Still in ideal position heading into final weekend
It was nail-biter between two good hockey teams. Two teams that could potentially meet again in the playoffs played a hard fought game on Friday night that saw the Big Red win the hotly contested match. The absolutely critical win for Cornell gave them sole possession of third place in the ECAC and got them within striking distance of Colgate and crumbling Brown. The game took the course of the four games prior where Cornell was stingy defensively and opportunistic offensively. Both teams worked hard, but Cornell worked harder and executed their system better. In the end, the difference was the Big Red's opportunistic play and the spectacular protection of their lead in the third period, most notably in the last ten minutes after Rensselaer came within one goal.
The next night at Union was also a nail-biter, but it was a considerably more ugly game and far less exciting. The desperation from Cornell's game diminished in just a 24-hour period. After an ugly, if not embarrassing, first period for the Big Red, they carried the play in the second and third periods. However, they were not opportunistic like they were the five games prior and they were outworked. The basic ingredients for a loss. This time of year, it does not really matter who you play; if you get outworked, you're going to have a lot of trouble winning hockey games, especially on the road. This was a lesson the Big Red undoubtedly learned Saturday night. It would have been nice if Cornell's apparent powerplay goal in the first period counted, but still, there was no excuse in losing to an inferior opponent at such a critical time of the year. What does it all mean though?
In the wake of last weekend, Cornell remains in control of their own destiny as far as finishing in the top four. Although they pretty much blew any chance of winning the ECAC regular season title in losing to Union, winning the Cleary Cup is not all that significant as there is no automatic NCAA Tournament berth that comes with it as there used to be. But the loss will substantially decrease the possibility of Cornell attaining an at large bid with their PWR and RPI rankings not moving up (or down) on the weekend. A top four finish in the ECAC is the most important thing, as has been stated several times in this space. Winning Friday night over a team that they are in direct competition with for a top four finish will go a long way to giving Cornell the first round bye and second round home ice that comes with the top four finish. Although not winning both games this coming weekend will not eliminate Cornell from finishing in the top four, winning them both will guarantee them their ideal regular season finish. So making it easy, win both games.
As far as the NCAA tournament goes, the Big Red will need to win the post-season ECAC tournament to attain a bid. Of course, there is still a slight possibility of them attaining an at large bid, but the chances of that were severely hampered with the loss to Union. Sweeping next weekend, sweeping the second round playoff series, losing in the semifinals and winning the consolation game could theoretically give Cornell a shot at attaining the at large bid. But that would only give them a shot. No guarantees under that scenario. Really, it is extremely unlikely that they can attain an at-large bid at this point. The only way they can definitely qualify for their third straight NCAA tournament is by winning the ECAC post-season tournament.
There will undoubtedly be a long road to attaining their second straight ECAC Championship. That road is one that this writer is definitely looking forward to as the Big Red will almost definitely face teams that they have struggled with this year: Brown and Colgate. That is, of course, several weeks and games away, but the ideal scenario for the Big Red is to face these two teams who they have struggled with this season in Albany. The ultimate showdown. The players certainly would like another shot at these two teams. There is no question in my mind that the Cornell team we saw win five straight games prior to the loss at Union can beat both of these teams. On the other hand, there is no question in my mind that the Cornell team we saw at Union will not even make it to Albany to face them.
Big Red Could Gain From Loss
It is important to note that there is likely some positive coming out of the disappointing loss at Union. The loss will bring the previously surging team back to earth for the final regular season games and the playoff push. It is imperative not to get too high after wins and not too low after losses, especially late in the season. The loss will likely remind the Big Red that they have to outwork every opponent--whether Boston College or Union--in order to win. The wakeup call was likely going to come at some point, so it is good that it happened against Union instead of the night before in Troy or worse, in the playoffs. The team did not play horribly against Union. Almost any person in attendance would attest that Cornell was a superior hockey team to Union talent-wise. The problem was that there were too many passengers. Not enough players carried their weight, especially on the offensive side of the puck.
The first period saw the entire team looking sluggish and behind the play except for David McKee who was on the top of his game. Against Rensselaer, every player carried their weight and did what they individually and collectively had to do to get the win. Although they were outplayed in the first period, the Big Red was still playing with fire in their eyes. They were playing desperate, must-win hockey the entire game. It has to be that way every single game from here on out.
Exhibit A is Friday night's game. Exhibit B is Saturday night's game. The two opposing Cornell performances offer blatant proof of what Cornell needs to do in order to win hockey games and what Cornell needs to not do in order to lose hockey games. Follow the blueprint displayed in Friday's game. Do not follow the blueprint displayed in Saturday's game.
The team's seventh defenseman with a healthy defensive corps, Evan Salmela, went a long way to ascending on the depth chart with his play on the weekend. In particular against Rensselaer, Salmela displayed considerable talent and savvy making several nice little plays on the night. His high skill level, when utilized correctly, compensates for his lack of size. He has the potential to be an offensive force from the blueline who is capable of affectively leading rushes out of his own zone.
The 6'5" freshman Byron Bitz has struggled in recent months after a good start. It is understandable considering the whole team has cooled off offensively since the beginning of the season. Also throw in the fact that he is a freshman who is bound to go through growing pains. Moving him to center and the point on the powerplay probably is not helping him through his struggles and is almost definitely not helping his development. Bitz is a physical force when he wants to be. Putting him at center at even strength and on the point on the powerplay makes him a non-factor in the physical part of the game. Having him learning a new position (center) with many more defensive responsibilities is not going to get him back on track. Still, Bitz oozes physical and offensive ability.
Jeremy Downs and Ben Wallace continued their superb and unheralded play on the weekend. Their importance only grew with Charlie Cook and Dan Glover out of the lineup. As a result of the increased responsibility and ice time, they each elevated their respective play. These two are unquestionably the unsung heroes of this year's squad and would be the second and third stars (though not really sure what order) on the season behind David McKee. ECAC Co-Defensive Defensemen of the year anybody?
Most would say the biggest component missing from this year's club are big impact defensemen in the molds of Doug Murray and Mark McRae. It took a while, but in the last two weeks, two future impact defensemen have verbally committed to Cornell for the 2004-2005 season according to Chris Heisenberg's website that tracks NCAA commitments as well as the current respective team web pages of the teams that the two players currently play on. The two defensemen both look to have considerable upside.
Doug Krantz will be an older freshman (will turn 21 during his freshman year) that has good size and puts up good offensive numbers in the BCHL, a league that many Cornell recruits of recent years are coming from.
The other incoming defenseman will be 18 when he comes to Cornell. Sasha Grenier-Pokulok stands at 6'5" and weighs in at 220 pounds and has decent offensive numbers. Grenier-Pokulok will be Cornell's third player that stands at 6'5". Cornell will boast more players of that height than 29 of the 30 National Hockey League teams. It should also be noted that with 5'5" Topher Scott coming in, Cornell will boast more players at that height (1) than any team in the National Hockey League.
In only losing Ben Wallace from the defensive corps, Cornell could boast one of the best defensive units in the NCAA from top to bottom. With nine defensemen (as it stands now), it would mean that one of the regulars from the top six this year (when healthy) will not be in the top six next year (when healthy) if both freshmen jump into the lineup, which is obviously not a certainty. Regardless, there will be added depth, size, and variety of types of blueliners.