This is not Cornell hockey. This is brutal hockey. Do not let anything fool you. They had some good moments over the weekend but in general, it just is not there right now. Nobody is playing their best hockey. Nobody. Except for two or three players, everybody is a passenger waiting for someone else to take the bull by the horns. This may be rock bottom but there is no guarantee that things will get better. In fact, if the team continues to play games as it did this weekend, this tunnel will be continuing for an indefinite period.
Right now, this team is lacking in nearly every category one can think of. The penalty kill was better this weekend and defense was good for five periods so maybe that is something to build off of. Everything else is well short of not only where it needs to be but where things were during the first few games of the season. Yes, this is the biggest concern. Not that Cornell is thoroughly embarrassing themselves on a regular basis but that this team has proven that it can play, and for whatever reason it is not. The measuring stick was right there this weekend when, for the first time this season, the Big Red faced off against teams they have played already (not including Wayne State). Brown is a tougher team to get a read on because the game in Providence was so infested with special teams. Yale, however, managed to look very similar on Friday to the team Cornell played against in their fourth game of the season. Yet instead of Cornell thoroughly dominating the Bulldogs as they did in New Haven, they played pretty even hockey before holding on for dear life in overtime.
Excuses can be made about the brutal tying goal for Yale late in that game and point the finger at Troy Davenport for fumbling the puck behind the net. However, the bigger issue is why Cornell was only leading 2-1 at that point. They had two powerplays in the third period in which they generated no scoring chances. Maybe the players were content to win 2-1 and thus did not put forth the knockout punch that would have made Yale's second goal meaningless. Instead Cornell tied a team that was inferior by played to their level. It is brutal hockey not because they are not scoring or winning but because they are not playing the game the way it is meant to be played and not coming close to the standard they are capable of. They certainly are not playing the way their recent predecessors have. It is not that the players are not trying or not caring, because they are. The problem is that they lack enthusiasm, energy, and that battling mentality that is so often the difference. These guys just do not look like they are having much fun. They do not look like they feel much pride in wearing the Cornell sweater.
In a time where the national media is gushing over the New England Patriots, thus infuriating all non-Patriots fans, it probably seems like these intangibles are overrated and overanalyzed. Certainly that is possible though I do not know much about football. In hockey, intangibles are worth so much, because more than any other sport, strength in these areas correlates so closely with the tangible aspects of the game. Whether you concur with this theory or not, there is no denying the massive failures of the Big Red in the tangible areas of the game of late. The offense, powerplay, physicality, neutral zone flow, forecheck, goaltending, breakout, etc. are all failing and lacking bite. The easy excuse for this is that this year's team lacks talent and experience. I would have bought that prior to the season but this team has shown that it can play. The games in which they fired on all cylinders were not flukes. Cornell played with the edge that has carried previous teams. As a result of this enthusiasm and drive, the team was able to outscore, outhit, and outwork the opposition. With one you do not necessarily get the other, but it sure helps.
There is no doubt about it. This is the crossroads of the season. If the team is to crawl out of this miserable state, it needs to happen now. Most will not fault them for fading into mediocrity. After all, the program is coming off of two straight appearances in the NCAA Quarterfinals and there are a lot of young players. Though somewhat practical, this perspective is complete and total nonsense. Losing is not understandable nor is it acceptable if it happens the way it has the last six games. Losing is going to happen; there are going to be tough times in any season. But it is not about the results, it is about how you get them. There is so much talk about winning and getting championships in sports, and many fail to realize it is the journey to that promised land that is so desirable and gratifying, not the destination itself. It is not that you lose, it is how you lose. It is not that you win, it is how you win. Getting outworked on home ice and playing an indifferent game is no way to lose or win.
They can work on all the special teams and technical parts of the game for 20 hours a day for the entire week but that does not mean it will translate to success in these areas come game time. The team needs to find that confidence and excitement that carried it so much earlier in the season. They may have gotten outplayed by Harvard but Cornell dug as deep as they could and found that higher gear late in the third period of that game. They played with that hunger and excitement and they really seemed to relish it. They look like they are suffering through a dead-end job of late and not enjoying any of it. They have to find the right mentality if they are to find their way out of this. Last time Cornell had that intensity in their game, all the tangibles fell into place and they convincingly beat the number-two ranked team in college hockey. After that extraordinary win, the team was 9-3-1. Since then, we have hardly heard a peep from that same team and they are 0-4-2.
