So much for running the table. You can tell when a winning streak is coming to an end when you are winning games you probably should not be, as was the case this past weekend. After a shocking and dramatic come-from-behind win over Harvard on Friday night, giving Cornell its best start since 1973, reality set in on Saturday against Dartmouth. The Big Red did not play badly in either game, but there is no way in hell they played anywhere close to their best hockey. On the plus side, Cornell gave up zero five-on-five goals and only a dozen or so legitimate scoring chances. However, even-strength hockey, though still important, now theoretically takes a back seat to special teams efficiency in the new special teams-laden version of college hockey. It is not quite that simple for Cornell but there is no question that their special teams will need to be better than they were this past weekend.
The numbers are not pretty but even they do not tell the whole story. Cornell went 0-for-14 on the powerplay and 10-for-14 on the penalty kill, an even amount of powerplays for and against but a minus-four on the differential. That's the ball game right there. With those numbers, it is surprising Cornell was able to muster even a split. The Big Red were pretty good at even strength but their special teams cost them two points on Saturday and almost cost them two more on Friday.
Entering the weekend, Cornell had one very potent powerplay unit and one that had done nothing. The former struggled to get anything going this weekend, however. The book is out on that unit with its primary weapon being the one-time pass to Mark McCutcheon on the right point. Both Harvard and Dartmouth took that option out of the equation and that unit failed to adjust, continually trying to force the play to no avail. Tony Romano was not handling the puck as much as he had the prior two weekends, though Topher Scott did do a good job keeping control of the puck down-low.
This leads into the "other" powerplay unit. The coaching staff replaced freshman Justin Milo with another freshman Colin Greening to wreak a little more havoc in front of the net. Greening certainly was more effective in providing a screen though it did not really end up mattering as that unit only directed a couple of shots towards the net. The hope with inserting Doug Krantz in Mitch Carefoot's place on the point was that he would provide a viable one-time option. However, like McCutcheon on the other unit, that option was pretty well covered by both Harvard and Dartmouth. It is no secret what Schafer has done with his powerplays over the years and both Ted Donato and Bob Gaudet clearly have taken note.
The unit that had been successful prior to this weekend has a good mix. Scott has great hockey sense and is very good at handling the puck down low. Sawada is an ideal fit in front of the net and is good recovering dump-ins. McCutcheon is a great fit on the point with his shot and creativity. Seminoff complements him well playing a conservative game though he is very smart with the puck and adept at skating it out of his own zone. Romano could be the key here. He has fit in well on that unit but could theoretically fill the same role that Scott does as the guy who stirs the pot. Coincidentally, this is exactly what the other unit lacks. There is talent there and guys who could fill the roles but it lacks a focal point. Bitz is not that guy. There is no question he can get the puck from one end to the other but he is not making things happen once in the zone. Romano (or Scott for that matter) could be that guy.
Regardless of what happens personnel-wise, the coaching staff needs to force each unit to mix things up. They cannot just rely on the one-timer play that the team has used so effectively over the years. There is more talent and more ability to make plays than in the past and opposing teams know that Cornell always looks to make that high play. Both Harvard and Dartmouth used multiple options very effectively, using the high one-timer play early on with each team converting for goals, then eventually shifting down-low once Cornell had taken away the high option.
You need the right mix of players on a powerplay and not necessarily the five most talented guys. The one unit that has not yet scored a powerplay goal through six games clearly does not have that chemistry. With the amount of powerplays teams are getting now, you need two units that can consistently produce and use multiple options. At the very least, Cornell will need to score one powerplay goal a game if they are going to win consistently. Whatever the right mix is, the coaching staff needs to find it soon.
The numbers are not kind to the penalty kill from this past weekend though they may understate its effectiveness. Despite giving up two goals each night, it was decent. Having Justin Milo out on the first penalty kill of Friday night's game proved costly. His failed clearing attempt led to Harvard's first goal which was the turning point in the game. Milo killed penalties in juniors but had not in his four games at Cornell, begging the question of why he was out there on such an important kill. One of the cardinal rules of penalty killing is that when you have the puck on your stick in the defensive zone, it needs to be at the other end of the ice. Milo quickly learned that lesson. Those mistakes are bound to happen. The penalty kill can still improve in some general areas including adjusting to the opposing powerplay, which did not happen in either game.
Special teams have been a fixture of the Big Red for the past decade and will need to continue at a high level again this year. They had been decent prior to this weekend but that simply is not good enough. Cornell, like every team, will be spending a lot of time on their special teams. Unlike previous years, they will not need to be spectacular to win games. They just need to be even with their opponents if they can keep up their stifling five-on-five defensive scheme.
