The nine-game unbeaten streak seems a long way off after it ended in ugly fashion at Princeton on Saturday night. As disappointing as the loss was, however, there is little doubt that the Big Red are a much better team than they were just a few weeks ago. The centerpieces to this team have seemingly found their form, leading one to believe that there will be more lengthy unbeaten streaks before the season is finished.
Probably the biggest concern in late November was the play of David McKee. If there was ever any question as to how valuable McKee is to the Big Red, that should now be put to bed. As good as Cornell can be defensively, their success in stifling opposing attacks will start and end with McKee. He had virtually no confidence in November and it showed, particularly in the two-game set against Niagara where he allowed seven goals, a handful of the questionable variety. Since that weekend, he has returned to last year's form, allowing only six goals in the next seven games. The team has improved defensively, but McKee slowly regained his confidence and elevated his play to the level is has to be at for this team to have success. He is just seeing the puck and moving a lot better.
Concerns prior to the season mostly centered around secondary scoring but a major issue in the first part of the season was primary scoring. The top line, Matt Moulson, Byron Bitz and Raymond Sawada at the beginning of the season, and more recently Mitch Carefoot, was held off the score sheet at even strength for the first dozen games. They were barely noticeable on too many nights five-on-five. In recent weeks, they have elevated their game and have been a force more frequently. Mouslon may have been putting up the numbers early on, but he was not playing at the level he needs to play at. He needs to be doing more than just scoring goals and he has been doing that more recently, getting involved physically and being responsible defensively. As a result, his offensive game has improved. Bitz has had a long adjustment to the center position, but is finally looking in place. Early in the season, he was just looking to feed Moulson and would constantly turn the puck over trying to force passes to him. He has gotten more confident and is carrying the puck more often, which is opening up the ice more for his linemates. Carefoot seems to be the answer on the right wing of the top line, and he has returned to the form he displayed prior to his early season injury. He is not afraid to get his nose dirty and is a good complement to Moulson and Bitz with his abilities in front of the net and in the corners. In all, it appears that the coaching staff has finally found a true top line that can generate chances on a regular basis. That being said, they were kept off the score sheet against Princeton so to think that they have reached the level of an elite line is premature.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the Big Red now from a month ago is the play of Sasha Pokulok. Many will cite his third period gaffe at Princeton that led to their second goal as evidence that he has performed well below expectations, but that was one of the very few instances of bad play from Pokulok on the weekend. With Charlie Cook and Jeremy Downs having graduated and Jon Gleed injured for the majority of the season thus far, Pokulok was being looked at to step up both defensively and offensively. After getting a game disqualification late in the game at Yale early on the season, Pokulok was never the same. In that game at Yale, he was the best player on the ice. Two months later at the same Ingalls Rink, Pokulok was again the best player on the ice. Perhaps the coaching staff should send a letter to Team Canada's Director of Player Personnel Blair Mackasay for insisting upon Pokulok's making the World Junior team because it may very well have been the turning point in the young blueliner's career. It was unquestionably the turning point in his season. With Gleed returning and O'Byrne's already spectacular play this season, Pokulok's re-emergence will provide Cornell with an extra punch both defensively and offensively with his tremendous size and ability with the puck. Do not be surprised if he is back with the top powerplay unit soon.
Improvements from these key players has been and will continue to be vital to Cornell's success, but there remain areas and players that need to be better. The powerplay has been inconsistent and will need to improve if the Big Red will be able to win the tight games against the tough opponents down the stretch. The powerplay was good at times against Princeton, doing everything but scoring, but there were other opportunities where they could not even get set up. This team does not have talent to light it up five-on-five on a regular basis as they did against Quinnipiac so the powerplay will need to supplement the team's offense. Conversely, the team's defensive scheme has seemingly normalized with the blueline getting healthier and McKee getting his confidence back. Therefore, it can realistically be expected that they will allow two or fewer goals a night. This comes back to the dire need for offense. The top line is rounding into the form but the second line has not been near good enough. Mark McCutcheon has done his job with five goals, but seniors Cam Abbott and Daniel Pegoraro have grossly underachieved with just three goals between them. They are seventh and eighth respectively in team scoring and that just is not good enough for players of their ability and experience. The coaching staff has kept them together for the entire season awaiting their breakouts but maybe it just is not in the cards. The Lynah Faithful continue to wonder why they will not put the Abbott's together on a permanent basis when they always seem to create chances when they are on the ice together. Hopefully, the team will continue to manufacture enough goals through committee.
With two games against St. Lawrence and Colgate and one apiece with Harvard and Dartmouth, the Big Red will need to continue to improve if they are to challenge for the ECACHL regular season title as well as an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. A few weeks ago, both would have seemed like pipe dreams, but with the team's core emergence, the team has re-elevated expectations. It is once again realistic to expect 2-1 and 3-2 wins from Cornell.
