In the last several months as Cornell has begun to assemble its recruiting class for 2006, several eyebrows have been raised at the size of the prospects. Of the five forwards committed according to Chris Heisenberg's website, four are listed at 6'0" or below. The success of the Big Red in the last decade, particularly in the last four years, has come on the heels of their reputation of being a big, physical team that is tough to play against. Every forward would finish their checks while every defenseman would make opposing forwards pay the price every time they came into the Cornell zone. Is Cornell getting smaller? Or are they just playing smaller? Either way, something seems drastically different, albeit only six games into the 2005-2006 campaign.
Yes, the sky is falling. Cornell is only 4-2 coming out of the gates in the 2005-2006 campaign (note the sarcasm). Well it may not be falling, but it certainly fell on Saturday night as Cornell was absolutely destroyed by Dartmouth, 6-1. Despite their early struggles, the Big Green is easily the best team Cornell has played this season. They are definitely the most physically imposing team in the ECACHL and as badly as Cornell played on that night, Dartmouth played extremely well. Cornell may have been largely successful in their first five games, but their trademark physical play ranged from erratic to non-existent in the games at Yale, Brown, and Harvard. Cornell did win these games, but it was not in the dominating fashion that many are used to. Dominating in this case infers the physical aspect of the game. A systematic identity of Cornell in the last five years has been their ability to wear down opponents during the course of a game with their persistent physical play. The forwards relentlessly forecheck while the defensemen keep opposing forwards away from the net by smart play, good positioning, and advantageous size.
The Big Red has done relatively well to this point in the season with a 4-2 record, better than the 2-2-2 record they had during the similar stretch last year (the six games following the two games against Army and Sacred Heart). That team last year at this point had not even been a shadow of what it would become so there is some good news for the people currently panicking. That being said, last year's team was never embarrassed and thoroughly beaten the way Cornell was on Saturday night. Despite the respectable record, Saturday night was just a culmination of what has been brewing during this stretch on the road. They may have won the first three games of the road stretch, but they did not do it by playing "Cornell hockey." In the last five years, Cornell hockey has become synonymous with hard work, physical domination, outstanding special teams, and a spectacular defensive scheme. Each of these aspects has appeared but only sporadically for the Big Red thus far and never all at once.
Even though Cornell has not brought all of their identity traits at one time in any games this season with the possible exception of the first game against Michigan State, they have still displayed some aspects of each area in every game. Of course when Cornell was playing outstanding hockey in the latter stages of last season, they were executing each facet of their identity and should the Big Red reach that level of play this season, it will be with them executing each individual facet of "Cornell hockey." Against Dartmouth, they displayed none of these usual advantages, and that is the first time that has happened to a Cornell team in several years. The team was completely listless but it was not as if any of these areas were deficient for the first time this season. That is both good and bad. The bad is that they have not been able to put it all together yet although that is a pretty lofty expectation just six games into the season; the good is that they have proven that they are just as capable in all of these areas as the successful Cornell teams of the past. It has been a question of putting it all together at the same time. Cornell was able to find ways to win against Yale, Brown, and Harvard despite not executing each aspect of their identity at once, but against a superior Dartmouth team, Cornell brought none of these quintessential team traits.
It is tough to identify which area is the cause for most concern but Cornell's traditional identity core has been generally lacking perhaps a bit more than it had during this time last season. Goaltender David McKee has been barely a shadow of the 2004-2005 version, seemingly unable to make the big and timely saves that epitomized him last season. It has not helped that the team's traditionally impenetrable defensive scheme has been mediocre at best. The Big Red's blueliners have struggled on the breakout and have missed assignments with regularity, though a couple defensemen are far guiltier of this than the rest. The forwards have been decent and have put forward a relatively effective attack, but as has been mentioned, their physical presence and forechecking pressure has been considerably less than what it needs to be for this team to be successful. Special teams, particularly the penalty kill have struggled. The first powerplay unit has fared well while the second unit has been non-existent. It is somewhat expected that the penalty kill would struggle out of the gate with a lot of new faces seeing time on it so a steady improvement should be expected. Right now, they are not shutting down the passing lanes and allowing opposing players to penetrate the slot from the perimeter, something that almost never happened the last four years. The positioning in the defensive zone by both the defensemen and forwards has been inadequate and some of the players are not reading the play and reacting fast enough.
Another area of concern not directly correlated with Cornell's identity as a team has been leadership. Now we do not see what happens inside the dressing room before and after games and between periods, but there is not enough happening on the ice from the team's leaders. In large part, the Big Red have played with great energy and intensity but there have been a handful of occasions this year where they have looked totally lost on the ice. The second period in the second game against Michigan State and parts of the games against Yale and Harvard have seen Cornell totally dominated. The leaders of the team cannot let games get out of control as they did against Michigan State and Dartmouth. Players like Mike Knoepfli, Mike Iggulden, Charlie Cook, and Jeremy Downs were such great leaders because they kept the team on a very solid footing, regardless of the situation. They just played steady, reliable hockey no matter what was happening in the game. Leadership appears in many different forms in hockey, but all of the best leaders at every level keep the team from getting too high or too low, not just off the ice but during games on the ice as well.
