Your best players have to be your best players. If they are not, then what happens? For a good portion of the season, Cornell's best players have performed at levels far below what they are capable of and it has cost Cornell games. That was very apparent during Cornell's three-game winless streak where they allowed nine goals and only scored three. During that period, there were very few bright spots for the Red while the team's best players were underperforming and its secondary players were also not contributing. Against Niagara, most of Cornell's top players were still stuck in mediocrity, but the secondary players arrived in high style and ultimately carried the team.
The highly regarded freshmen class had not done much to impress in the early going of the season. That negative perception was put to bed this past weekend, however, with the six freshmen combining for four goals and six assists in the two games. After Jon Gleed was hurt in the first shift of Friday night's game, Jared Seminoff saw a huge increase in ice time and he ran with it, playing superb defensively and looking the most comfortable he has all season. Tyler Mugford continued his grittiness both five-on-five and on the penalty kill, doing all the little things right, as he has all season. That brings us to the fourth line.
The injury to Junior Mitch Carefoot resulted in Mark McCutcheon's promotion to the second line and Ryan Kindret moving onto the fourth line with fellow freshmen Mike Kennedy and Evan Barlow. There probably was not much expected from this line entering the weekend and the likelihood of them seeing a regular shift was slim to none. As it turned out, this line was the team's best on both nights. Kindret scored goals on both nights, the first two of his career. Kennedy assisted on Kindret's goal on Friday night and tipped a Sasha Pokulok shot on the powerplay on Saturday night. Barlow scored the Big Red's first goal on Saturday night, awaking a Cornell team that had been mostly listless to that point in the game. The offensive contributions came as a direct result of the line showing exceptional energy every time they were on the ice. They just played with an edge, as well as a great deal of enthusiasm, and led the team not only offensively but were able to change the momentum in the team's favor at critical junctures of each game.
The story of Friday night's game was the emergence of junior right winger, Mark McCutcheon. McCutcheon, who has been one of the team's best forwards this season and most improved players from last season, converted two huge third period goals to propel the team to victory on Friday night. McCutcheon, along with the freshmen line and Raymond Sawada carried the team's offense in the game while the team's primary scoring threats were mostly silent.
The main offensive players for the Big Red, Matt Moulson, Byron Bitz, Cam Abbott, Topher Scott, Daniel Pegoraro, and Sasha Pokulok had below-par weekends in that they generated very little in either game. The top line's struggles have been well documented and the line's mainstays (Bitz and Moulson) are still without an even strength goal on the season (not including Moulson's empty net goal on Saturday that was technically even strength). Coach Schafer has tried a lot of things to get them going, including moving Moulson to the right side occasionally, and using all of Scott, Cam Abbott, and Carefoot as the third player. It would be one thing if they were generating chances, but really they have been generating next to nothing. Pegoraro, Cam Abbott, and Scott have all shown flashes of energy, but have not been able to produce. After a very promising freshman campaign, Pokulok's offensive upside has been non-existent.
The good news is that the team was able to score goals this weekend, ten in total after scoring just three in the previous three games combined. The bad news is that the team's primary offensive players have struggled badly for three straight weekends. The good news of the bad news is that the team's secondary players raised their level of play this weekend making for some interesting decisions for the coaching staff. The question now is how the team's top players will return to form.
For starters, if Mitch Carefoot returns from injury this coming weekend, then one player will have to come out of the lineup. Conventional wisdom suggests that Kindret or Barlow would come out of the lineup, and McCutcheon would go back to the fourth line with Carefoot moving back to one of the top two lines. But that may not be the best solution at this point, considering McCutcheon may have earned a longer look on a scoring line and both Barlow and Kindret had exceptional weekends. Keeping them in the lineup would mean that either Mugford comes out or a more prominent, longer tenured player comes out.
