With the very high expectations prior to the season, many have a feeling of uncertainty entering the annual December exam break. At 8-3-1, it is pretty tough to be at all discouraged, but all the same, there is still a feeling of discontent. At least right now, this is not a Big Red team dominating as they did the second half of last season and as many predicted they would this season. But wait, did they only dominate the second half of last season?
At 27-5-3, not many people remember that Cornell was 8-2-2 at this time last year. Not a remotely bad record, but the hockey the Big Red played during that stretch paled in comparison to the level that they reached in the second part of the season. This year's team is clearly a different one than last year's but there is no question that this year's team has not come anywhere close to reaching its potential.
The records may be nearly identical, but the two teams are proving to be nothing alike. This year's club has not shown much and really their best game was the first of the season against Michigan Sate. Since then, their performances have been all over the place. The bottom line is that they are better than they have played, a lot better. If they are not, then it will be awfully tough to make any sort of noise come March.
Early on, there were concerns about the team's defensive system after allowing two or more goals in each of their first seven games. Goaltender David McKee received the majority of the flak for the team's defensive woes but the team was giving up a lot of chances, often leaving their goaltender out to dry. Make no mistake, McKee has been average at best, but the team's general defensive scheme has also been well below what it needs to be. The low point was probably in the weekend against Niagara where the team allowed eight goals in two games. They appeared to have gotten things together this past weekend, allowing just two goals against Princeton and Quinnipiac with McKee turning in arguably his two best performances of the season. In the big picture, the team defense has at worst stabilized and is certainly moving in the right direction. Even better news is that the improvement has come without two of the team's top three defensemen, Dan Glover and Jon Gleed. The forwards have improved a great deal in the defensive zone while Ryan O'Byrne has been the team's best player, completely dominating defensively. Freshman Jared Seminoff has really stepped up his game and has been a big difference-maker in recent weeks for the Big Red. Evan Salmela has also been a breath of fresh air to the injury-depleted unit keeping things simple in the defensive zone and not letting his lack of size get him in trouble. When Gleed and Glover return, and Pokulok and Krantz get their games together, Cornell will be in very good shape on the defensive side of the puck.
Heading into the season, there were very high expectations for the team's offense. It has not fulfilled those expectations, however. Matt Moulson may have some nice looking stats on the surface, but he has not converted an even strength goal yet this season. Other forwards expected to be major contributors have also disappointed. Daniel Pegoraro did not score a goal until the team's eleventh game while Cam Abbott is still without a goal. Byron Bitz and Topher Scott have just two apiece. Mark McCutcheon has been a pleasant surprise with four goals while Mitch Carefoot has also played well. The freshmen forwards, Mike Kennedy, Evan Barlow, Ryan Kindret, and Tyler Mugford, were very quiet offensively early in the season but have really stepped up as a group in the last two weeks, all four recording at least one goal during that time. The coaching staff has not found the right chemistry with its line combinations yet and that has really factored into the team's offensive struggles.
Prior to the season, the concerns were more with the team's secondary scoring but there has not really been primary scoring. The team's scoring has come from the powerplay and sprinkled from all over the lineup five-on-five. The positive thing is that the team's offense has been largely sufficient, despite the struggles of the team's top offensive players. How long that will last remains to be seen, but the top guys are going to have to get their games going and given their past there is no reason to believe they cannot do it again. Add that to the fact that the team's freshmen forwards will only get better and the already sufficient attack should only improve.
At 8-3-1, the team is still far better than what it has shown so far in the young season. They need a lot more from their best players, but the Big Red has been in this situation before. The Everblades Tournament has not been kind to Cornell but January, Feburary and March sure have been. Cornell's seniors have gone a combined 49-12-3 in their first three years after the calendar turns January. Of course almost every team improves through the course of the season, but the Big Red have improved more as seasons have progressed. Will they again? One has to think so. All things considered, Cornell has underachieved in its first 12 games and they really just have not gotten the bounces. More than anything, the team has struggled to adjust to the departure of last year's seniors (and Shane Hynes) but to think that they cannot ultimately absorb their losses is preposterous. It is just taking more time than anyone imagined. It will happen and Cornell will again save its best hockey for the most important time.