1. David McKee
As has been mentioned, McKee has seemingly once again found his game after struggling through the first portion of the season. He played extremely well in both games although he was only tested sporadically. One of his greatest strengths last year was that he could go long stretches without seeing any pucks and then would get a barrage which he would be able to handle. That was very much the case in both games. He is again playing with a lot of confidence, seeing the puck extremely well through traffic and moving much better than he was early in the season when it seemed like he was guessing a lot more. It may seem obvious, particularly with Cornell, but the better McKee plays, the better the team will play and more successful they will be. Anybody who has been watching the team during his career will see this relationship.
2. Sasha Pokulok
Pokulok was revitalized at the World Junior Championships, playing at a substantially higher level, and was the best player on the ice against Quinnipiac. He did not play quite as well against Princeton and turned over the puck leading to the second Princeton goal, but he was controlling both games for stretches. He displayed a ton of poise with the puck and it often looked like he had a string holding on to the puck. He is not necessarily an outstanding defensive player, but when he is on his game and making good decisions, his ability with the puck serves as a very successful defensive mechanism.
3. Byron Bitz
The whole top line played well, particularly Friday night. Bitz looked like the dominant number one center the coaching staff has been trying to make him into for the last year, carrying the puck with confidence and drawing opposing players to him.
How the hell did Cornell lose to Princeton?
For one thing, Princeton goaltender Eric Leroux was outstanding, making 35 saves for the shutout. Cornell badly outplayed Princeton in the second and third periods but was not quite on their game in the first period, having a handful of defensive lapses. After Princeton went up 1-0, they almost stopped trying to score, seemingly content to win the game by that score. They put Rensselaer in their place by icing the puck even more than the Engineers do and basically worked their asses off in the defensive zone, clogging up the middle and clearing the zone every chance they got. If you do not have the talent, which Princeton clearly does not, then you have to find another way to win and they appear to have figured it out with some impressive wins over the last couple of weeks. They are not a team that you want to face in the playoffs and are going to upset one or two teams, particularly over a best-of-three series.
How did Jon Gleed play in his long awaited return to the lineup?
Gleed had not played since November 25th against Niagara when he was hurt on his first shift of the game. He logged a lot of minutes and did not miss a beat. Well actually, Gleed was not playing anywhere near his best hockey prior to his injury and that was part of the team's struggles early on. He looked like the defenseman everybody had expected prior to the season this past weekend, playing with a great deal of composure and doing the little things right. Gleed will be a big key in the team's success down the stretch.
Is Evan Barlow underachieving?
With just one goal and three assists in fifteen games, it is tough to be satisfied with his output considering the hype that came with him to Cornell. However, Barlow is actually coming along pretty nicely. He is rounding out his game and has improved in some key areas. He shows flashes of brilliance with the puck but will also make huge mistakes and bad decisions from time to time. He is a freshman and perhaps his output has been slightly below expectations, but he has done nothing to suggest that he will not be a high-impact, high-scoring player when all is said and done. He will produce more as the season progresses, but expect him to really break out next season after Moulson and Cam Abbott are gone.
Has anyone seen Raymond Sawada?
Sawada has struggled this season, although his statistics have been decent (fifth on the team in points). For some reason, he has been more reluctant to throw his weight around as did with such regularity last season. He has not played poorly, but he has not improved nearly as much as had been hoped for prior to the season, particularly after Shane Hynes decided to go pro. Sawada may not be looked at for offense, but he actually has tremendous ability with the puck and needs to try more with the puck. More than anything, he needs to get back to putting opponents through the boards with his thunderous body checks.
Is Topher Scott out of place on the fourth line?
First of all, he is still a mainstay on the top powerplay unit. Second, the line of Barlow, Mike Kennedy, and Scott has actually been Cornell's second best line offensively for several weeks now. Scott and Barlow seem to have some good chemistry as they're both quick and have good instincts. The line does not see a lot of ice time and has for some reason been trumped by the second line which, except for McCutcheon, has been largely ineffective. It will be interesting to see if the coaching staff continues to go with the lines they have had or shakes things up, giving players like Scott and Barlow more ice time. The top line has improved and should stay together but it seems as if some changes need to be made on the other lines to get Cam Abbott and Pegoraro going.
The Big Red will be in really tough against the Saints on Friday night. St. Lawrence has had an excellent season and appear to be a very different team than Cornell. They score a ton of goals but also give up a ton of goals and thus should be a very interesting matchup with Cornell. This will be a huge game for the Big Red and a big determinant in their bid to win the ECACHL regular season title.
St. Lawrence 2 - Cornell 2
Clarkson has also had a good season and is coming off a rough weekend in the capital district, losing to both Union and Rensselaer. Clarkson always gives Cornell a tough game, but they do not have that many impressive wins on their resume. They did recently beat St. Lawrence 6-2 and played a close game with Miami, as well as beating Providence early in the season, but have come back down to earth of late so the Big Red should be able to decisively take them if they play their game for sixty minutes.
Clarkson 1 - Cornell 3