of the last three seasons. The hump will be those out-of-conference games and it starts the first weekend of the season with two games against perhaps the toughest team Cornell will play in the regular season, Michigan State. Of course the Big Red will need to play one game at a time and stay grounded through all of the hype, but success in those two games will tell a lot about what this year's team can do and could have an enormous role in where Cornell places in the PairWise Rankings come tournament seeding time.
This is all fine and good, but is this year's team good enough to win the National Championship? That is a tough question to ask at this time of year. They certainly have the potential to be good enough to win the National Championship. As was mentioned earlier, there will be several teams good enough to claim supremacy in April like there are every year. As much as the pollsters and fans want to crown the National Champion in October, we will not know who the true contenders are until March. And out of those teams, it will probably be luck that separates the ultimate champion. That does not sound great for any fan, but it is the reality. At the beginning of last season, there was a lot of respect being given to the Big Red, but nobody thought they would ultimately be a National Championship contender. By the end of the season, there was not much doubt that they were good enough to win it all. So as nice as it would be to win every game this season, even though it is more realistic than one would think, what matters most is how the team is shaping up in March. It is really tough to deny that they will be around come March. The high expectations at this point, although warranted, may just turn out to be a lingering disappointment as they can with any team. They need to fulfill their potential but they have to get all the breaks down the stretch. Looking at it with some final perspective. If last year's team far exceeded preseason forecasts and was knocking on the door and if this year's team can exceed them, it may mean what we all hope.