1. Ryan O'Byrne
With two more performances in the thirty minute range for the Red's top blueliner, O'Byrne again was the backbone of the team. With Gleed and Glover still out of the lineup, he played more minutes than usual but was nearly flawless both nights. O'Byrne has been just outstanding and the team's best player so far this season. He has kept things simple in his own end, using his large frame to make plays and has also been positioned perfectly all over the ice, almost never getting beaten.
2. Evan Salmela
Salmela did not play in any games prior to last weekend against Niagara but has made a strong case to stay in the lineup for an extended period. He will never be confused as a stay-at-home blueliner, but Salmela has performed well in his own end. His real value has been on the rush where he loves to jump in. Cornell's offense was sporadically non-existent over the weekend, but Salmela was able to constantly generate chances by joining the rush as well as pinching in the offensive zone at the right times.
3. Chris Abbott
Prior to getting injured at Yale, Abbott was arguably Cornell's best forward. After returning to the lineup against Harvard after missing the Brown game, Abbott did not look like the same player. He returned this weekend, making things happen offensively and thriving defensively. Abbott scored against Princeton was generally involved in the play much more than he had been in previous weekends.
Who will come out of the lineup when Gleed and/or Glover return to the lineup?
The knee-jerk answer would be Taylor Davenport and Salmela but one has to think the latter has a good opportunity to stay in the lineup. He has been very good in his four games. On the other hand, Doug Krantz and Sasha Pokulok have not played anywhere near what they are capable of. If Pokulok somehow makes the Canadian World Junior team, then he is the obvious answer. If he does not, then it would be tough to take him out of the lineup. He has not used his size and has simply not been skating. As a result, he has gotten caught pinching at bad times and has also made terrible decisions in the defensive zone. Still, Krantz has been worse. Already on a short leash, he has constantly turned over the puck in the defensive zone and has been a step slow the entire season.
What is the answer for the top line?
Moulson is still without an even strength goal and it is not as if the top line is generating a ton of chances. Right now, the team does not really have a top line. Bitz just has not done a good enough job of getting the puck to Moulson. The team's best playmakers are Topher Scott and Daniel Pegoraro so one of them should really be up there. Or how about giving young Mike Kennedy a shot? He has some good hands and good size. Any way you look at it, a change is necessary because the Bitz-Moulson duo is not getting the job done.
Speaking of lines, what should they be?
With a couple weeks before their next games, it would be a good opportunity to try some news things with the forward combinations. How about Moulson with Pegoraro and Bitz moved back to the wing where he can use his size more effectively, then reuniting the Abbotts with Sawada on the right side, Scott centering crafty wings Barlow and McCutcheon, and Kennedy with Carefoot and Mugford. All four seniors need to do more offensively so give Pegoraro a shot on the top line with the team's best goal scorer. Scott has great hands and creativity and has been bounced around a lot recently so moving him back to center could be a good move while being flanked by two dynamic offensive players. The Abbotts are simply at their best and most dangerous when playing together.
Is McKee improving?
Yes. He made some big saves this weekend and although he let in a terrible goal against Princeton, it was unimportant in the game with Cornell already up 3-0. He is not near the level he was at last year, but he is certainly improving and moving in the right direction. He will get there. No question about it.
As has been said, the Everblades Classic has not been kind to Cornell but it will be a good opportunity for the team to get things going. Northeastern is terrible and has only won one of their thirteen games this year so it should be a win for the Big Red. The next game will be the tough one and the true opportunity for Cornell to really get going. Both Minnesota-Duluth and Maine are excellent teams who have performed well so far this season.
Northeastern 2 - Cornell 3
Maine 3 - Cornell 3