Certainly followers of Cornell hockey were not overly worried heading into the first weekend of ECACHL regular season action. The Big Red more than held its own against a superior team in two games last weekend and have handled the Bulldogs and Bears without much problem in the last few years. Many may have overlooked this weekend, looking forward to the far more exciting matchups next weekend against archrival Harvard and potential conference powerhouse Dartmouth. It is never quite how you picture it beforehand.
The officials apparently did not realize that people came to the games to watch the players. Referee Chip McDonald had the time of his life on Friday night, dishing out a total of 168 minutes in penalties, resulting in 20 total powerplays. As one would expect, there was absolutely no flow to the game as a result. It may be early in the season, and the Big Red may be a team that traditionally thrives off of their special teams, but they are a team that needs and thrives off of flow and 5-on-5 play. Yale outplayed Cornell on Friday night, thriving off of the slow, highly penalized game. The Big Red were getting outworked and were badly beaten in the physical aspect of the game, two things that can rarely be said about Cornell teams in recent years.
It was just one of those nights where everything seems to be going against you. And although the game was close, do not think for a minute that Yale has all of the sudden risen to Cornell's level. The Bulldogs did play extremely well while the Big Red struggled for large parts of the game. Yale executed their game plan of slowing the game down and finishing every check perfectly. Heading into the third period, it was tough for anybody in attendance to see Cornell coming out of this game on top with Yale having the momentum. In that third period, Cornell was still not near at the top of their game, but they better neutralized Yale's relentless attack. The Big Red picked their spots and waited for their opportunity to take the game and that chance came on a powerplay when Raymond Sawada gave them the lead.
Cornell definitely did not coast to victory after that as Yale turned up their game, throwing everything they had at them. The Big Red kept plugging along and despite some very close calls was able to come away with the win. It was ugly and they barely pulled it off, but they won all the same. It counts the same as any other win. There will be nights where things just are not going right, but great teams still find ways to win. That statement, while more applicable to the Yale game, certainly pertained to Saturday night's game against Brown to some extent as well.
The Big Red did not play nearly to the level at which they were capable against Yale. They played undisciplined hockey, were outworked, and beaten physically by the Bulldogs. As should have been expected from a team of this caliber, none of these were areas significant issues against Brown. There were, however, substantial obstacles that Cornell had to overcome, perhaps more than they will have to face in any other game this season. Chris Abbott remained on the shelf as a result of his first period injury from Friday night. The other assistant captain Jon Gleed was also not dressed due to injury. And Sasha Pokuluk, coming off of one of his most impressive performances in a Cornell uniform on Friday night was ineligible to play because of a third period game disqualification he received at Yale.
Coach Schafer has always utilized his entire lineup, frequently rolling four lines, and playing all six defensemen equally. That is not say that his teams have distinct cores in which the team is built around. It would be tough to argue that the two most valuable players on the Big Red are anyone but goaltender David McKee and senior left winger Matt Moulson. After that, the rest of the team's core is arguably Chris Abbott, Gleed, Pokuluk, O'Byrne, and Pegoraro. Along with Moulson, these five skaters most definitely see the most ice time and responsibility out of all the players on the team. Abbott is one of the top two-way centers in college hockey and a premiere penalty-killer that brings a high energy, responsible game every single night. Gleed is the eldest blueliner and will looked upon for consistent, steady play and to set the tone for the entire team in the defensive zone. Pokuluk is the team's most skilled blueliner and among the most skilled in college hockey, quarterbacking the top powerplay unit as well as being a force defensively. These three pillars that this team is built around were all out of the lineup against Brown.
Speaking of battling and finding a way to win, the Big Red who did suit up on Saturday night in Providence personified those notions to the highest degree. Only traveling with one spare defenseman, Schafer could only dress five, one of which Taylor Davenport, had never played in a college game before. Another, Jared Seminoff, had only played in three, and had certainly struggled in them. With two of your top three defensemen out of the lineup and little experience in the others, facing any team could be recipe for disaster, but they found a way to get through it. Juniors Ryan O'Byrne and Dan Glover both turned in Herculean performances, both logging well over 30 minutes each. Seminoff rose to the occasion, playing far and away his best game of his short career and Davenport seemed to find his way despite being thrown into the deep end in his first performance with Cornell.
