Late in Friday night's semifinal win over Colgate, Chris Abbott collided with a player right by the end-boards, his gloves flew off and he hit the wall with great impact. As he left the ice, Cornell fans, players, and coaches collectively held their breath. They watched on as the trainers worked on Abbott's apparently severe injury in the hallway behind the bench. It was a terrifying couple of minutes for the people who really knew his value to this team. When he returned to the ice, not even missing a shift, all who were nervous breathed a sigh of relief. Cornell held on for the big win and clinched a spot in the championship game for the fourth time in five years against Harvard. Late Friday night, all was well in the world of Cornell hockey. Fans stood in the street in front of the Pepsi Arena cheering as Cornell's tag was added to the championship game on the big ECACHL Tournament bracket.
As fans gathered information about the PairWise rankings that night at bars around downtown Albany, the excitement grew as it appeared evident that Cornell had put itself in charge of their own destiny. With a win, Cornell could stay east in the NCAA tournament after last year's disappointing draw of Minnesota for the regionals. Cornell was obviously going to win. Harvard may have been scoring goals at will, but there was no way they could do that against the hard-working, defensively-dominant Cornell team.
Just as the teams were about to come out for the championship game on Saturday night, many of the confident Cornell fans in the "student sections" of 129 and 130 suddenly became fearful and nervous. Chris Abbott walked up the aisle with some sort of cast on the hand he injured on Friday and it was immediately apparent that he was not going to play.
Why did I pick Chris Abbott as the team's best overall forward for the regular season? Why was his loss so significant? That "third line" which Abbott centers has become the focal point of the entire team over the last few weeks. Along with Raymond Sawada and Tyler Mugford, the trio sets the tone in all three zones every time they hit the ice. They dominate physically, shut down opposing top lines, and cycle more effectively in the offensive zone than any other line on the team. For a team that very much relies upon its cycling in the offensive zone, this line is the most important, not just defensively, but offensively as well. It may not show in the numbers, but everything this team is about comes from them. Chris Abbott's work ethic and constant energy gets the whole team going and his absence was felt from the opening faceoff on Saturday night.
People can talk about the officials all they want, but the men in stripes were not the ones who decided the championship game, despite all the calls that they made. Sure, Cornell got penalized five times in the first period while Harvard did not get one. Of those five, four were no-brainers. Cornell simply did not come out to play. They were beaten to loose pucks, caught standing around, and generally disorganized the entire game. Abbott's absence was a huge reason for their failures and lack of composure.
In the box score, it all came down to special teams. The officials gave Cornell a couple of gift powerplays in the second period and they did nothing with them but generate a couple of great chances where the shot rarely ended up on net. Harvard went 5-for-10 on the powerplay while Cornell went 0-for-8. That was the ball game right there. Beyond those statistics, Cornell was badly outplayed in every aspect of the game. Starting with special teams, but also five-on-five, energy, discipline, coaching, and goaltending goaltending were not even close. Outcoached just a year ago in the same situation, Ted Donato showed his dramatic improvement behind the bench. He got every matchup he wanted despite being the road team and his players looked hungrier and more prepared the entire game. They were the much better hockey team and definitely deserved to win.
Abbott's energy, leadership, five-on-five ability, and penalty-killing were sorely missed. The bigger issue was that the team's lack of depth at center was brutally exposed. Freshman Mike Kennedy scored a key goal for the Big Red to keep them in the game in the second period, but he was thrown into the deep end having to play three times as many minutes in a key defensive role. His very first shift of the game in Abbott's place with Sawada and Mugford, he got caught in the defensive zone and took the first penalty of the game that ultimately led to Harvard's first goal. He was just clearly not ready for that kind of responsibility but the coaching staff had very limited options.
