All is well in the world of Cornell hockey again. Entering their most challenging weekend since the opening weekend of the season against Michigan State, the Big Red rose to the challenge by playing their two best games of the season, defeating then-first place St. Lawrence and Clarkson. Although that gives Cornell a 9-1-1 record over their last 11 games, it was not evident that they had truly arrived until this past weekend. All the pieces are falling into place, most notably David McKee and the team offense.
There are many different kinds of offense. Some teams live off their powerplay. Some rely on their top line. Certainly Cornell has identified with both groups at various times this season, but to achieve long-term success, it needs to be multi-dimensional. A team must have multiple outlets to produce offense - a diverse attack - to have success. Even a team like the Big Red that does not allow many goals and thus does not need to score a ton still must possess a capable offense from more than one source. It cannot just be Matt Moulson or the top powerplay unit; Cornell needs all four lines and both powerplay units to produce offense on a regular basis. Such was the case this past weekend signifying a tremendous development for the Big Red and its chances at long-term success this season.
On Friday night alone, nine different players recorded at least a point, only two of which (Raymond Sawada and Sasha Pokulok) had two points. Not including empty-net goals, 13 skaters recorded at least a point on the weekend, including players from all four lines. Among those eight goals, two came five-on-five, three came on 5-on-4 powerplays (two from the first unit and one from the second unit), one came on a 5-on-3, and two were scored four-on-four. Each of the four lines and two powerplay units were able to produce offense, making the Big Red seemingly impossible to effectively contain over the course of a game.
The improvement in Cornell's scoring depth has arrived at exactly the same time that sophomore defenseman Sasha Pokulok has. This is not just a coincidence. Since Pokulok returned from the World Junior Championships, he has been a different player, far more poised with the puck and generating a great deal of offense both five-on-five and on the powerplay. Pokulok was controlling the flow of both games and his two goals on Friday night and two assists on Saturday night are evidence of his direct impact on the team's offense. He picked his spots to join the rush and anchored the first powerplay unit on Friday night with Ryan O'Byrne out of the lineup and then successfully anchored the second unit on Saturday night when Ryan returned. With Sasha's emergence alone, the powerplay as a whole has become far more dangerous, while the team's offensive threat from the back end has increased substantially. It is quite simple: when on his game, Pokulok adds a totally new dimension to the Big Red, particularly in the offensive aspect of the game.
A large portion of the first two months of the season saw the Big Red with very little offensive capacity. Nobody except for Moulson gave any scare to opposing coaches. Although Moulson was producing early on, he was not having nearly the effect that he had last season, neither on the powerplay nor even strength. He was getting his points but he was being contained successfully. It was easy for opposing teams because the Big Red had no other threats offensively so they could focus their defensive resources entirely towards Moulson and the top line. The absence of Shane Hynes meant that Moulson had far less real estate to work with and it was showing. The "top line" was doing nothing on the scoresheet and was not even generating chances. That has since changed with Byron Bitz's emergence. Bitz has finally begun to look like the offensive center the coaching staff has been trying to mold him into for the past year and it is making the top line look legitimate. He is holding onto the puck more rather than always trying to get it to Moulson, consequently opening up space. The line is generating a lot more chances even if they are not yet lighting it up. They are factoring into games.
Perhaps the team's most effective line over the last few games has been its fourth line. Very rarely do freshmen step right in and produce, regardless of how much ability they may have. It usually takes until at least January before they look comfortable and begin to contribute on a regular basis. It is January and that appears to be happening with this year's crop of freshmen. Some would see Topher Scott's placement on the fourth line with freshmen Mike Kennedy and Evan Barlow as a demotion but it has actually led to a very effective line. Even on Friday night when Scott was put on the second line with McCutcheon out, and freshman Ryan Kindret taking Scott's place, the fourth line was consistently generating chances and playing with energy. The team's offense has fed off of the momentum that line has generated on a regular basis and that has been a pivotal factor in the recent offensive surge.
