After giving up nine goals in two games last weekend, nobody could comprehend how the team's defense could have declined so much. Two games later, and the Big Red have flip-flopped. All of the sudden, the team's defense has improved (although still not nearly up to past standards) and the offense has gone dry. In fact, Cornell has gone three straight games without converting an even strength goal, scoring just three goals total in those games. Both goals on the past weekend came on two-man advantages. Looking at all of that is frightening. In the first five games of the season, goal scoring did not seem to be a problem. Now, it looks to be an extremely serious situation.
If it is not obvious by now, the Big Red are a very different team than what they have been the last five years. Right now, that is a bad thing as Cornell struggles through a three game winless streak, but it does not mean this team is doomed by any stretch of the imagination. It does mean that the coaching staff need to look at making bigger changes than benching Evan Barlow and moving Cam Abbott to his off wing on the top line.
There are a few reasons as to why Cornell has struggled so much offensively. Some will say that they have poorly executed their offensive system of forechecking and wearing down the opposition off the cycle. In essence, Cornell has geared its five-on-five offense in the last five years around physically forcing the puck to the net by winning the battles in the corners. Some will look at the box scores from the weekend and think that because Cornell amassed 69 shots in the two games that they just got unlucky or that they ran into hot goaltenders. A team can have 100 shots on goal, but it does not necessarily mean that any of them are quality shots. Such was the case for Cornell this weekend.
The Big Red was mostly effective in getting the puck deep in both games and cycling a fair amount. However, they rarely were able to turn that pressure into quality scoring chances. What happened then? One of the issues prior to the weekend was that Cornell has not been physical enough in the offensive zone. Although Cornell was getting the puck deep, they were not winning the physical battles like they have in the past. This should not be a surprise considering that the Big Red are not so big any more. The team has gotten noticeably smaller up front. That does not mean that they cannot still be physical, but it does mean that they are not going to dominate the corners on a nightly basis like they have in the past.
Speaking of surprises, opposing teams are not unprepared to face Cornell. Most of the ECACHL coaches have been tenured for long periods of time and have seen Cornell with regularity. It is no secret what they are going to do. When Cornell boasted so much size up front and great corner players, it did not matter what opposing coaches would tell their players, because the large Big Red players were basically impossible to contain. Now that opposing coaches have been watching Cornell dominate the corners for several years, they are preparing their players better. Both Union and Rensselaer kept things very simple in their own end. They would just tie up the Cornell forwards on the boards, always staying between them and the net, and clog up the slot to avoid any sort of penetration. That, coupled with Cornell not being big enough anymore to just barrel though to the net, results in a team that cannot consistently generate quality chances.
There is no question that this is a talented team. The high expectations prior to the season were there for a reason. But this is a differently talented team than the teams of the last five years. They may not be as physically imposing, but they are quicker and more skilled while still being aggressive. The system of dump and chase with a tough forecheck is not what will bring this team success. Players like Matt Moulson, Byron Bitz, Topher Scott, Cam Abbott, Daniel Pegoraro, Evan Barlow, Chris Abbott, Doug Krantz, Sasha Pokulok, and Jon Gleed are well suited to carrying the puck and generating chances off the rush. They can also thrive off of the cycle, but only a limited amount.
Any way you look at it, the offense needs to add a dimension. It cannot just be dump and chase and hope to get bounces. The talent can be utilized better by incorporating set plays off the rush and taking advantage of some the craftier players on the team. This is still a team that can win those battles in the corners, just not on a regular basis. In mixing up the attack a bit more, opposing coaches and blueliners will have to guess more, making Cornell far tougher to play against.
Tinkering with the system is just part of the solution. The powerplay needs work and even though the top unit has produced at a relatively consistent rate, it needs to be a lot better. Both Union and Rensselaer totally shut down the powerplay because they keyed on the two pointmen, Moulson and Ryan O'Byrne. The whole powerplay has been built around the one-time pass to O'Byrne and Moulson's shot. There is not nearly enough creativity or options down low. Scott on the half-boards needs to penetrate the slot with greater regularity and Bitz must be a reliable option on the back door play. If he cannot do it, then Pokulok should get another shot. Regardless, every other team Cornell plays is going to key on the two pointmen as Union and Rensselaer did, so the powerplay needs to diversify so that it can adjust when those options are not there. The second unit has not produced all season, partially because the personnel has been frequently changing. But having Barlow and Mike Kennedy on that unit is a good idea because they are both skilled and have good instincts. Krantz and Pokulok are the keys and they really need to step up their games.
