Maybe they were jinxed. "The Twin Towers" had been carrying the team and the weekend the Big Red seemingly needed them most, they were injured. Unbelievable. There is really no other word to describe the events that transpired in Ithaca and particularly in Hamilton in the most anticipated weekend of the season between the top two teams in the ECACHL. Just unbelievable.
Regardless of what the polls said, Cornell was not a 12-place favorite over Colgate in their annual two-game set (the former was ranked fifth while the latter was ranked seventeenth in the most recent USCHO.com poll). Colgate was in first place in the ECACHL and held that lead by a comfortable three points. Whether the Big Red were underdogs or not heading into the weekend, surely a small minority of people expected them to get four points. Hell, three points even seemed like a stretch considering the Big Red's inconsistent performances from Friday to Saturday nights throughout the course of the season. When the team's number one defenseman Ryan O'Byrne did not come out for warm-ups on Friday night, the confidence of onlookers may have decreased even more. Then when the team's number two defenseman Sasha Pokuluk followed O'Byrne to the sickbay just a little over a period into that game, Colgate coach Don Vaughn was probably licking his chops.
This is a good team and most around college hockey would have attested that prior to this weekend. They would point to David McKee, Matt Moulson, O'Byrne, and Pokuluk and conclude that Cornell has a core that could go up against any other team in college hockey. Take away two players from any team's inner core at any level of hockey going up against a very respectable team and the scales are tipped very much in the latter's favor. Perhaps this crossed the minds of some of the Cornell players, but if it did, it never ever showed - not at any point during the weekend.
From top to bottom, there was not one player who did not show up. It did not matter what role they had. Every single player came to play on Friday night and did not stop until the final buzzer on Saturday night. Against a mid-level ECACHL team, this would have been impressive. Sure, every team goes through injury woes, particularly at this point in the season, but it is not often that a team will lose arguably their top two players (in addition to likely having a handful of players playing with lesser injuries) going up against the toughest team on their regular season schedule. Still, it was extremely impressive to see a team not just not blink at adversity, but actually raise its level of play and mental game and play their best hockey of the season.
Oh yeah, and they forgot their jerseys and socks in Ithaca on Saturday night. No problem. It was not as if they were going into far and away the most hostile visiting arena and playing against a team and fan-base with intensive hatred for them. So they skated around as normal in front of a full rink during warm-ups without any jerseys to cover their upper-body pads, while getting Big Red Gum thrown at them continuously while the rink staff just allowed it. Sure, they had won convincingly on Friday night without O'Byrne and Pokuluk (for two-thirds of the game). But that was the easy one. The Big Red needed at least another point but everyone knew that this point was going to be exponentially more difficult. Just another distraction; just another hurdle - one that led to a twenty-minute delay in the highly-anticipated game.
The play-by-play guys on Time Warner Sports pretty much failed to recognize that Cornell was without their top two defensemen but obviously were well aware of the jersey debacle. Regardless, if one had not known about either and had watched the game, they would have observed that Cornell was the decidedly better team. The score was close and so was the game, but the play and the Big Red dictated the flow of the game from start to finish. Somehow, the team did not miss a beat and as was mentioned earlier, they somehow found a higher gear. Despite injuries and inconceivable distractions, in addition to playing in a very hostile rink, Cornell played their best game of the season.
They deserved to win, plain and simple. Cornell was the better team by a fair margin. Colgate arguably played as well as they could while the Big Red consistently controlled the flow of the game. It was not a miraculous win, but one could not help and think of Mike Eruzione flying off the bench on a premature line change and calling for the puck, scoring the eventual game winner, just as McCutcheon did so in very similar fashion in the final minute on Saturday night. Cornell was the better team and deserved to win, and when you saw McCutcheon fly onto the ice and bang his stick for the puck, you just got that feeling in the pit of your stomach. It was justice and really just a great moment.
This is a very different hockey team than the one that was suiting up in December. It has been a sporadically difficult growing process, but Cornell has achieved something that almost all teams strive for but never actually reach. While having a definitive hierarchy of players in terms of value, every member of the team has accepted his role and the true team has been reached. Maybe it sounds a little bit corny or even ridiculous, but anyone who was in Hamilton on Saturday night will tell you that Cornell's team sum was well beyond the sum of its individual parts. It was truly special to watch as not only a lifelong fan of Cornell hockey but of a fan of sports.
