As Cornell suffers through its worst stretch of hockey in eight seasons, the time has come to point some fingers and identify what exactly is going wrong. There is no sugar-coating it, there are problems with this team. No, the problem is not the defense as most would have predicted at the beginning of the season. In fact, the team's defense has been the most consistent part of their game and arguably their biggest strength. Looking at the numbers clearly identifies offense as a significant, if not enormous, problem facing a team that has only managed three goals in its last three games. Still, I am going beyond that in identifying what is plaguing this team.
Any sports team at any level needs leadership to succeed or to even reach its potential. There is no way around it. Last season, it could have been a bigger problem than it ended up being. After Shane Hynes left, there was question as to who would be that hard-nosed, heart-and-soul player for Cornell. It certainly was not the man wearing the C, Matt Moulson. He did bring something to the team, specifically production. He may not have produced as much as some expected, but Moulson still contributed most nights. Chris Abbott, Jon Gleed, Daniel Pegoraro, and Topher Scott ascended as emotional, heart-and-soul players for the Big Red and as they elevated their respective games, the team had more success. Last year's team overachieved (despite how high they were ranked) and it ended up playing better than the sum of its parts.
Look back another year. Mike Knoepfli, Mike Iggulden, Charlie Cook, Jeremy Downs, and Paul Vareteressian, though not the most talented group ever, all brought their games to new levels as their senior seasons progressed. As that happened, the 04-05 Cornell team became dominant, winning virtually every game down the stretch. These guys, like Chris Abbott, Pegoraro, and Gleed, took control of the team not necessarily by scoring highlight reel goals but by showing up every night and contributing something. These leaders made the rest of the team play better because they felt more comfortable. That is a big part of leadership: making everyone feel more comfortable and in turn perform at a higher level.
This year, that presence and aura from the team's supposed leaders has been sporadic at best. Byron Bitz, Mark McCutcheon, Topher Scott, and Raymond Sawada have not been good enough in terms of their respective and collective presences. Many will argue this but these guys just have not contributed enough, particularly in the last four games, during which Cornell has not won. Each of these players has been spectacular at times in their careers, producing and playing with an edge that others feed off of. It has not been there the last three games though. During the season as a whole, the culture of the team has not seemed to be at the level it was the last two years. That being said, I am not inside the dressing room before and after games or at practice during the week. The appearance during games, however, is that of a team that lacks identity, focus, and consistent intensity.
Certainly the team has displayed a great deal of heart at times. The third period against Harvard comes to mind immediately, but also the comeback against Rensselaer and the 60-minute performance against New Hampshire. But as a whole, Cornell has not looked like a hockey team. They do not look unified or even like they are having much fun. The culture is lacking, at a minimum, in the way they perform on the ice.
Heading into the season, many questioned tangible aspects of the game, such as defense and goaltending, that would hamper Cornell as it sought to return to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year. Certainly Cornell has failed miserably in some tangible aspects, specifically special teams, where they place in the bottom portion of all of college hockey. In general, however, different intangibles have stood out as what the team lacks most. It is easy to call out the offense, goaltending, and special teams as what is setting this team back, but the intangibles - leadership, experience, energy, consistency - are at the root of each of these problems. Certain players are just not contributing enough.
It would be unfair not to recognize some of the players who have elevated their games and become leaders on this team. Mitch Carefoot, Jared Seminoff, and Doug Krantz have all put forth valiant efforts, even of late, as the team has floundered badly. Still, players like Mike Kennedy, Tyler Mugford and the aforementioned players have not progressed and contributed on a regular basis and this has very much held the team back.
The captain himself has to be a thousand times better. The coaching staff seems to be happy with his play, which is shocking considering the level to which he contributed in the second half of last season. I am so sick and tired of talking about the hockey Byron Bitz played in the second half of last season. With the amount of ice time and responsibility he gets, it means that the team will go where he takes them. Right now, it is a four game winless streak. Last season when he was playing far and away the best hockey of his career Bitz was playing with a chip on his shoulder. He was getting emotionally involved in games and using his size to make plays with the puck. That guy has been missing this season. Even if he has been solid some nights, that is just not enough for guy wearing the C. He has to find the game that made him so successful last season or this team will be dead in the water.
Another part of the leadership is the coaching staff and they should be called out as well. First of all, it is extraordinary what they have done with this group with regard to the defensive side of the game. The dominant defensive teams of the last few years had some stud defensemen to build from. This year's team had just two healthy defensemen who had played any substantive hockey at the college level. Still, the coaches have quickly instilled the mentality of defensive responsibility and the team has been very good in this aspect despite not having anyone like O'Byrne, Cook, Downs, Murray, or McRae. That is the good part.
