Scoring Goals Will Be Even Tougher In the Playoffs
What the hell does that title mean? One must think it looks oxymoronic. However, it is very much the reality of a Big Red team that has won seven of their last eight games heading into the playoffs. Heading into last weekend, head coach Mike Schafer totally changed the lines yet again, in search of the right recipe for offense--an offense that has struggled since the New Year, even when the team has been successful. In the process of changing the line combinations, Schafer reformulated a few past combinations including Ryan Vesce with Matt Moulson, Chris Abbot and Cam Abbott, and Mitch Carefoot and Mark McCutcheon. Instead of Byron Bitz with Vesce and Moulson, Shane Hynes remained on Moulson's opposite wing, effectively adjoining the Red's three best forwards. The "second line" featuring Mike Iggulden between Mike Knoepfli and Byron Bitz gave Cornell a very tough physical line for opposing defensemen to play against. The "third line" brought the Abbotts and Greg Hornby back to together--a line that enjoyed a great deal of success last season, but struggled for large parts of this season. The fourth line was also a past used combination, Mark McCutcheon, Mitch Carefoot, and Paul Varteressian, with one minor adjustment, Mitch Carefoot in the middle instead of Paul Varteressian. These new combinations certainly clicked relatively well against St. Lawrence and Clarkson consistently generating pressure. But still, Cornell struggled to find the net in both contests.
Interestingly enough, the Moulson-Vesce-Hynes line only made a moderate impact. The line clearly has the potential to be one of the nation's best, but it is clear that Vesce and Hynes are still not 100&pct;. The coming weekend off will only help that situation.
The best line on the weekend, although one could not tell from looking at the score sheets from the two games (hold Knoepfli's three assists on the weekend, but two were on the powerplay and one was right after a penalty was killed so he was not with his regular line on any of his helpers), was the "second line" of Knoepfli-Iggulden-Bitz. This was the only line that consistently was able to pressure in both games. The size of the three players was clearly the main source of effectiveness for the unit, giving the St. Lawrence and Clarkson defenses fits down low. As mentioned, however, the line was held off the score sheet. Knoepfli and Bitz have both struggled to find the net this season after despite showing glimpses of goal scoring ability in the past. Knoepfli has only four goals after registering twice that many with less ice time last season. Bitz has not scored since November 29th against Mercyhurst. Both have the capacity to be regular contributors in the goals department judging by what they have shown in the past. It is just a question of them getting going and getting up their respective confidence levels with the puck. Iggulden has likely been the team's most improved player this season going from occasional healthy scratch earlier in the season to a very solid and consistent two-way center very much in the mold of Krzysztof Wieckowski '02. The line has the potential to be a dominant force in the playoffs, especially if they can start translating their consistent pressure into goals. These are all hard working guys that have the ability to get the puck to the net. These are the types of players who make their living in the playoffs where almost every goal is scored by hard work and getting the puck to the net.
The "third line" is still looking to rekindle their success and impact from last season where they were Cornell's hidden jewels as the �fourth line.� As was seen regularly last year, this line can create mayhem on the ice, and generate a great deal of offense in the process. When together this year, they have been inconsistent, only sometimes showing their impact from last year. A lot of this is attributed to the nagging injuries of Chris Abbott and Cam Abbott. Neither has been able to settle into consistent grooves. Clearly, the two have considerable offensive upside, but again, have had difficulty making an impact on a consistent basis this season. Cam Abbott is arguably the second most dangerous forward on the team after Vesce. Although he may not have the goal scoring touch of Moulson or the physical presence of Hynes, he can stickhandle out of a phone booth and just seems to will the puck past defensemen on the rush. Greg Hornby has come on in recent games, reviving his super-pest identity from previous seasons. Having his presence on the team when he is on his game will be absolutely vital to any success Cornell may have in the coming weeks. Nobody denies what this line is capable of. It is just a question of finding the net and getting the puck there more often. The Abbotts, especially, tend to get too fancy sometimes, which is not a good idea when struggling to score goals.
Perhaps the most surprising line of last weekend was the fourth line. This line made its presence felt in both games adding a physical element and generating a decent amount of offense, most notably setting up the game winning goal against St. Lawrence. Mitch Carefoot has really bloomed in the last month or so after being moved to center. He is not a very flashy player, but definitely has a goal scorer's touch and has developed a knack for scoring big goals. McCutcheon provided a surprising physical presence on the weekend, throwing a couple of big hits and really mixing it up. Although it was expected that he would contribute more offensively, McCutcheon is finding other ways to contribute, which is not only commendable, but also valuable to the team's success. Varteressian was rotating in and out of the lineup with Daniel Pegoraro the past couple weekends but seemed to win a job, at least temporarily, in playing both games on the weekend.
These new combinations certainly pose as formidable units, doing the job in all three zones. All four have the capacity to generate offense and all four did show spurts of offense last weekend. But despite pouring on the offense in both games (especially Clarkson), the games still went into the third period with identical 1-1 ties. The Big Red were able to generate a great deal of chances in both games (especially against Clarkson), but struggled to find the back of the net. The four third period breakaways against St. Lawrence stood out as particularly frustrating as the Red came up empty on the first three before Carefoot converted on one late in the third period. Coming into the playoffs, it is vital that all four lines continue to generate offense, but they must convert on more opportunities. It is going to be even tougher to score goals against the better teams they face in the playoffs. So those breakaways and other very good opportunities will have to start turning into goals for Cornell to continue its success against tougher teams.
That all being said, goal scoring cannot be taught. It is clear that Moulson just has a gift of being able to score goals whereas Iggulden (0-for-2 on breakaways last weekend) does not. However, as much as goal scoring is something a player is born with, a certain attitude and confidence goes a long way. Any hockey player can get hot. Any hockey player will tell you that getting in a groove is just about where their mental game is at. Cornell needs more players to get in the groove in the playoffs. Opposing teams are going to start keying on Moulson's right point position on the powerplay and he is going to have more trouble finding room to get his spectacular shot off in general. The goals will have to come from somewhere. The odd goal from the blueline, consistent pressure on the powerplay, and all lines being opportunistic will all be necessities to Cornell's offense converting in the playoffs when it is even harder to score.
Every game Cornell plays from here on out will be tougher than the last. That is how the playoffs work. Although it is clear that the team has struggled to score goals most of the season, they have been winning games and that is what matters above all else. Winning hockey games is obviously contingent on staying stingy defensively and getting outstanding goaltending from David McKee. If Cornell is going to keep winning, let it be advised that we spectators get comfortable and content with winning games 2-1. But please dear lord, score on a breakaway from time to time; hit the open nets when the goaltender is out of the play. There is almost no other way to score this time of year other than the ugly way. Hopefully, the Lynah Faithful and Cornell hockey team will learn that even better than they already do in the coming weeks.