At this point, the forward lines should undergo some sort of makeover and shake things up a bit. Right now, the attack is showing to be less than the sum of its parts. Spread some of the enthusiastic freshmen around. Barlow, Kennedy, and Kindret have the skill to play bigger offensive roles. Despite the fact that Moulson's numbers have been quite good to this point, anyone who has watched him the last couple weeks will notice a significant decline in his effectiveness on the ice. Perhaps moving up higher energy players like McCutcheon or Pegoraro would get Mouslon going. Perhaps the biggest disappointment offensively to this point has been Cam Abbott who is still without a goal. Earlier in the season, he was generating more chances than any other player but has gone quiet in recent weeks. Maybe the time has come to move him back to Chris's wing. The two read off of each other and are dangerous every time they are on the ice together. There are many options for the lines, but the fact of the matter is that some changes need to be made in order to get the team's best players playing their best.
Things are still not looking pretty but the team is on the right course. They have displayed an ability to thrive in every area, but have just not gotten it all together at once. The next step is for the team's best players to play to their abilities and carry the team. The fact that they have a reliable periphery of players is a very good thing. Depth is so important, particularly in the playoffs. There were certainly some question marks about some of Cornell's depth both up front and on the blueline prior to this weekend, but those concerns can subside at least temporarily while the unease shifts towards to the team's core.
1. Ryan O'Byrne
Far and away the biggest exception to Cornell's top players struggling, O'Byrne had another fabulous weekend for the Big Red. With Gleed getting injured on the first shift of Friday night's game and not returning for the weekend's duration, O'Byrne played in the thirty minute range in both games. He was steady defensively and scored two goals and an assist, including the go-ahead goal late in Saturday's contest. Not too many people would have imagined O'Byrne as the team's second leading goal scorer at this point in the season, but he has really evolved as a player at both ends of the ice. He may not get a ton of recognition, but O'Byrne was far and away the best player on either team during the weekend and likely Cornell's best player so far this season.
2. Mark McCutcheon
The creative, flashy forward that was advertised two years ago finally arrived on Friday night. McCutcheon scored the first two goals of his collegiate career (not counting the empty net goal he scored at Yale earlier this season) a mere three minutes and thirty-two seconds apart in the third period of Friday night's game. The first goal stood up as the game-tying goal and the second wound up as the game winner. They were also both great plays, the first being a snipe to the top shelf over the goaltender and the second an end-to-end rush shorthanded where he dodged three Niagara players and finally the goaltender--unquestionably the prettiest Cornell goal so far this season.
3. Ryan Kindret
Kindret may have dressed in two games prior to this weekend but he saw maybe eight shifts in those games combined. Kindret drew back into the lineup as a result of Carefoot's injury, but drew a regular shift in each game. He was one of the Big Red's better forwards, converting a goal in each game. He worked hard and brought some good energy to the team. Kindret looked a little bit like Knoepfli with his similar size, skating style, and ability to protect the puck. It remains to be seen whether Kindret forced his way into the lineup for next weekend.
Where has the defense gone?
People may have been comforted by the three total goals allowed in the two games last weekend, possibly indicating a return of the team's stellar defense. Niagara, however, managed seven goals this weekend, bringing the team defense back into question. Gleed going down the first shift of the first game did not help things, particularly on Friday night. That was only in addition to Dan Glover sitting out a second straight weekend. After dissecting the games, one will see that the team's five-on-five defense was about as good as it was last weekend. Five of Niagara's seven goals came on the powerplay (technically four but their first goal on Saturday night came right after the Cornell penalty had expired). Three or four of the seven goals David McKee would have wanted back (especially the fourth goal on Friday and the third goal on Saturday). All of the sudden, the problem looks to be less team defense and more penalty killing and goaltending. A goal is a goal, however, and the team will need to shore up these areas because it is unlikely that they will be able to score five goals against most ECACHL teams.
What is wrong with Pokulok?
