Entering the annual four-week break for exams, the Big Red is in familiar territory. In their first 12 games, they have had a few great nights and a couple awful ones. They have won a couple games they may have deserved to lose but also lost a couple that they probably deserved to win. They have played terrible teams, average teams, and pretty good teams. Twelve games is theoretically a pretty decent sample to give some indication as to what direction the team is going, but things just are not that clear right now.
Just like last year, Cornell is 8-3-1 heading into break and just like last year, the team has been relatively inconsistent leading up to it. Still, there are far more questions this year than there were last. Heading into the season, few would have expected that the team would be doing this well after 12 games. However, there are still a ton of questions. What it all comes down to is that Cornell is a lot better than just about everyone expected they would be. Interestingly, the two areas of greatest concern - defense and goaltending - have been very good for the most part. The areas that were supposed to be this team's strengths - offense and special teams - have disappointed to some degree.
The defense, led by Jared Seminoff, Taylor Davenport, and Doug Krantz, has been excellent at even strength. The two freshmen, Brendon Nash and Justin Krueger, have been solid contributors and have often shown maturity beyond their years. The team as a whole has been spectacular defensively and shockingly as good, if not better than, this traditionally dominant defensive team has been in the past, giving up just nine five-on-five goals in twelve games. Considering they lost their number one goaltender, top three defensemen, and their two most important defensive forwards, those numbers are staggering. Troy Davenport has had a couple of rough patches but has generally been good and quite frankly more consistent within games than David McKee was for much of last season. Ben Scrivens has looked decent in relief, giving the Big Red a second option who can give the team an opportunity to win games.
Considering how awful the special teams have been and how important they are in today's penalty-filled game, it is extraordinary how well Cornell has done through 12 games. Just imagine how good they would be if they could get things going in this area. That being said, there is no way Cornell will be able to sustain their early success if they continue with their powerplay and penalty kill as it has been.
To say the offense has been disappointing may be a bit of an overstatement. After all, the team has flexed its muscle in terms of depth up front, with every single player who has played ten or more games scoring at least a point. Every forward has at least one goal except Joe Scali and Ryan Kindret but they have only played in five combined games. In all, the Big Red have scored 42 goals in 12 games, 18 on the powerplay and one shorthanded. That leaves 23 even strength goals in 12 games, which is not bad, but it can certainly be better. The small amount of even strength time should also be taken into account when looking at the team's proficiency here. There has been less time for lines to get into flow of things and for players to get chemistry with each other because of all the penalties, not to mention significantly fewer minutes of five-on-five hockey.
The powerplay's statistics don't look terrible but it has not looked formidable in quite some time. The bottom line is that with 42 goals in 12 games, Cornell is producing 3.5 goals a game, which should certainly be enough to win each night. Looking a little closer at the statistics backs that up as Cornell only scored two goals in its two ECACHL losses to Dartmouth and Quinnipiac and below its average in the tie to Rensselaer. If the special teams can be stabilized even to the point where the powerplay and penalty kill cancel each other out in terms of goals scored and allowed, then Cornell should win most of its games based on their domination at even strength.
That takes care of the technical report card for Cornell after twelve games. What is actually happening in the games is more than the statistics indicate. While the team has been inconsistent, there is question over what exactly their identity is. The players and coaches also seem to be a bit perplexed by this during this year of transition. Is Cornell a skating and skill team? Or are they a physical cycling team? There is nothing wrong with them being a bit of both but there almost seems to be confusion amongst the players and coaches.
The team has not shown as much chemistry as previous seasons though that may have more to do with the amount of turnover more than anything. There have been times, however, where the Big Red have looked empty. It is difficult to describe especially if you have not seen the team live on a regular basis. This has been particularly evident on home ice where they have gone through periods spiritless. Again, a big part of this is that a lot of players on the team are getting to know one another, but certain intangibles - the edge - have been strikingly absent at times. The third period at Princeton and the first periods against Wayne State and Rensselaer stick out right away. The team is not going to dominate every second of every game, but they need to better assert themselves even when they don't have it. One goal against cannot quickly become two or three as it did in those games. That stabilizing veteran presence needs to assert itself during these times, just as the Knoepflis, Igguldens, and Abbotts have the last couple of years. This presence did not happen overnight with these players. Rather it took these stoic leaders until January to really step up their on-ice performance.
