So many descriptors came to mind Saturday night, but probably the most prevalent would be relief. It was a long, miserable month for Cornell hockey but it is now in the rearview mirror - hopefully. In what has been a roller coaster ride, it is really anyone's guess as to what comes next for this team. It is easy to forget that this same team that went more than a month without winning also started the season better than any Cornell team in over three decades. Just because they won on Saturday does not mean they are going to finish the regular season with a bang as they did in 2003-04 when they finished 7-1. It is unknown whether they have reached the end of the tunnel but there is certainly a new hope.
The midseason series with Colgate never ceases to provide drama and this year was no different. This is an underrated rivalry that is right there with Harvard and Clarkson and the players seem to genuinely not like each other. The fact that these two teams have followed very similar courses during the last few seasons has only strengthened it. After both being among the ECACHL's elite the last three seasons, they each have declined and underachieved to some degree this season. A lot was still on the line, however, as no team has truly established itself as the elite of the conference. Maybe Colgate is feeling good coming out of the weekend with a split after going winless over their last five against their traveling partners, but Cornell gained more. The fact of the matter is that they carried the play for the 120 minutes of hockey. They were the better team and outshot the Raiders 77-39. Maybe they split, but Cornell won this series and Don Vaughn would probably agree.
There is no question that the win on Saturday will be something for this team to build on. The fact that they are alone in fourth place indicates that Cornell is still alive and well in the ECACHL even after their 0-3-2 stretch in conference play. Cornell has been playing decent hockey on-and-off for a little while but could not get any wins. During the same stretch, they played some terrible hockey as well. Special teams contributed a ton to their lack of success in January and there is no question that the Big Red will go nowhere without figuring it out. The penalty kill is theoretically going in the right direction. This was the thought after last weekend and the team managed to give up four man-down goals at Colgate on Thursday. Everything may have changed on Saturday though. The kill was far stronger and more efficient but it all came to the forefront in the final minutes. The Lynah crowd was seeing the light after Justin Milo gave Cornell the 2-1 lead and then that excitement quickly subsided with Doug Krantz's major penalty with less than five minutes to go. The feeling went from elation and excitement to "here we go again." Colgate did not get a scoring chance on their extended opportunity to tie the game. The penalty kill was extraordinary and may have righted a whole lot more than just this area of the game in those closing minutes.
It is exciting to think that Cornell is still in the top four of the conference heading into the final eight games with hopefully their best hockey in front of them. One has to think that two of the teams in front of them, St. Lawrence and Quinnipiac, have already played their best hockey. The fact that nobody has truly surfaced as a dominant team in the conference (despite what the standings may say) gives Cornell a great opportunity to take over as they have in recent seasons during the final stages. Be warned: just because the opportunity is there does not mean a thing.
They won a huge game on Saturday and their destiny is in their own hands. But this win did not signal the end to all the issues that plagued this team over the last month. On the other side of the special team's equation, the powerplay still is not even close. In turn, the offense has not been near good enough, having failed to score more than two goals in seven straight games. Add to that the struggles of both goaltenders and you do not see a team that is primed to run the table. Cornell could conceivably win their last eight games in similar 2-1 fashion but that is not exactly probable. The coaches and players need to realize that and get the powerplay going and get the offense going. If this happens, whichever goaltender is in net will not be under quite as much pressure to play perfect hockey. Right now, the goaltending and defensive scheme has no margin for error. Exhibit A: the tie to Yale last Friday. Exhibit B: the loss to Colgate on Thursday. All is not fixed.
That being said, these areas cannot get any worse. That does not necessarily mean they will improve though. They may be generating a lot of shots of late, but there have still not been enough great chances. The bottom line is that the team's true and talented offensive players are the guys who will ultimately carry Cornell. Justin Milo is part of the solution and he has been getting better every game, culminating in his best on Saturday and the emotional game winner late Saturday night. Evan Barlow has to be part of the solution and he was having his best game in weeks prior to getting hurt on Saturday. The question is whether Byron Bitz and Mark McCutcheon can contribute on a regular basis. If they continue to get the amount of ice time and responsibility that they have been the entire season then these two will have to be part of the solution or else there will not be one. Topher Scott, Blake Gallagher, Tony Romano, Raymond Sawada, and Colin Greening are all guys who will also have to contribute and play better than they have been of late. The skill guys need to be given the opportunity to use their skills and the physical guys need to be given the opportunity to battle. It cannot just be a wing-and-a-prayer offense as it has been over the last month. Regardless, everybody needs to watch Mitch Carefoot and Milo because it does not matter what kind of player you are, good things happen when you go to the net.