Pokulok played his best game of the season at Yale but has barely appeared since then. He is not playing like a player of his size or his talent. Pokulok may not be an overly physical player, but he needs to use his size to create space and make plays both defensively and offensively. He is not playing with a lot of confidence right now and his play is suffering as a result. Pokulok needs to carry the puck more and thus needs to find the open ice with more regularity so he can lead more rushes. He needs to keep things simpler in the defensive zone, moving more north-south, rather than east-west to avoid the many turnovers for which he has been responsible of late. Finally, Pokulok needs to show his enormous shot more than just once a weekend, even if he is only on the second powerplay unit. Instead of taking the demotion to the second unit as a negative, Pokulok needs to raise his game and carry that unit. He is certainly capable of doing it. As soon as Pokulok gets to the level that he is capable of, Cornell will improve in all aspects. That is how vital he is to this team's success.
What is wrong with McKee?
Speaking of lacking confidence, McKee is still badly struggling through the worst stretch of his career. It is harder for non-butterfly goalies to get out of slumps because their game relies less on correct technique than it does feeling good physically and mentally. When athletic, reflex goalies get in the groove, they stay hot for longer and seem nearly impenetrable. Domink Hasek is the perfect example. Nobody talks about the long stretches he would have in Buffalo where he would struggle badly and these stretches usually occurred at the beginning portions of seasons. It would take him months to get into the groove and by the stretch drive, he would be impossible to beat. McKee has lost his game, but it should not be permanent. It will help when the team improves its penalty killing, but it's no secret that a goaltender needs to be a team's best penalty killer. McKee will get there, but it will take time and patience. The coaching staff has been patient with him so far and has stuck with him, which is a good thing. Expect McKee to be back to normal when it matters most.
How did Evan Salmela play in his first action of the season?
Salmela got off to a rough start on Friday night blowing the coverage on the Niagara player in front of the net who converted the Eagles' first goal of the evening. Salmela was really thrown into the deep end, playing well over 20 minutes after Gleed went down in the first minute. Salmela is a different kind of defenseman than any other that Cornell has. He constantly tries to join the rush and help create offense. He is dynamic offensively but is undersized and a step slow. There is no question that he works hard, however. Salmela did not look bad this weekend and may have made a good case to eventually gain a regular spot especially if Glover remains out of the lineup for whatever reason he has been the last four games.
Is Doug Krantz getting better?
Krantz got off to a miserable start to the season, and was Cornell's worst player the first few games of the season. The coaching staff stuck with him and he has seen a reduced role in the lineup being taken off the second powerplay. He has simplified his game and reduced the amount of turnovers he makes. Still, Krantz has not come close to fulfilling his potential. He needs to use his size better and become more of a physical presence and bring his level of intensity up a notch. In addition, he needs to see the ice better and skate the puck when he has room.
Is Jared Seminoff getting better?
Seminoff may very well be Cornell's most improved player since the beginning of the season. It is a lot harder adjusting to a higher level as a defenseman than as a forward but Seminoff his quickly found his way. He may not be all that talented, but he works extremely hard and plays with a great deal of intensity. He has seen a lot of ice time and has seemingly improved every shift and was easily Cornell's second best defenseman after O'Byrne against Niagara.
It is the last weekend before Cornell breaks for finals and expect it to be the best weekend Cornell plays in the first part of the season. Things are slowly coming into place and the team will have a perfect opportunity to get it all together on home ice against lesser-caliber teams.
Princeton has a good amount of talent and is well-coached. They have really stumbled out of the gates, however. After winning two of their first three games, they lost six straight conference games before beating Quinnipiac on Saturday. Cornell has always matched up very well with Princeton, mostly dominating them in recent years. Friday will be a good opportunity to pound on a team for the first time this year.
Princeton 1 - Cornell 5
After dropping their first two games at Michigan, Quinnipiac went on to win their next eight games, including their first two conference games. They then went on to lose five of their next six. This will be Quinnipiac's first trip to Lynah as a member of the ECACHL and they will likely be very overwhelmed with the atmosphere. Despite their early success, the Bobcats are weaker in every area than the Big Red so expect a lopsided affair.
Quinnipiac 0 - Cornell 5