That all being said, the long-term importance of what they achieved last weekend is still to be determined. Cornell still has six regular season games left, including four on the road. Then they will have as many as five playoff games before hopefully qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. This could be the ultimate turning point in a season where a team is pushed well beyond its capacity or it could just be the peak of success. The sky is back in place and the bandwagon is poised to add some people. The stretch drive is here and the Big Red are playing their best hockey of the season. The key is not that they sustain their play but that they continue to elevate it.
It was probably the toughest weekend of the season to choose three stars. Well maybe not tough because to me, these were the team's three biggest contributors. But it may be tough not to see Raymond Sawada or Mark McCutcheon on there. To clarify my picks for this week and really every week, they are the three players who positively contributed most to the team over the weekend. This may or may not include appearances on the scoresheet, as the style of hockey Cornell plays means that it will often not be the player selected as the first star on the radio broadcast who contributes most to the team's success.
1. Jon Gleed
It was simply the best weekend of Gleed's hockey career. It had to be or Cornell would have been far less fortuitous. With the injuries to O'Byrne and Pokuluk, Gleed was forced to play a lot more than usual and likely played over thirty minutes in each game. He somehow managed to play with amazing composure despite the increased ice time and responsibility as well as the fact that he was defending against arguably the best forwards Cornell has seen all season.
2. Daniel Pegoraro
Pegoraro struggled early in the season to find his identity as a player. It was uncertain whether he was supposed to be a regular offensive force or a steady defensive presence. Well he managed to find the best compromise between those two identities. He was the Big Red's best defensive forward on the weekend when they needed him to be at his absolute best. He played with awesome energy in both games and the team really fed off of his intensity. Offensively, he scored the empty net goal on Friday night and converted on the extremely important second goal on Saturday. Really, he could have had zero goals and he would still have been the team's best overall forward.
3. Chris Abbott
It took Abbott a little while to get back to normal after his early season concussion, but in recent weeks he has played the best hockey of his career. Abbott has continued his superb defensive play but has recently stepped up his game offensively and has been rewarded with a spot on the second powerplay unit. He continued to do all the little things, always making smart, safe plays, and got very involved with the offense on Saturday night, being almost fully responsible for Cornell's first and third goals. He can shift into a higher gear than everyone else on the ice and seemingly do whatever he wants with the puck.
What ever happened to that fast faceoff rule?
Guess the refs and ECACHL execs forgot about that one.
Who is the best referee Cornell has seen this year?
John Murphy. He had the usual hiccups (like having his back to the McCutcheon tripping minor late in the third period on Saturday night), but Murphy put on a refereeing clinic this weekend. Poor officiating could have ruined what was one of the most entertaining regular season weekends in years. Murphy called the games tight but was consistent the entire weekend and let the players play and decide the games themselves. He called what should have been called and let go what should have been let go. As subjective of a line as that may seem, Murphy was able to walk that line and he contributed to the quality of play the fans enjoyed in both games. It would be a travesty if Murphy did not officiate the ECACHL Championship.
Who is the new Mike Iggulden?
Still not all that talented offensively, the Big Red has found a new clutch player to rely on this season, Mark McCutcheon. He is the best player in the history of college hockey to go goaless in his first two seasons. McCutcheon has eight goals and six have been game-tying or game winning. Two have been short-handed. He scored the prettiest goal of the season a week ago against Yale and scored the biggest goal of the season at Colgate in the final minute in extremely dramatic fashion. Sounds Iggulden-esque to me.
Clarkson has struggled in recent weeks and very much appears to be on the decline after dropping both games last weekend convincingly to Princeton and Quinnipiac. They always give Cornell a tough game though and Friday night should be no different. This will be a big test for Cornell as it will be an emotional letdown from the extremely intense weekend set against Colgate. It is not as if Cornell has become an offensive powerhouse, so most games will be tight, regardless of how much Cornell dominates.
Cornell 2 - Clarkson 1
This is going to be a really tough game. St. Lawrence played terribly at Lynah a couple weeks ago and will be looking for redemption. These games are big for the Saints as they try to stay in the top four of the ECACHL (the top four receive a bye in the first round of the playoffs). This is a very good hockey team that cannot be overlooked. Cornell's defensive scheme will be put to the test in a big way against the high-powered Saints offense.
Cornell 2 - St. Lawrence 2