1. Troy Davenport
Starting 5-1, there are a lot of positives to Cornell in the early-going, but perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise has been the play of Davenport. He has not been spectacular but he has been very good and generally consistent. He is that type of goalie and will give his team the chance to win every night and even steal some games from time to time. Davenport almost the game against Dartmouth, with several big saves to keep the game tied in the second period while Cornell's offense went missing. You cannot fault Davenport for any of the goals he let in. He actually ended up allowing the same number of goals as Dartmouth's winning goalie, Mike Divine.
2. Jared Seminoff
It was another great weekend for Seminoff, who is one of the main reasons the team did not allow an even strength goal in either game. He works extremely hard and plays a very smart and safe game. Seminoff was good in both games, doing all the little things right and playing in all situations. Believe it or not, he has been a legitimate top-pair defenseman in the first six games of the season and leads the team in assists with seven.
3. Mike Kennedy
Scoring the biggest goal of the young season against the team's archrival certainly helped Kennedy's cause but he was good all weekend. He has been arguably the team's best forward through six games doing all the little things well. Kennedy was good on faceoffs and on the penalty kill while making several good defensive plays. Kennedy is just plain solid and the kind of player the Lynah Faithful are proud to have representing their team.
What is the answer with the lines?
Schafer juggled the lines a lot this weekend, far more than most Cornell fans are used to. By the end of Saturday night's game, each line had been changed except for the Barlow-Scott-Romano line which still saw some shifts together in the third period. Even that line had been broken up for a couple of shifts though. Mitch Carefoot had moved into Raymond Sawada's spot alongside Kennedy and Tyler Mugford on the shutdown line while Sawada saw time alongside each of the other three centers. Milo swapped with Greening to Bitz's left side with Greening moving next to Gallagher. The juggling signified that Schafer was unhappy with the lack of offense and that he was not close to coming up with ideal combinations. The Barlow-Scott-Romano line has been the team's best by far but they got knocked around a lot this weekend and were less effective than they were in the first four games. It remains to be seen if they will be able to produce against the bigger and better defensive teams. Milo played his best hockey of the season after moving next to Bitz and was more of a factor offensively. Although Bitz has struggled, he is still good at rushing the puck and drawing opposing players to him, opening up his linemates. Sawada has the skills to play on a scoring line, but he has never looked comfortable in that role, whereas he has thrived playing with Mugford on the shutdown line. That still leaves some questions about the right side. If Sawada is on the shutdown line, where does Carefoot fit in? Should McCutcheon stay with Gallagher? Milo-Bitz-McCutcheon, Greening-Scott-Romano, Barlow-Gallagher-Carefoot, Mugford-Kennedy-Sawada.
What is wrong with Byron Bitz?
Bitz has not even been a shadow of the player he was in the second half of last season. The two things he was doing then that he is not doing now are being creative with the puck and playing with an edge. Bitz is the biggest player on the team and needs to play like it more often, throwing his weight around more. When he played with a chip on his shoulder in the latter stages of last season, he was constantly mixing it up after the whistle and playing with a lot of emotion. As the captain and as the most experienced forward, Bitz needs to get this back in his game. He seems scared to make mistakes with the puck and consequently is tentative whenever he has it. Not a lot of goals will be scored with that mindset.
Who has been Cornell's biggest surprise so far?
Davenport. Either one. Troy turned in two more very good performances this weekend while Taylor has gotten better with every game, emerging as the team's second best blueliner after Seminoff. He has played well above expectations, doing all the little things defensemen need to do to be successful, particularly in Cornell's defense-oriented system. He has been outstanding on the penalty kill in particular, and has generally brought a stabilizing influence in the defensive zone.
Coming off of a weekend where Cornell did play its best hockey, expect them to be on a mission Friday night. They are also coming off a rough outing in their last game in Princeton. The Tigers cannot match up in terms of depth or talent but they will work hard and give the Big Red all they can handle on home ice. Cornell will need to play to its strengths and play a smart, sixty-minute game, getting a lot of pucks to the net to take advantage of Princeton's vulnerable and suspect goaltending. No matter what, special teams will be a huge factor so if Cornell cannot get them in order, they will have a hard time beating anybody.
Cornell 5 - Princeton 2
After six games, it is a little easier to get a feel for this team. Quinnipiac will be the final test in fully-grasping what kind of team Cornell will be this season. Through six games, the Big Red have faced six teams with different styles of play. The one scheme Cornell has not faced is a high-flying offensive team. The Bobcats and Golden Knights have to be considered the strongest offensive teams in the conference though neither can be considered nearly as strong defensively or physically as either Harvard or Dartmouth. It will be very interesting to see how Cornell is able to handle an offense that has been consistently potent in the early-going. If the Big Red can find a way to keep the Quinnipiac attack in check, this game is theirs. If they can't, then it will be up to their more-capable offense to go head-to-head with Quinnipiac's. Hope for the former scenario if Cornell is going to win this one.
Cornell 3 - Quinnipiac 4