With Abbott out of the lineup, freshman Ryan Kindret drew into the lineup for the first time in his career. He only saw two shifts the entire game, however, and Schafer was forced to mix and match his lines. With Abbott out, Pegoraro was called upon to play even more than he usually does, double shifting for the majority of the game, playing in all situations. He may not have gotten on the scoreboard, but was even more outstanding defensively than he usually is. Freshman Mike Kennedy also saw a substantial increase in ice time, playing a regular shift for the first time this season. He, like Seminoff, rose to the occasion and worked hard, was responsible defensively, and made things happen in the offensive zone.
The whole team brought forth extraordinary efforts and they had to with the lineup omissions. It was obvious in the third period that the Big Red players were exhausted due to the increased ice time and responsibility. Add all that to the fact that this was one of the most physically draining weekends a Cornell team has played in quite some time because both Yale and Brown were finishing every check. Cornell showed heart and again. They found a way to win. It will not usually be that way for the Big Red, particularly against most of the ECACHL teams. With a full lineup, they will merely need to execute their game plans and play within their system and they will be successful. That is not say that they will not need to work hard and that they do not usually work hard. After all, among other things, Cornell has a reputation as a team that will outwork the opposition every night. That is not expected to change and it cannot if they are to be successful. This past weekend was a different situation, however. The Big Red had to come up with more than they usually do, and they did. They found a way to win back-to-back games despite extreme obstacles, particularly against Brown. But even in a game where they were outplayed like they were by Yale, they kept their composure and got it done.
Of the great teams in any sport, in hindsight, you only hear about the glory from when the team was at their best. What you often do not hear about is when the team faced difficult times and did not have their best, yet were still able to prevail. It is the team that can find a way to win when things are not going their way that separates them from the others and will become the ultimate difference in the end. That being said, depth could be a concern for the Big Red. With only 14 forwards and the thirteenth and fourteenth being freshmen (Kindret and Connors), they are only an injury or two away from having to play in more games with dangerously shortened benches. That being said, the Big Red had an immensely successful season in 04-05 being one injured player from serious trouble. Only time will tell, but the experience gained on the weekend, battling through significantly tough situations cannot be overlooked, and in the grand scheme of things it could be a major turning point in the season, even if it was only the second weekend.
1. Mitch Carefoot
Carefoot put forward an Iggulden-like performance over the weekend, being a powerful two-way presence every time he graced the ice. He made an art form out of his penalty killing, reading the play brilliantly, and converting a short-handed goal against Yale. Carefoot really embodied what the Big Red did against Brown, grinding every shift, and consistently getting the puck to the net. His biggest play came in overtime against Brown, tipping a Cam Abbott shot past Brown goaltender Adam D'Alba to give the Big Red the hard-fought win.
2. Ryan O'Byrne
O'Byrne was one of the biggest reasons Cornell survived the absences of Pokuluk and Gleed on Saturday. He logged serious minutes and except for a couple of minor penalties, O'Byrne was extraordinarily steady and responsible. He had to be at his absolute best and he was. O'Byrne drew an assist on the opening goal by Moulson and is settling nicely into his expanded offensive role. There is no question that he has taken major strides even since last season, answering the call to become a dominant, top two defenseman.
3. Cam Abbott
Some (including me) were wondering where the offensive depth was going to come from this season. Cam Abbott seemed to have answered that on Saturday with a two-assist performance, capping off a weekend where he was consistently Cornell's most dangerous offensive player. It is still amazing that Abbott does not put up more points considering how many scoring chances he generates, but the points will come if he continues to perform as he did this weekend. All this and he did not even see any time on the powerplay.
When will the officials put their whistles away?
