In the Ivy League with no athletic scholarships available, it is impossible for teams to carry the amount of players that the scholarships schools carry. Cornell has 25 players: 14 forwards, eight defensemen, and three goalies. Cornell has had more than 25 in the past, but they will never have the amount that the scholarship schools boast. Those schools may only have two or three more players than Cornell, but that can be a huge difference. That was never more evident than it was this past weekend.
Already reeling with injuries on the blueline without their top two defensemen, Ryan O'Byrne and Sasha Pokulok, the unit took yet another hit, losing Doug Krantz. It is very rare to lose three blueliners to injury at the same time or even have three different defensemen miss time throughout the course of a season at the college level. However, Cornell managed to and they were put in a very tough situation. With just five remaining defensemen, they all dressed, while Ryan Kindret suited up as the 13th forward. Both Daniel Pegoraro and Byron Bitz saw time on defense. It was not pretty.
It was not the most terrible weekend ever for Cornell even though they did fall out of first place as a result of the shutout loss to Rensselaer. They continued their so-so play over the course of the weekend, but they only gave up three goals in two games despite being without three defensemen. One would obviously point to the sporadically futile attack that often appears to be shooting blanks. On the surface, the offense should not have been affected, and a paltry two goals in two games should be a concern. However, with Bitz and Pegoraro taking shifts on defense and the forwards being far more conscious and involved in the defensive zone to take some pressure off of the very inexperienced defensive corps, it becomes a little more understandable. Cornell was on life-support this weekend, plain and simple.
If it was not blatantly obvious before this weekend, Cornell is badly bruised and in dire need of the weekend off that they will be getting. It is almost amazing to look at, but freshman Jared Seminoff is the only Cornell defenseman who has played in every game this year. Every other defenseman has been injured for some period of time. O'Byrne, Pokulok, and Gleed, the team's top three defensemen have all missed extended periods of time.
That all being said, there are no excuses in sports. Every team is going to face adversity at some point. Cornell has faced its fair share this year and done moderately well, the high point coming in the sweep against Colgate without O'Byrne and Pokulok. They got better as this past weekend progressed. The first half of the Rensselaer game saw a Cornell team leaning on excuses as it could not execute offensively and was losing far too many races for loose pucks. Whatever happens, you have to go out with the intention to win at all costs. No team is perfect and this year's team is far from it, but they do appear to learn from their imperfections. After looking lost and having no accountability for the first part of Friday night's game, the team got itself together. The players who have to be leaders stepped up their games. It did not show in the score on Friday night, but the better, more desperate team won on Saturday night. This time of year is about playing desperate hockey. Systems, talent, and ability only take you so far. Then it is about going that extra mile.
The leadership on this year's team has come into question on many occasions. On maybe just as many occasions, these players have answered the bell and changed the complexions of games. It is the time of year where they have to be there every night no matter what or they won't be playing anymore. That is what is so great and so painful about the playoffs, particularly in the one game elimination playoffs of college hockey. This area proved to be the strength of last year's team. We are tired about talking about last year's team and we are tired of talking about the Frozen Four team of 2003. This is a new and different team and it is time to write a new chapter. Matt Moulson, Chris Abbott, Cam Abbott, Daniel Pegoraro, and Jon Gleed have had a lot of success at Cornell but it is their time to lead now and let their play do the talking. No more stretches of invisibility that each player has had this year.
It was looking like a zero point weekend and the worst way to finish the season. Goalless on Friday night and robbed several times by the biggest Cornell-killing goaltender in several years, the badly short-handed Big Red pulled through, and shorthanded no less. You just knew Cornell needed the first goal. Even though Union later tied up the game shorthanded, you knew the Big Red had this one. That goal represented Cornell's comeback to life during this difficult weekend. Toward the end of a long penalty killing shift, exhausted Jon Gleed stretched out of position and got the puck to the team's newest minute-muncher, Daniel Pegoraro who proceeded to race out of the zone with the puck. Making an amazing move at the blueline to beat one defender, he saucered a pass by the other Union defenseman to Cam Abbott. For those who had forgotten or had forced themselves to forget, it was Abbott who was ultimately responsible for the loss just a week earlier to Harvard on Senior Night, taking a terrible major penalty mid-way through the third period. It did not end there.
Cornell controlled the vast majority of the play on Saturday night, but in the third period, it was knotted up at one apiece. There was a feeling amongst the fans and a confidence around the players that they were going to get this one. Who better to be the difference than possibly the most-maligned player on the team, Matt Moulson. Everyone was checking their eyes, including probably Moulson himself, as he was left wide open with the puck in a spot where he used to score with regularity, the high slot. He held on to the puck, waited, waited, waited, and then let go a shot rarely seen this year from him. It was as if he put all the frustration he has felt all year into that shot. Mayotte was simply not getting beaten on this night and Moulson seemed to put the puck through him.
This recent 2-3-1 stretch has been frustrating for all involved, but it may ultimately be what puts this team over the top. The team knows what they need to do. The individual players know what they need to do. They have seen the good and the bad and know what it takes. The time has come where excuses are insignificant and irrelevant and one has to think that Cornell has learned its lesson. I am not an optimist by nature, especially as it pertains to hockey. However, I have been uncharacteristically positive throughout Cornell's late-season struggles. Somehow this team instills confidence even as they limp into the playoffs, despite their frequent fall-offs and painful inconsistencies. The week off is going to help this physically and emotionally exhausted team that has proven itself capable of anything. Just about every time their backs have been against the wall, they have responded. What will this team do when they are back to full-strength?
