It has been a weird couple of weeks for Cornell hockey. After convincingly sweeping Colgate in their biggest weekend of the season, they have gone just 1-2-1 since then. In garnering only three of a possible eight points, the Big Red has miraculously kept sole possession of first place in the ECACHL. It is not as if they have blown these last four games off; they are simply going through one of those mid-season slumps where they are not playing badly but where everyone is tired and beat up both mentally and physically.
The lull that is this period of the season is just about finished now and the adrenaline boost of the playoffs is right around the corner. Some may be very concerned about this team in wake of their recent struggles, particularly the loss on Saturday night at the hands of Harvard. But rest assured, Cornell is in good shape. They may not appear to be poised to make a big playoff run like they did last year when the Big Red went unbeaten in 14 games heading into the playoffs but this is a different hockey team and this is a different ECACHL. Maybe they are not quite as dominant as last year's team or the team in 2002-2003, but this team is capable of just as much. All the same, the reasons this year's team is good are not all the same.
The Cornell hockey program is in the midst of a transition period. For the last several years, Cornell has become known as a big, tough, physical team that is annually the stingiest defensive team in college hockey. The 2005-2006 team is big, tough, physical, and strong defensively but they are not in the same exact mold as recent teams have been. Those teams were dominant, but they were not exactly fleet-of-foot or top-heavy in skill. Those teams were well-oiled machines that could consistently manufacture goals while physically wearing down opponents in every single game. This year's team does not thrive offensively, but it is built a little differently. This is more of a skating team; more of an energy team. Often, they will generate offense through the same forecheck that Schafer teams have capitalized on for years. However, that forecheck has become more speed-based than physical. Again, that is not to say that this team is not physical. Friday night against a bigger, more physical Dartmouth team, Cornell turned in their most physical performance of the season, utilizing both their speed and their physical play to win battles and ultimately dominate the game. But unlike in years past, that has not been the norm for Cornell this year.
Cornell is still a defense-first team, but its style has unquestionably changed. The forwards do not dump the puck with regularity as they have in the past, but now opt to carry the puck and generate chances off the rush more often. Byron Bitz, Daniel Pegoraro, Cam Abbott, Mark McCutcheon, Chris Abbott, Mike Kennedy, and Evan Barlow are all players who are more adept at holding onto the puck because they are all skilled with the puck and not all of them are going to win a lot of physical battles in the corners. They certainly can win those battles and will win their fair share, but they have the skills to hold onto the puck in the neutral zone and thus utilize them more often than Cornell players have in recent years. At the same time, Raymond Sawada, Mitch Carefoot, and Tyler Mugford are more the sandpaper-type players who thrive off of battles along the boards. The Abbotts can also play the game along the boards. This is not an offense that is going to scare anybody, but at the same time, they will rarely be shut down as they have become multi-dimensional. They can play the physical game or they can play the skating game.
Then there is the big X-factor that is Matt Moulson. Moulson has shown that he can take over games all by himself, but he has very rarely done that this season. He is going through the biggest transition as a player, dealing with the reality that he will be shadowed every game. There is no way we have heard the last of Moulson, however. He is not done and although he may seem like he has gone permanently silent, he is going to break out soon. When he does, the team will have yet another dimension to it.
Coach Schafer denies that Cornell is changing their recruiting strategy and maybe they have not changed it. However, the types of players being brought in are changing and that is a fact. Cornell is moving away from the big, physical players to smaller, skating players, at least up front, while the blueline is seemingly getting bigger and more offensive-minded. This is not to say that Cornell is becoming just a flash and dash, run and gun team. Schafer appears to be formulating a hybrid between the strong, physical forechecking teams of recent years and the skating skill game that most of college hockey's perennial powerhouses have each year. Earlier in the year, the players clearly struggled with this changing identity. They have sporadically displayed its potential dominance while generally improving. Is this style one that will have more success in the NCAA Tournament against the faster, more skilled teams? Only time will tell.
1. Byron Bitz
Bitz continued to dominate offensively and carry the team's offense, picking up two goals and two assists on the weekend. He has also really stepped it up in the emotion department, getting a lot more involved physically as well as more involved in pushing and shoving after the whistle. The added edge to his game has really helped his overall improvement as a player and may be a huge factor in getting him the captaincy next season. Having O'Byrne out of the lineup has actually helped Bitz's game as he has become more of a focal point on the powerplay with his one-timer. When O'Byrne does come back, the powerplay will theoretically have two legitimate scoring options. Next up for Bitz is getting linemate Matt Moulson going.
2. Topher Scott
He always seems to get up for the big games and this weekend was no exception. Scott was a sparkplug every time he was on the ice, providing the team with constant energy as well as offense. After going twenty games without a goal, Scott scored goals in both games this weekend. Not only does he show up in the big games; he scores the big goals of the big games and that was again the case this weekend. Scott always has worn his heart on his sleeve but he has gotten even grittier of late and it is paying off. It would be nice if he tried to work the puck to Raymond Sawada in front of the net occasionally on the powerplay, but that is likely more a result of his assignment than his decision-making.
3. Jon Gleed
Gleed has really stepped up his game the last couple of weeks as a result of the injuries to O'Byrne and Pokulok. One would have thought that the defensive corps would have collapsed after losing both of them, but Gleed was really able to stabilize it with his smart and consistent play. He has quietly been a great leader for this team and likely has improved the chances of getting a contract with the Montreal Canadiens after the season.