Many onlookers were gushing at the Big Red's offensive potential prior to the season but the goals were not coming early on. That has since changed, but not in the form of Moulson dominating or the powerplay carrying the team. Rather, it has come as a result of many factors. Although he is not dominating games, Moulson is still quietly producing goals at an extremely high rate. Cam Abbott has slowly but surely gotten his offensive game in gear to give the Big Red a legitimate secondary scoring option and Barlow is poised to break out offensively. Add to that Pokulok's emergence and the resulting ascendance of both powerplay units and you have multi-faceted offensive attack. When an opposing coach cannot focus his resources on just one line or even one powerplay unit, it is awfully difficult to keep a team's offense in check. When that team has one of the top goaltenders in college hockey and one of the top bluelines, then all of a sudden that team looks very dangerous, particularly in an uncharacteristically wide-open national landscape. So what seemed unimaginable just a few short weeks ago has again become possible.
1. Sasha Pokulok
He was the best player on the ice in both games and was extremely dangerous with the puck. Two goals and two assists were notched for the Washington first round pick and he had a ton of ice time to boot. You might not believe it, but he can still be a lot better.
2. David McKee
McKee has just about gotten himself back to where he was late last season. He made some huge saves in both games and has really improved his lateral movement from earlier in the season, making a handful of eye-popping, cross-crease saves. As good as he was, he too can be even better.
3. Raymond Sawada
And he returns. Challenged in this space last week, Sawada made his presence felt regularly this weekend. He was much more involved physically but showed off some of his offensive talent, setting up the third and fourth Cornell goals against St. Lawrence on great feeds.
Why won't the coaching staff put the Abbotts together?
Everyone saw it on Saturday night. With the game knotted at two goals apiece in the third period, the Abbotts were on the ice together for a four-on-four situation and the two came together to make an almost magical play to give the Big Red the lead. Yes, it is clear that the two play their best hockey when they are together. However, it is clearly not that simple. Chris has become a very strong defensive center, perfect for the third line checking role. Cam is seen more as an offensive player and thus plays on an offensive line. The coaching staff has specific roles in mind for each player and seem committed to that plan. Chris likely gets distracted by playing with Cam in that he gets into too much of the creative, offensive mindset. Perhaps that's the reason, because it certainly is not because Cam and Pegoraro have better chemistry.
Who is the team to beat in the ECACHL?
The answer is not St. Lawrence as many probably thought prior to this weekend. The Saints have a very good team and one that could make some noise in the NCAA Tournament. However, they match up horribly with both Cornell and Colgate - teams that are much more physical and defensively-focused compared to the run-and-gun, offensively-gifted St. Lawrence team. And there it is: Cornell and Colgate. The home-and-home coming up next weekend will be just as big as it was last year and will likely determine the regular season conference champion yet again.
Has Doug Krantz improved?
He was just plain brutal early on in the season and probably would not have stayed in the lineup if not for injuries to Jon Gleed and Dan Glover. He did stay in the lineup and has steadily improved. He has cut down on his mistakes and has kept things much simpler, particularly with the puck. Krantz has talent and can be really effective at rushing the puck if he makes the right decisions, and has shown that more and more. As long as he continues to not be a liability in the defensive zone, then he is doing fine as a third pair defenseman.
Brown has had a really tough season, only winning three games, with just one win in their last fourteen games. Interestingly enough, they swept Clarkson and St. Lawrence in the second weekend of the season and have had played mostly close games, so they will be a tough opponent. All the same, the Big Red were able to sneak past them in Providence when they were shorthanded and heavily beat up from their run-in with Yale the night before. On home ice with a full lineup and playing their best hockey of the season, Cornell should dominate this one.
Brown 0 - Cornell 4
Yale has quietly emerged from the ECACHL's cellar this season and has become a respectable team. They physically dominated the Big Red in New Haven and probably deserved a better fate than they received that night. They are unbeaten in their last seven ECACHL games after dropping their first six, which will make things pretty interesting this weekend when they play the top two teams in the conference. Do not be surprised if they take the game at Hamilton before running out of steam in Ithaca.
Yale 2 - Cornell 4