Topher Scott's performance over this stretch is very representative of the team. His whole energy level and performance has dropped significantly. I have pointed the finger at Bitz and McCutcheon quite a bit, but Scott is just as guilty for underperforming, if not more. He is currently playing the worst stretch of hockey in his career at Cornell and has not been a factor in any game since New Hampshire. Coincidentally, the Big Red has not won since that night one month ago. What stands out most is the drop in enthusiasm in his game much the same as it has vacated the team as a whole. He is not getting a step on opposing players like he always has and is not winning many battles for loose pucks. It is just a drop in energy for him. The team feeds off of his excitement and it just has not been there. He will be the biggest factor in the team turning things around because he is the emotional leader of this team and he is such a pivotal part of the offense. Scott has always wanted the puck, particularly on the powerplay. Lately, he just gets rid of it as fast as he can. Many believe this is already his team and that it will go where he takes them. If his game continues to sag, do not expect the team to do any different. Putting common sense into the equation suggests that if he played approximately six bad games in his first 83, then this slump of six straight is going to end sooner rather than later.
To be successful, a team must play to its strengths. When Cornell has won this year, they have utilized their speed, skill, and still managed to play physical hockey. They may not have the size of previous years, but that does not mean they cannot play physically. Still, this team must use its strengths better than it has. Over the last six games, they have not looked like a fast team nor have they looked like a skilled team. And for the first time in a long time, Cornell has not been a physical team. What they are doing is playing along the perimeter, hoping seams open up. There is close to no penetration of the middle of the ice in either the neutral zone or the offensive zone and nobody is going anywhere near the net. Even when players are going to the net, nobody gets the puck to the net. The bottom line is that even a team with no talent can manufacture offense by having players go hard to the net consistently and always have pucks thrown at the net. No, a fancy one-timer to Mark McCutcheon in the same spot every time is not entirely necessary, particularly because it has not worked since the fourth game of the season, but moreso because when a team is struggling, you have to simplify things. The talent is certainly there to bang in more than the paltry seven goals the Big Red has managed over the last five games.
Nothing is going to happen from the outside even with the most talented teams. You have to consistently get guys in the goalie's face and get pucks to the net. It is just not that complicated. This goes for even-strength and the powerplay that continually works the high play for some reason. Of the two times Cornell actually tried to get the puck to the middle on the powerplay this weekend, one resulted in a penalty shot and the other a goal. Players like Topher Scott and Tony Romano are being badly under-utilized by continually forcing the high play.
It has obviously been a very difficult stretch of hockey since 2007 opened. Pretty much everyone is struggling and few things are going right. This happens to most teams but this has gone on long enough. If Cornell wants a top four finish, then they must turn it around now. Complicating things further is not the solution. Rather, simplify everything and go back to basics. Make the game fun again and get that edge back. They should still be responsible defensively, but they should also get everyone playing with that energy and hunger that brought this group success. That's right. This team has had success, which is why they are still over .500. It cannot be said enough: this team can be the best team in the ECACHL. Despite the many changes the team has endured this season, the conference is just plain weaker top-to-bottom than it was the last two seasons. Anybody can take it. Cornell has the depth and balance that most of the other teams do not. They showd it early but it has since gone missing. They must find it, period.
It is only fitting that next week will mark the three year anniversary of my first column, which came in the midst of a horrible 1-5-1 stretch of hockey. The title of it was It's Not Good, But It's Not As Bad As It Seems. In reading it, a lot of what was written then applies to this year's team. Regardless of the infamous events of that year's playoffs, that team still proceeded to finish that regular season winning seven of their final eight games. This recent stretch has looked remarkably similar to that one, though it remains to be seen whether Cornell will begin its resurgence this weekend against Colgate or next. Things are pretty bad right now yet the team somehow remains above .500. It is not like they do not have the ability to succeed, particularly in a year where the conference is so weak, much like the 2003-04 season.
This all being said, I will make a bold prediction: Cornell will finish the regular season 7-2-1 and finish in the top four of the conference. Whether this perhaps-lofty prediction comes true or not is not of primary importance. Rather, it will be how Cornell wins or loses (or ties) during the next ten games that will ultimately define this team. The stature to which they play and conduct themselves will dictate the next couple months and years of this program and the success they may or may not enjoy.
Why won't the coaching staff change up the powerplay?