There is no doubt that Cornell is a defense-first team. There are some guys whose primary responsibilities are to play against the opposition's top lines and the shutdown line of Tyler Mugford, Mike Kennedy, and Mitch Carefoot was spectacular in shutting down the Tyler Burton line over the weekend. What stood out more on Saturday night was that they were generating chances – more, in fact, than the line they were checking. What it means is that being responsible defensively does not mean you cannot generate offense. As I said in the season preview, often the best defense is offense. The shutdown line certainly showed that on Saturday.
The collective sigh of relief felt after Saturday night's win will probably prove to be the most important factor when all is said and done. The fact of the matter is that Cornell has been excellent defensively for most of the season but the nervousness and lack of confidence in doing the other things a team must do in order to win hockey games has been holding them back. That confidence is in better shape now than it was last week at this time. The mental part of the game has been the biggest issue over the last month and has been responsible for many of the team's specific struggles. So hopefully the pendulum will now swing in the opposite direction.
1. Mitch Carefoot
Carefoot has been the team's best player over the last month and has been the only player consistently producing for what has become a popgun offense. It is interesting to note that his success has come playing in the role for which he is best suited: the checking line. Along with Mike Kennedy and Tyler Mugford (Chris Fontas on Thursday), the unit saw a ton of ice time, constantly going up against Colgate's potent top line. They did a really good job on them and definitely generated more offense than the line they were checking did. Carefoot has been doing something few other Cornell players have been doing with any regularity and that is going to the net. Each of the goals he has scored has come because of that. He worked extremely hard and won almost every battle he was in, even on the penalty kill.
2. Justin Milo
It has undoubtedly been a very frustrating start to Milo's career at Cornell. Truth be told though, he has been one of Cornell's better players for the last four games. He was finally rewarded late Saturday with what probably felt like the first goal of his collegiate career. Milo was strong on the penalty kill in both games and created a couple of chances using his speed to the outside. Milo also did a lot of the little things needed in the defensive zone.
3. Tyler Mugford
If Milo wasn't going to get the game winner on Saturday, Mugford was probably the next most-likely candidate. He was buzzing all night, finishing checks, and generating a fair amount of scoring chances. Most importantly, Mugford provided that energetic, physical presence that was so valuable to the team last season and at the beginning of this season. That had gone missing for the last month and Mugford was scratched Thursday night as a result. His work against Colgate's top line as well as his consistent energy was a big factor in Cornell winning on Saturday. Mugford will not be coming out of the lineup again if he plays like that.
Has the time finally come to change up the powerplay units?
The time came a month ago. Carefoot, Nash, and Sawada are the only guys who have done anything on either unit on a fairly regular basis. Players like Barlow and Milo should be given greater opportunities considering their skill levels. Doug Krantz should never miss a shift on the powerplay because he not only gets the puck to the net on a regular basis, he has the hardest shot on the team and has scored more big goals than any other player on the team. Gallagher, McCutcheon, and Bitz just have not done enough to warrant continuous chances. It should not matter who you are. If you do not produce, you give someone else the chance. This is not to say these guys cannot have a place, but the time has come to exercise some different options and see how they work out.
Why was the Lynah crowd so good on Saturday?
Want evidence that it was loud in Lynah on Saturday? None of the players could hear the whistle blow in the final 30 seconds. The Colgate game has become almost a mini-Harvard the last few years with the toothpaste being thrown on the ice and the two teams being so strong. The fact that they take the rivalry so seriously in Hamilton also adds to it. On Saturday, the 8:00 start meant that there were twice as many students in the rink at puck drop than usual – many of whom who probably thought the game was the normal 7:00 start and were just traditionally showing up late. The fact that Cornell was battling all night and the spirited play on the ice probably helped the most, however. There may not have been a ton of goals or scoring chances, but there was a lot of intensity and desperation from Cornell and the crowd really seemed to feed off of that.
Clarkon's pounding of St. Lawrence last Tuesday may signify that the Knights have established themselves as the team to beat in the ECACHL. This is good news for Cornell as they outplayed them just a couple weeks back in Potsdam with some key players out of the lineup. They are still one of, if not the best offensive team in the conference and thus will always be tough to play against. This will be a good opportunity for Cornell to build off of the win over Colgate.
Clarkson 2 - Cornell 3
It does not make a lot of sense that St. Lawrence has seemingly dominated the ECACHL thus far with a 10-3-1 record. They appear to be the only team in the conference that has not been struck with any sort of inconsistently. Don't let it fool you though, because the Saints are overachieving. Cornell turned in a horrible performance two weeks ago in Canton, yet could have managed a better fate had a hand pass been called and Scrivens not let in a shot from center ice. St. Lawrence is very beatable, especially if you work their defense down low in their zone. A quick start will be pivotal on Saturday as Cornell was all but out of the game in Canton after ten minutes.
St. Lawrence 1 - Cornell 4