Somebody explain why the powerplay has been doing the same thing every night all season when it has failed consistently since the third week of the season. Why are some guys getting chances repeatedly while others are not? Why are some combinations remaining intact despite not having any success? Certainly there are times to leave things alone and let them grow but this team passed that point several weeks ago. This team still struggles in the same areas it did in early December. The preparation and emotion is not there on a consistent basis and it is eerily noticeable. The players deserve much of the blame for what has gone on recently but the coaches have certainly contributed as well.
The sky is not falling. There is plenty of hockey left to be played. Cornell sits in a tie with Clarkson for fourth in the conference and is fourth in points-per-game. However, there are plenty of teams right on their heels and they will be in the bottom third of the league if they do not find a way out of this rut. The light at the end of the tunnel is everyone contributing and some form of collective leadership surfacing. Leaders have to be there every night and have to find ways to contribute even if it is not on the scoresheet. More often than not, when you are contributing in the smaller parts of the game, the offense will follow soon after. This team has potential to do far more than anyone expected prior to the season. Whether they get there or not is contingent upon the leaders taking control and contributing on a consistent basis. They must bring that edge and provide that aura that made the teams of the past so enjoyable to watch. It will not happen overnight but it will happen once these players bring something to the table on a regular basis and play with that chip.
1. Mitch Carefoot
Among the forward ranks, nobody came close to Carefoot. He scored both of Cornell's goals and made his presence felt every time he was on the ice. In addition to his pair of goals, Carefoot was at the forefront of a handful of other good scoring chances on the weekend. In a time where leadership has surfaced as a significant issue on the team, Carefoot is doing his part at least with regard to his contributions and effort on the ice. He is not a fancy player and should not be counted on for regular offensive contributions, but he will go to the net regularly and will always find a way to contribute.
2. Troy Davenport
Davenport has been in a tough situation this season having to follow in the footsteps of David McKee, David LeNeveu, and Matt Underhill. Goaltending at Cornell has not really been questioned for several years. Though certainly not one of the bigger problems on the team this season, the goaltending can definitely be better, at least when you compare it to the last few seasons. Davenport has been the number one goaltender for the majority of the season and has been good at times while mediocre at others. That message was loud and clear when Ben Scrivens started Friday night against St. Lawrence. Another message came in loud and clear less than a period into Scrivens's start: Davenport is the undisputed number one. Maybe that message injected some newfound confidence into him because he turned in arguably his best weekend of the season to date. He allowed just two goals and made 42 saves in five periods. He looked more confident and comfortable than he has all season and is a big reason why the Big Red were able to get a point in Potsdam.
3. Jared Seminoff
There is still no question who the most valuable player of this year's team has been. In addition, Seminoff has been far and away the team's most consistent performer. In a year where player performances have bounced all over the map, Seminoff's steady contributions have been undoubtedly the brightest spot on the team. Even with his regular partner, Brendon Nash, out of the lineup all weekend, Seminoff still logged a ton of minutes and did so in his usual productive manner. He was one of the guys who battled very hard all weekend and he likely played through an injury that he sustained in the second period against St. Lawrence. He is the heart and soul of the team and should be wearing a letter on his sweater next season.
What is wrong with the students at Cheel Arena at Clarkson?
Much has been made of the inappropriateness and vulgarity of the Clarkson students this past Saturday. It certainly crossed the line but their energy and enthusiasm as well as their punctuality were all things that the Cornell students who attend games should take note of, as should Cornell Athletics and the Cornell administration. Because student seats at Clarkson are general admission, they all get there an hour before the game starts so as to secure a place to stand. I wonder how we could solve the punctuality problem of the students at Lynah?
The Bulldogs have enjoyed a bit of a resurgence this season and have been a very good hockey team at times. Cornell turned in one of their best performances of the season in New Haven in November while Yale decidedly had an off-night. Expect them to be a lot better this time around so Cornell will need to be ready. Just like the game at The Whale, Cornell will need to be great on special teams and be ready to go hit-for-hit with Yale, which is one of the most physical teams in the conference. Returning for the first "real" home game in several weeks will hopefully give a boost to the Big Red who are in desperate need of one.
Yale 3 - Cornell 3
Brown has also enjoyed a resurgence this season, now playing at .500. After a ten game stretch where the Bears went 7-2-1, they have now lost three straight games. Brown has struggled in the ECACHL but have had some pretty similar results as Cornell against common opponents. The game in Providence was a penalty-filled affair so little was determined in terms of how these two teams stack up against one another. Cornell should be able to beat this team though, especially on home ice.
Brown 1 - Cornell 3