This is not the first time the ECACHL has cracked down on obstruction, and everything else. Sound familiar? Much like they have in the past and just like the National Hockey League, the officials will begin to back off after a couple of weeks and stop calling every single thing they see. Hockey is not figure skating with sticks and sometimes the suits in the front office lose sight of that (Gary Bettman!). For the time being, the crackdown will hurt Cornell because they are such a physical team. That being said, they took plenty of penalties this weekend that are textbook calls that should be called. The Big Red will need to play more disciplined with or without a crackdown.
Is Quinnipiac for real?
Two wins against respectable competition and we are already hearing it: 'This Quinnipiac team is for real.' How is it that people have such bad memories? First of all, since when have Harvard and Dartmouth been fast starters? But more importantly, history indicates that teams sprinting out of the gate are not necessarily at the top of the mountain come playoff time or in some cases even close. Last year at about this time, Union was the talk of the town. They started the ECACHL season 6-0-0. That's right, they won their first six games. Anyone want to venture as to how they did after that? 2-13-1. In Quinnipiac's defense, Union did not beat any teams in their first six that placed in the top five in the conference at season's end, but as was said Harvard and Dartmouth are notoriously slow starters. The Crimson are being overrated and will not be nearly what they were the last four seasons, while the Big Green will get it together and join Cornell and Colgate as the conference's elite when all is said and done this season. As for Quinnipiac, finishing in the top eight would be a surprise and extraordinary overachievement.
Will Evan Salmela get a chance to play?
He is number eight on the depth chart, but one has to think that he will get an opportunity. Seminoff should stay in the lineup and he has already improved greatly in just four games. Doug Krantz rebounded from a miserable first period against Brown and played better in the second and third periods but has looked a lot more like the Krantz from the first half of last season than the one second half. Krantz is an ideal fit as the second powerplay's quarterback but he has struggled mightily in that role so far this season as the second unit has been anemic and unable to get the puck in the offensive zone, mainly due to Krantz's decision-making coming through the neutral zone. Salmela is adept offensively and responsible. Make no mistake, Krantz has far higher upside with his size and his offensive ability, but if he cannot get it together, expect Salmela to come in.
What was wrong with the ice at Brown?
It may have been very warm outside, but that is not why the ice was so terrible. The zamboni driver found it more useful to wave at the fans than actually resurface the ice, driving way too fast to have the intended effect of the zamboni. This of course led to a several minute delay prior to the third period but players from both teams were falling down all night. It's one thing that they have no fans or atmosphere at Brown, but they should probably get their zamboni staff together.
Unquestionably the most anticipated road weekend of the regular season, the Big Red will travel to archrival Harvard and potential powerhouse Dartmouth this weekend. Do not let their early struggles fool you. The Crimson and Big Green will make up the toughest traveling partners in the league after Cornell and Colgate. After both teams were thoroughly embarrassed last weekend, these two teams will be very hungry to get things going, especially at home against arguably the top two teams in the ECACHL.
After two years of playing during Cornell's winter break, the Lynah East game will be in November. As a result, expect even more Cornell fans than usual. Hundreds of students will be making the trip while hundreds more alums will be in attendance as well. Last year, the Big Red lost the game in what turned out to be their last loss until falling to Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament. The Crimson endured significant losses from last year's team, and though they will still be competitive and likely stay in the top six of the ECACHL, they will descend from the powerhouse status they have had the last four years. Cornell is better at every position and in every area. If Chris Abbott returns, the team is disciplined, and can get into their flow, there is no reason they should not give the Lynah East Faithful a win.
Cornell 3 - Harvard 0
Off to an 0-3 start in the ECACHL, including embarrassing losses to Princeton and Quinnipiac last weekend, Dartmouth will be looking to get some steam going at home this weekend. Dartmouth may have lost Hugh Jessiman and Lee Stempniak after last season, but they still have a ton of potential. This is a team with a great deal of upside at every position and once they get going they will be among, if not the best, team in the ECACHL. They have the most mobile and offensively capable blueline in the conference and have several dangerous weapons up front. For Cornell, they have traditionally struggled at Thompson Arena as well as the game the night after Lynah East.
Cornell 1 - Dartmouth 2