Why can't the administration and athletics just respect tradition?
There is absolutely no excuse for their behavior in response to the tradition of throwing fish on the ice at the beginning of the Harvard game. Coach Mike Schafer said at some point in the last year that he believes that students should be allowed to throw fish at the beginning of the game, so what's the problem? What is the justification of the administration and athletics? The fact that they lie about the team getting a five-minute major penalty in the event that it occurs is a complete lie and embarrassment. Throwing fish onto the ice is a tradition and nobody has any right to intervene with long-standing customs that do not infringe upon anybody's safety or the flow of the game itself. Of the forty to fifty people who threw fish at the beginning of Saturday's game, only a handful were actually thrown out. And who knows if the randomly selected people had even thrown fish. It is going to happen regardless of what lies and threats the administration and athletics makes so they might as well embrace the tradition by assuring that no fish gets thrown after the teams come out at the beginning of the game. Of course, no fish has been thrown after that point since it cost Cornell the game late in the Brian McCutcheon era. The behavior of the administration and athletics in relation to this over the last week and at the game was an embarrassment and it is time that they stop treating Lynah like a police state.
How did Sasha Pokulok perform in his return from injury?
Pokulok was a game-time decision on Friday night and ended up playing. He then played again on Saturday night. There is no question that he was not 100%, however. He did not get a ton of ice time and he often looked bit sluggish. He did show flashes of the dominant player he was prior to the injury so one has to think he is on the right track. It will obviously help to have the weekend off following next weekend's regular season finale so hopefully he will be back in prime shape for the playoffs.
How is Raymond Sawada progressing?
Just a couple of weeks ago, I challenged Sawada to elevate his game. Whether he read it or not, he has answered the call and played the best hockey of his career. He would very likely have been my fourth star the last three weekends, definitely finding his game during that time. He has been regularly generating offense while finding his dominating physical game. It would be nice to see the coaching staff give him more of an active role on the first powerplay unit, however. His job is to generate traffic in front of the net and to theoretically provide a slot pass option, but nobody ever tries to make that pass. Sawada has underrated offensive skills and should be given more of an opportunity to utilize them on the powerplay rather than just acting as a screen.
Has the time come to completely re-evaluate the student ticket procedure?
If it has not been obvious before, hopefully it is becoming so. Never before have so many Harvard tickets become available and it seemed to be the case that most of the tickets that became available did so because students were trying to make a profit. If it was not apparent prior to the game on Saturday, it was sadly evident at the game. In the student sections, there were a ton of students who were seemingly at their first game of the season, having very little idea what was going on, not knowing cheers nor anything about hockey in general. I recognized very few people standing around me in Section B. It has become cool to go to Cornell hockey games and the Harvard game is the pinnacle of this. Maybe with fewer real home games next year, the bandwagon students will be weeded out, but in general it is time that athletics looks into alternative strategies for distributing student tickets. Going back to the general admission format that existed several years ago would be one idea as it would force students to get to games early while "facetimers" would be less inclined to make the greater sacrifice to go. Regardless, there needs to be more difficulty in attaining tickets and a better mechanism in place to get students to games not just on time but early.
What is keeping Dartmouth back?
Dartmouth should have been one of the top teams in college hockey the last two seasons but has not been. Bench boss and alum Bob Gaudet is a big reason that the team has not been able to cross the threshold into the nation's elite. He has become one of the top recruiters out there, putting together an outstanding mix of size and skill. Getting the right personnel is only part of the equation, however. It is painful to watch Dartmouth play. They ooze potential but struggle with consistency. It also does not help that they have always had sub-par goaltending. A bigger problem is that Gaudet acts like a complete idiot during games. He can never keep his emotions in check and just about always blames the refs when his team is struggling. His players feed off of his negative energy and resort to bush-league tactics and chippy play. You cringe when Dartmouth comes to town because you just know they will be dishing out cheap shots the entire night, especially if they start losing and the penalties start going against them. Somebody should probably explain to Gaudet that the ref is unlikely to sympathize when he is constantly bitching at them about every little thing. He also has a lot of nerve to ever complain when his players constantly take stupid penalties and start scrums after the whistle. Dartmouth is a very good team and if they had better goaltending, they could beat anybody in college hockey. If only they were well-coached.
This year's Rensselaer team is a much different product from the one that did not even seem to try last year. They have been in almost every game and have beaten some quality opponents, including Boston University early in the season. They have also beaten Clarkson, Harvard, and Princeton, the last three teams who have beaten Cornell. No team in the ECACHL can be taken lightly any more and that includes the Engineers, especially on home ice where they are 10-5-1. This should be a tough game much like the one at Lynah, where the Big Red clearly underestimated them and only managed a tie.
Cornell 3 - Rensselaer 1
Union is slowly turning the corner as a program. They are having one of their best seasons since moving to Division I with a 16-12-6 record. Among those wins was a very impressive victory at Lynah in November. That being said, the Dutchmen have been somewhat inconsistent this season, coming up with some big wins while getting beaten badly in a decent amount of games. Their biggest strength is their goaltending from Kris Mayotte. Mayotte has really come on this year, but has always seemed to have Cornell's number. It will be tough for the Big Red to beat him, so they are going to need to be just about perfect defensively.
Cornell 2 - Union 0