The longer the coaching staff leaves the units as they are with the objectives they have, the longer it will fail. The high play on the first unit just is not working and it hasn't in months. McCutcheon has a great shot but everybody knows what that unit is doing. He stands in the same place and consequently there is always a man right in his shooting lane. As a result, his shot either goes into the man or goes three feet over the net. Where did Brendon Nash score from on the one-time play against Brown? Right at the center. Also, that unit was moving the puck around and not telegraphing the play. They were looking at other options, something the first unit never does. That is a shame considering you have puck wizards Romano and Scott down low. Any other coach switches that powerplay unit up the first game that it fails to generate chances. It has been approximately 15 games and they have not been dismantled. Wisconsin's powerplay was not generating chances last weekend and Head Coach Mike Eaves put the fourth line and third pair of defense out for a third period powerplay. Get back to basics. Get traffic in front and get as many pucks to the net as possible. At least vary it up a little bit so it is not so predictable for the opposition to defend against. It's not rocket science. A powerplay is not just about getting goals, it is about gaining and/or sustaining momentum and scoring timely goals. A late third period powerplay when you are tied (like against Clarkson) or when you are up a goal (like against Yale) is a time where a goal is of the utmost importance. Go 0-for-9 and then score on that one and that powerplay is still serving a lot of good. The horrendous powerplay is responsible for easily seven of the ten games Cornell has not won this season.
Why has the penalty kill improved?
Lost in the awful weekend was the marked improvement of the penalty kill. It started against Clarkson and continued to build over the weekend. This area was killing the team for a while and seems to be back in business. The penalty killers have abandoned their passive, watch-the-powerplay approach and have attacked and put a lot more pressure on the opposition to make decisions. At this level, there are not many players who consistently make good plays under pressure. A penalty kill should be taking away shooting lanes, eliminating cross-ice pass options, allowing the goaltender to see all shots, but most importantly it should be about outworking the powerplay, forcing mistakes and containing it. When that happens, you are going to have success.
What is the best story of the season to date?
He was not a highly-regarded recruit and that was made clear when he only played four games as a freshman. The following year, he dressed for just two. When Chris Fontas made it known to the coaching staff that he was transferring to Cornell, it was this player who became expendable and was dropped from the team. He spent his junior year toiling for the esteemed Cornell Club Team, the highlight of his season coming when Cornell forgot to bring their game sweaters to Colgate and he and, ironically, Fontas were called upon to bring them up to Hamilton. Escorted by State Police, they made it just in time for puck drop and it seemed at that point that Kevin McLeod's contributions to Cornell hockey were complete.
Over the summer, when Ryan O'Byrne and Sasha Pokulok bolted school early for the professional ranks and Danny Glover had surgery that would force him to miss significant time, McLeod and Matt Hedge (another great sidebar for an otherwise uneventful season thus far) were called up from the club team to play defense, a position which neither had ever played before. Even at that point, it seemed that neither would have any hope of entering the lineup unless there was some injury epidemic. Injuries or not, enough personnel were sidelined that McLeod drew into four straight games starting with Sacred Heart and ending Friday night against Yale. He did not play sparingly in these games and actually performed pretty well, particularly for a guy who had never played defense before and had only played five collegiate games in the last three years. Tip your hat to a guy who has been through this much through a very weird progression of events.
Why should Justin Milo be inserted into the lineup?
He may only have scored one goal this season, but considering Cornell has scored just seven times in the last five games, it means that you need to get as much as offense in to the lineup as possible. Milo has a great deal of talent and really started to come into his own the last two games he played (against Maine and Sacred Heart). He carries the puck with purpose and actually gets pucks to the net on a regular basis. That is an area this team has really struggled with. The bottom line is that the team is not generating nearly enough offense and Milo is most certainly part of the solution to that problem.
Over the past two seasons, Cornell has played some of its best hockey during the Colgate weekend. It is always very difficult to play up in Hamilton and this year should be no different. It is the ultimate road game in that when Cornell goes in there, they not only have to beat the other team, but all the distractions and raucous behavior that goes on around them. The Red Raiders have underachieved worse than the Big Red have this season, being plagued with inconsistency. They entered the season with the best player in the conference in Tyler Burton and the best goaltender in Mark Dekanich. Neither has been bad, but they have not taken the steps forward many expected. The same can be said for the team as a whole. These are two very desperate hockey teams that are used to this series meaning a lot, but do not be surprised if this weekend turns one of their seasons around.
Cornell 1 - Colgate 1
Colgate 0 - Cornell 2