Elaborating more on the lack of chemistry is that Schafer has uncharacteristically been mixing and matching lines for the entire season. There have been few constants in the line combinations and powerplay units through 12 games. At times, it seems like Schafer is just picking three names out of a hat and throwing them on the ice. Whatever it is, chemistry has not developed among players to this point. There are not a lot of players reading off of one another and this has been particularly evident on the powerplay. Having more constant line combinations will help in a lot of areas, especially over the long haul, because players will be clearer of their roles and will be more comfortable in them. Right now, there does not seem to be enough role clarity amongst the forwards.
The question posed here at the beginning of the season was whether Cornell would be rebuilding or reloading this season in wake of so much turnover. The answer generally appears to be the latter though at times it has looked more like the former. Yet despite those bumps in the road, the Big Red is in first place (though with other teams having games at hand). Much like the last three seasons, Cornell has been inconsistent through December while still holding an impressive record. In each of those seasons, the team got markedly better in the second part of the season. It will be very interesting to watch and see where this team goes. Despite all the personnel losses, Cornell has held its own while clearly not playing its best hockey. This should be a good sign for things to come.
1. Byron Bitz
It is pretty clear that Bitz has taken his game to another level in the last two weeks. After recording just five points in the team's first ten games, Bitz scored four points in two games this weekend. He had the puck considerably more over the weekend than he has the rest of the season and was playing with more intensity, mixing it up a handful of times after the whistle and consistently driving hard to the net. Bitz needs to play at this level at the very least for Cornell to be successful this year. He needs to be an offensive and emotional leader every night. Bitz still has another level he can play at and that will be one of the differences in the first powerplay unit producing if he can get there.
2. Jared Seminoff
Seminoff has been brilliant at times this season. When he struggled last weekend, the team followed suit. He is in a tough situation having to be Mr. Everything for the defense as just as sophomore but he has handled it pretty well. When he hasn't, the team has struggled. He had one of his worst periods of the year in the first period of Friday night. When he rebounded after that, so did the team. When Seminoff was at a point-per-game pace after the first two weekends, nobody expected he would be able to sustain that. However, Seminoff has 12 points in 12 games and is second on the team in scoring. He was the team's best defenseman this weekend once again and was key player at both ends of the ice.
3. Evan Barlow
After being a healthy scratch in the second game against Wayne State, Barlow had two of his best games of the season. For much of the weekend, Barlow showed that he has become a different player than many thought he would be, being a responsible two-way presence in more of a third line role. That being said, Barlow started to make a more noticeable impact in the offensive zone. The coaching staff responded by giving him his first regular powerplay time of the season, putting Barlow on the right point of the first powerplay unit. He did not do great there, but Barlow displayed his considerable skill level late in Saturday night's game, totally faking out a Union defenseman and going top shelf on a backhand to register his first goal and point since scoring twice against Brown in the third game of the season. Barlow has been a solid player for this team even when he has not been scoring, but he needs to produce if this team is going to be successful.
What is the solution to the powerplay?
It has been just plain painful to watch Cornell's powerplay the last few games, particularly the first unit. They have been getting set up fairly regularly but only generate a shot on goal once every two or three times they are on the ice. It is truly remarkable to watch its inefficiency. It is not as if they are getting chances and just not converting. There are legitimate systemic problems with it as well as the fact that there is little or no chemistry with the unit. A powerplay should be simple. Do two things: get traffic in front of the net and get as many pucks to the net as possible. This unit has done a decent job of getting bodies around the net, but there have been no rebounds for them to look at. Whoever is manning the points just keeps on passing it back and forth which is exactly what the opposition is expecting.
Newsflash: every team knows that Cornell tries to feed Mark McCutcheon on the left point. That option can be used but not in the current setup. McCutcheon and whoever is feeding him need to be a lot farther apart than five or six feet so it is a little harder to defend against. The way it is going is that the predictable pass sails along a few feet and one player can defend against the whole transparent play. McCutcheon needs to back away and force the defenders to adjust. Whoever is on the right point, be it Seminoff or Barlow, needs to show some different looks than just forcing the pass over as well. Throwing the puck at the net once in a while cannot do any harm. It will be easier to do if McCutcheon is farther away as it would theoretically open up more shooting lanes.