When all is said and done, the season is only six games old so panicking or getting worried will not serve much purpose at this point. It should be noted that Cornell's worst game last season was the game at Dartmouth and that game, too, was at the end of a stretch of four straight games on the road. Any way you look at it, Cornell needs to get back to the basics of what they do well at as a team. They need to find their identity, the one that has brought them so much success: a tight defensive scheme, relentless forecheck, hard work, pressure all over the ice, and solid and timely goaltending. As has been mentioned, Cornell has shown that they can execute in the pivotal areas upon which their identity relies. It is a matter of putting it all together and keeping it all together. With five of their next six games on home ice and playing teams generally below what they have seen to this point, this stretch coming up will be instrumental in the Big Red growing as a team and getting back to playing "Cornell hockey." It all comes back to them getting back into their system and re-establishing the different aspects of their identity and thriving off of it. It may seem far away from them now, but it really is not as distant as it may seem.
1. Dan Glover
As a solid, stay-at-home blueliner, Glover is not noticed when he playing his best. In a weekend where several players were noticed for the wrong reasons, Glover continued to give the team solid contributions. Glover has been one of the few consistent performers this season, giving the team steady defensive efforts in each game. Glover worked hard this weekend and generally played well even in the game against Dartmouth. He will never be a flashy player, but he contributes a great deal to the team's defensive identity. Glover has seen a lot of ice time this season, playing in the top defensive pairing with Ryan O'Byrne.
2. Mitch Carefoot
Carefoot had another great weekend and was promoted to the top line in the second half of the Dartmouth game. He is showing far more offensive ability than he displayed in his first two years. Carefoot did a good job of getting the puck to the net against Harvard and was one of the few Cornell players who played relatively well against Dartmouth.
3. Ryan O'Byrne
Somewhat maligned in his first two seasons, O'Byrne has quietly become Cornell's top defenseman in the early going of this season. He has cut back on his bad penalties (except for a couple of gaffes against Dartmouth) and has been a physical force for the Big Red. O'Byrne saw big minutes against Harvard and scored a powerplay goal in the first period. He has kept things far simpler in the defensive zone and has been generally more reliable and responsible there.
What lineup changes will be made this weekend?
Both Dough Krantz and Jared Seminoff have struggled a great deal in the early part of the season. Although Krantz scored a huge goal to tie the game against Harvard, he still made several costly defensive mistakes and has generally been a liability performing well below the level he played at in the latter stages of last season. Seminoff has been a step slow, frequently having trouble with coverage both off the rush and the cycle, resulting in several penalties. There is no question that he has the ability but right now he is not performing at a level high enough to stay in the lineup. Evan Salmela and Taylor Davenport could very well replace Krantz and Seminoff in the lineup this weekend. Salmela is just as capable offensively as Krantz is and though undersized, is quicker and more decisive with the puck. Davenport played well in limited ice time against Brown and should get his shot to prove he can play at the college level. As far as the forwards are concerned, it is difficult to see either Ryan Kindret or Matt Connors cracking the lineup. Kindret would maybe come in for Evan Barlow or Tyler Mugford, both of whom struggled on the weekend, but neither has played poorly by any stretch. Within the lineup, the lines will likely be juggled, however. Carefoot was playing with Byron Bitz and Matt Moulson in the second half of the Dartmouth game and with his grit down low and ability to get the puck to the net, he would be a good fit on the top line. As reluctant as coach Schafer has been to put Chris and Cam Abbott together in the last two seasons, it may be the right time to reunite them. They both bring a great deal of energy and offensive creativity and are sparkplugs who can turn the momentum of a game with one shift. Expect Raymond Sawada to move back into more of a checking role where he will be more inclined to deliver his bone-crushing checks than he has been on the top line. A line of the Abbotts and Sawada could be an interesting one which would leave Barlow, Daniel Pegoraro, and Topher Scott, all small, but very creative offensive players.
What is wrong with David McKee?
So much of goaltending is confidence and it is clear right now that McKee does not have much. The best thing for him is to return to Lynah against some sub-par teams. It is not as if he has lost his ability to stop the puck or anything. He should be fine, and expect him to quickly return to normalcy in wake of the worst performance of his career at Dartmouth.
What is wrong with Sasha Pokuluk?
Pokuluk played arguably the best game of his career at Yale but was not nearly the same this past weekend. Perhaps he was a bit tentative after receiving a game disqualification in the Yale game. Either way, he was tentative with the puck and frequently targeted by opposing forecheckers. He needs to utilize his strengths better, playing more physically with his huge frame, skating the puck, and shooting the puck. He did not do any of these against Harvard and Dartmouth for whatever reason. He is still young so inconsistency should be expected, but returning home should give him the confidence he needs to get his game back together. Pokuluk needs to be playing at an extremely high level for Cornell to have success this season.
Union is a hard-working and good-skating team, but they do not have nearly the level of talent that Cornell has. This game will be a perfect opportunity for the Big Red to get their game in order and expect them to come out flying, obviously looking for redemption for their performance at Dartmouth as well as being anxious to play again in front of the even more energized Lynah Faithful of this year.
Union 1 - Cornell 4
RPI is a tough team to get a handle on. Last season, they were far more talented than their results indicated, but they lacked any sort of cohesion or intensity. It appears in the early going of this season that they have refocused as a team, making them a far more credible threat this time around. On home ice in particular, Cornell has the advantage, but it will not be a blowout by any stretch as the Engineers are a definite sleeper pick in this year's ECACHL.
Rensselaer 2 - Cornell 3