It was painful to watch, except for the six or seven minutes in the second period when Cornell scored two goals to get the deficit to one. The bottom line, however, was that Cornell does not play a style conducive to overcoming large deficits, especially when they are taking a lot of penalties against an unbelievably opportunistic Harvard team. Special teams were the big difference, but even so, Cornell did not come out ready to work. The bigger issue was that they just could not make up for the absence of their heart-and-soul player Chris Abbott. Ask the Calgary Flames if they would have made the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004 without Stephane Yelle. That third line center position on a tight-checking, defensive team is as important as the number one center, number one defenseman, and starting netminder, particularly at this time of year.
That game will unquestionably go down as one of the worst and most painful losses in Cornell history. It was not that they lost; it was how they lost that was so discouraging. There is life after death for the Big Red, although it looks about as bleak as it can get. The key will be getting Abbott back, but just about every single player in the lineup needs to step up. On Saturday night, only a couple of players elevated their games and that is simply not enough for a championship game. There is no need to name names because all you need to do is look at the roster. Almost every single player was a passenger on Saturday night. This year's team has been interesting in terms of their mental game so it will be very intriguing to see how they perform this coming weekend when they face a challenge well-beyond anything they have had this season.
1. Tyler Mugford
As would be expected from a player like Mugford, he raised his game to a new zip code this weekend. He has had a good freshman season, far surpassing expectations, but his best four games have been the last four games, all in the playoffs. He may be one of the ugliest skaters in college hockey, but he does not stop working. In the third period against Colgate when Don Vaughn was trying to pull Mark Dekanich for the extra skater, Mugford outskated a pair of Colgate players, moved in alone and almost scored. It was one of the more gutsy plays of the season. He is a heart-and-soul player and he did nothing but prove that this weekend.
2. Ryan O'Byrne
O'Byrne's play drastically improved from last weekend when he was returning from injury. He scored the second goal against Harvard, but was solid all weekend for the Big Red, who only gave up one even strength goal in the two games.
3. Mark McCutcheon
McCutcheon did not even have that strong of a weekend, but he deserves recognition for being the only Cornell player with a pulse in the first period against Harvard. The guy has heart and he was the lone bright spot in the miserable first period on Saturday night. He worked hard on the penalty kill and was able to create the team's only offense of the period, operating all by himself. He will definitely be wearing a letter on his chest next season. There's no question that he has earned it.
What happens if Chris Abbott does not return this weekend?
The lack of depth down the middle is really scary. Without an effective Abbott, the team will be in really tough to win this coming weekend. If he cannot play, the coaching staff will have to figure out something that will be able to give the team the same effect from the third line that they have had for much of the season. They cannot just play three lines and mix things up every few minutes like they did against Harvard because it was not at all effective and added to the team's disjointed play. As well as the top line has played with Topher Scott on the right side, the only option may be to move him back to center. They need to have four strong lines if they are going to beat Colorado College. Against Harvard, they had two strong lines on paper with a revolving door on the third and fourth lines. Maybe move Pegoraro into the checking role on the third line as he is very strong defensively and on draws and put Kennedy or Scott in the middle on the second line. Any way you look at it, that third line has to be effective on Saturday, because they are going up against arguably the top two forwards in all of college hockey.
Who is the best goaltender in the ECACHL?
The coaches got it right when they selected Colgate's Mark Dekanich as the top goaltender in the conference. He was simply outstanding in both games this weekend for the Red Raiders, making over a dozen enormous saves that most other goaltenders would not make. He is head-and-shoulders better than any other goaltender in the conference as well as his overrated predecessor, Steve Silverthorne. It's scary to think the guy is only a sophomore.
Where has Sasha Pokulok gone?
He is again missing in action. After seemingly turning the corner upon returning from the World Junior Championships in January, Pokulok got injured in the first game against Colgate. He missed some significant time but in the four games since returning, he has struggled badly. If Cornell has any prayer at winning on Saturday night, he has to play at his highest level. He (along with the team's other top players) needs to be a difference-maker or they are not going to win. It is that simple. He has extraordinary talent, but his mental game is very inconsistent. Pokulok has shown the ability to control the tempo of a game, showing patience and composure with the puck and using his large frame to his advantage. He must do this if Cornell is to do anything in the NCAA Tournament.