This powerplay has been far too complicated. Scott is trying to set up Sawada and Bitz down low and then they will rotate up high and force the play to McCutceon if that doesn't work. Put Scott on the half-boards and get two guys on the points who can get the puck to the net on a hard one-timer or just on a wrist shot. Have Sawada and Bitz in front of the net to cause havoc, create a screen, and get on rebounds. It is simple and would be effective. Goalies cannot stop every shot they don't see and it will be awfully tough to control both Sawada and Bitz in front of the net.
Will Schafer stay with the 13 forwards, 5 defensemen formula?
He will, but only until Dan Glover comes back. Once Glover is back in the lineup, then a forward is coming out. That is happening sooner rather than later and, at most, the team will play five more games without him, so that is the period the forwards on the cusps of the lineup need to prove themselves. The thirteenth forward right now has to be Justin Milo whose ice time was relatively low over the weekend. Joe Scali has seemingly played himself into the lineup with his up-tempo play which ultimately forced the coaches to go with 13 forwards in the first place. Milo has been underused and wrongly used a lot of the time but the coaches have kept him in the lineup. It would sure be nice to see him get an opportunity to use his big shot on the powerplay. Barlow is another player who could potentially come out of the lineup but if he plays like he did this weekend that will not be a problem. The most likely scenario is that two or three guys will rotate until one player makes the decision easier, good or bad. This is all under the assumption that there are no injuries to any forwards, which is a pretty big assumption. The player who comes out could very well be the one who cannot generate any chemistry during the continued game of musical line combinations that has gone on for the whole season. It is very tight in the forward ranks right now so it will be very interesting to see what happens.
What direction are the lines going in?
With 13 forwards, things have been complicated a bit. Schafer continues to use certain duos regularly: Bitz with Sawada, Scott with Romano, Gallagher with McCutcheon, and Kennedy and Carefoot. Milo saw a fair amount of time with Bitz and Sawada and should be a good complement for that line but they did not do well on Saturday. Barlow has also been on that line but has seen most of his time this season with Scott and Romano. Greening had a regular shift with Gallagher and McCutcheon for the last couple weeks but that line has not generated a whole lot. Kennedy and Carefoot did not have a regular left winger although Mugford was with them the most. Milo, Barlow, Greening, Mugford, and Scali basically rotated on the left side for the whole weekend. At this point, it is really tough to say what the lines should be because there have not been any combinations that have been a consistent threat.
The first four-person forward line in history.
With so few games against quality out-of-conference competition, the Florida College Classic is one of the only measuring sticks Cornell has to gauge where they stand on the national scene. This is particularly the case this season. Not only will the games there be invaluable to the Big Red in terms of experience, but they will be extremely important as how they stack up in the PairWise Rankings for the NCAA Tournament selection in March. It is always tough to tell how teams will perform at this time of year because they are often coming off a lengthy period without games or even practices. Cornell will be off for 27 days between the Union game and their next game against New Hampshire so expect some rust. New Hampshire will be just about as rusty as they will have had 21 days off before the December 29th match. Right now, the Wildcats are ranked second in the very meaningful USCHO poll with an impressive 11-2-1 record, including a current ten game unbeaten streak. They can score a ton of goals and are always good defensively as well. New Hampshire has to be considered one of the top teams in college hockey and the same thing can be said about Maine, who is 9-3-1. The Black Bears did get crushed by the Wildcats 8-2 in their lone meeting this season. Western Michigan has struggled to a 6-7-1 record and is likely to be on a level much more comparable to the teams Cornell has played thus far in the season.
Because of the importance of these games in the PairWise Rankings, Cornell needs to approach this tournament with a ton of urgency. It is probably tough to focus, being right after Christmas and being away from home without much of a college hockey atmosphere in Estero. The other teams will be plagued by the same factors so the team who is best able to combat them will win this tournament. The Big Red need these games. It is not life or death, but success in this tournament will go a very long way in the NCAA Tournament selection process. They need to find a way to conjure up their A-game as a team and play their very best hockey of the season. This will be a good emotional preparer for playoff hockey if they treat it as such.
New Hampshire 5 - Cornell 3
Western Michigan 1 - Cornell 4