It cannot just be the powerplay or Moulson. Cornell needs to get scoring by committee as they have in the past if they are going to be successful, plain and simple. The powerplay has not been good enough and not one line has done the job either. Changing up the lines further than what was done last weekend could help. For some reason, the coaching staff has been reluctant to play Cam and Chris Abbott together the last two seasons. Every time the two are on the ice together, they seem to create offense. Cam Abbott simply is not doing enough right now. He has generated more offense than any other player on the team, but has just three points (all assists) in eight games. Reuniting him with Chris Abbott should get him producing like has been the case in the past. He is one of the key players to having scoring depth. Bitz and Moulson simply need to do more than they have been doing (zero even strength goals this year) and perhaps being reunited with sparkplug Scott will get them going. The trio has had success in the past and Scott has been one of the few sources of offense during the recent dry spell.It may look really bad right now, but things are not quite as bad as they seem. The key of course is not to get too low when things are bad and not too high when things are good. That is what last year's team was so good at and only time will tell how this year's team is in that regard. Regardless, it is time to make the proper adjustments so that Cornell can maximize its assets and reach its high potential.
1. Mark McCutcheon
McCutcheon's play has steadily improved since the beginning of the season. He remains on the fourth line, but has been able to generate a lot more offense in recent weeks. On a weekend where there was very little generated in terms of offense, McCutcheon consistently was able to make things happen in the offensive zone. He worked very hard and was effective on the penalty kill as well. It will be interesting to see whether he gets put into more of a scoring role if the team continues to struggle to generate offense.
2. Jon Gleed
Gleed had his best weekend of the season and led the defense to its best weekend of the season. As usual, he was not flashy, but did the little things in the defensive zone to limit chances against. He will have to play that way every weekend for this team to have success.
3. Topher Scott
Scott battled hard in both games and was the only forward who was able to find open ice with the puck with any kind of regularity. Scott was at the center of nearly every scoring chance the Big Red had over the weekend but struggled to make the last play work, whether it be a pass or shot depending on the chance.
What happened to the Lynah Faithful this weekend?
It would have been very difficult to surpass the level that the crowd reached in the Michigan State series, but the students all but disappeared this weekend. As quiet and unenergetic as they were, the on-ice product was hardly what it was against Michigan State. There were few hits, almost no scoring chances, and very little excitement. Hopefully the crowd's energy will come back when the excitement level does.
What was wrong with the ice this weekend?
The ice at Lynah has become noticeably worse over the years but perhaps never as bad as it was this past weekend. In the first period alone against Union, there were a handful of occasions where Cornell had glorious scoring chances taken away because of a rolling puck. Lynah is just an old building and ice is just not of the best quality.
Did David McKee rebound from his performance at Dartmouth?
Not really. He faced a grand total of 25 shots between the two games and maybe faced five good chances all weekend, allowing goals on three of them. It is just not the same McKee that was unbeatable last year but that does not mean he cannot return to that form. It will come back, but expecting it to happen overnight is unrealistic for any goalie. His mental focus needs to be better. Too often this year has he allowed a goal only to let in another one in the next couple shifts.
Why was Evan Barlow scratched on Friday night?
Barlow has struggled a bit out of the gate in his college hockey career. He has not looked bad but has struggled in some areas of the game, particularly channeling his aggression. He has taken some bad penalties and his decision-making has been erratic. His talent is immense so it is only a matter of time before he starts dominating games.
What purpose do goal judges serve in hockey?
For some reason, Cornell has always seemed to struggle with Niagara. The weekend after Thanksgiving is always a tough one to play on but Cornell is at a crossroads in their season. Niagara has nowhere near the talent that Cornell has, but then again, neither does Union. Cornell needs to start picking up some wins and get out of the funk that they are in. This weekend is the perfect opportunity. There is no reason why Cornell cannot churn out four straight wins prior to going on finals break.
Niagara 1 - Cornell 2
Cornell 4 - Niagara 1