1. Daniel Pegoraro
This weekend really personified Pegoraro's growth during his four years at Cornell. He likely logged over thirty minutes each night, seeing time both at forward and at defense while playing the point on the first powerplay unit and seeing his usual shift on the penalty kill. Pretty impressive for a guy who was an enormous defensive liability and had major conditioning problems just a couple years ago. He just seemed to be on the ice the entire game. He was also one of Cornell's best offensive players, assisting on both goals in the Union game.
2. David McKee
McKee quietly turned in a solid weekend. Even with the injuries on the blueline, McKee was not overly busy with quality shots. As would have been expected, there were sporadic breakdowns where he was tested to make some big saves. He made a couple of huge saves in the second period against Rensselaer that could have put the game well out of reach before the third period. Against Union, he was also forced to come up with some huge saves. Cornell outplayed Union but the result of the game could have easily been different had McKee not been on his game. He has had flashier weekends, but the team was really up against it this weekend and badly needed a win on Saturday night, and he delivered.
3. Jon Gleed
This was a tough pick because Byron Bitz was outstanding again in both games, but Gleed's value was again highlighted by the injuries on the blueline. He has been forced to elevate his game over the last month and he has, seeing a lot more ice time and responsibility. He was able to pace himself but also stay involved in the play and play a big part in the team staying relatively strong defensively even without three regular defensemen. It may not be all that obvious how well Gleed is playing but it will be when the blueline gets healthy and his minutes go back to normal.
Who are the legitimate contenders to win the ECACHL post-season crown?
It will be similar to last year but with one different team. Last year, it was Cornell, Harvard, and Colgate with fourth place Vermont clearly a notch behind. This year, Dartmouth, Colgate, and Cornell are the three legitimate contenders while Harvard is not in that class. Objectively, one would have to call Cornell the favorite, even in third place, as they have the experience and two wins over Colgate, as well as their recent convincing win over Dartmouth. Being in third place could very well work to Cornell's advantage, being placed in more of an underdog role and not having quite as much pressure on them.
How did Taylor Davenport perform in his return to the lineup?
Davenport was thrown into the deep end of the pool. He had not played since December 28th against Minnesota-Duluth but was forced back into the lineup with the heavily depleted defense. The coaches had no other option but to give him a regular shift. That is not to say he was not good enough to get one, but when a player does not play for two months, it is usually better to ease him into the lineup. With his regular shift, Davenport was steady and impressive. Who knows whether he will ever be a regular in the lineup, but Davenport proved he can be more than just a spare part. He threw some good hits and looked like a seasoned junior, showing a great deal of patience and composure despite the very intense circumstances by which he got back into the lineup.
How does this year's ECACHL compare to last year's?
It is important to look past the standings and point totals and look more at the out-of-conference play and the competitiveness within the conference. This is a big year for the ECACHL. Following one of its more successful seasons in several years when they got three teams to the NCAA Tournament with two others relatively close, everyone was waiting to see whether the conference was on the upswing or if last season was just a fluke. As strong as last year's conference was at the top, it was not exactly well-balanced. There were five very good teams, a couple of average teams, and some very bad teams. This year has been different in that the top end has not been as strong, but overall, the conference has been infinitely stronger. Only ten points separate the first and eighth place teams, and although the top-end has declined a bit from last year, it is conceivable that the ECACHL will get three teams into the NCAA Tournament again. Regardless, the conference is much stronger than it was two and three years ago and appears to be moving in the right direction. Before long, it should be back into the "big four" conferences and out of its mid-major status.
12. Brown vs. 5. St. Lawrence
Brown is an underrated team but they are not nearly at the level St. Lawrence is. The Saints are not quite in the top tier of the ECACHL but they are a very strong team that is very deep offensively and much stronger top-to-bottom than Brown is. This one will be decisive for St. Lawrence.
St. Lawrence in 2
11. Yale vs. 6. Union
This is going to be a really good series. After a very promising start, Yale has struggled badly, going winless in their last nine ECACHL games. They are a much better team than they were for the last two years and are pretty well-balanced. Union is a team that can be upset just as they were last year in the first round of the playoffs. This is probably the best Union team ever but they do not have that extra gear. With Kris Mayotte between the pipes, they can beat anyone. This one could really go either way, but expect Yale to surprise.
Yale in 3
10. Quinnipiac vs. 7. Rensselaer
Quinnipiac is a very scrappy team that has surpassed the low expectations placed on them prior to the season as a first-year ECACHL team. They put up some impressive wins this year and can play with anyone. They work hard, have a good amount of offense, and fit the mold of a team you do not want to see in the playoffs because they really have nothing to lose. Rensselaer has improved a lot since last season and have become a much tougher team to play against. This Quinnipiac team will be tough over a three-game series though.
Quinnipiac in 3
9. Princeton vs. 8. Clarkson
Another series that could go either way, you have to give the edge to Clarkson who will be playing on home ice and has a lot more experience. Princeton has made a lot of strides this year and is a very well-coached team. With Eric Leroux, Princeton can beat any team, but Clarkson is still notch above. They may be the best team playing this weekend and are a legitimate threat to get to Albany.
Clarkson in 2