Somebody give me my weekend back. All the people who traveled several hours were rudely awakened by a pair of games from which the Big Red were generally absent. No, they were not horrible but they were not close to their best. The momentum gained over the last handful of games came to a screeching halt as the Big Red traveled back in time to reignite their painfully mediocre performances of January. They have been building over the last three weeks, improving in almost every area and developing some sort of identity. Special teams improved drastically, while the offense exploded. The Big Red collectively seemed to realize that they have the talent and depth up front to outscore opponents rather than having to rely on the defensive scheme to stifle them. All the progress generated during the 5-1-1 stretch went by the wayside this past weekend as the team resorted back to old habits.
It does not matter what style of hockey you play, working hard and playing with a purpose must be present for success, particularly when there is as much at stake as there was this weekend. Cornell was not sleepwalking through the games, but at the same time, they were not going all-out the way that they had been the prior seven games. This is playoff hockey and more often than not, the more desperate team wins. There was no question that Dartmouth and Harvard outworked Cornell and played with a greater sense of urgency.
The energy and enthusiasm needs to come from the top and it did not over the weekend. Last Saturday, Byron Bitz, Mark McCutcheon, Raymond Sawada, and Topher Scott were all over the ice, playing every shift as if it were their last. That is kind of the point. For Cornell's seniors, these are their final games in the red and white. While some of the older guys have elevated their play and sustained that level, some have only done it sporadically. Bitz and Dan Glover are guys who need to do more and do it more often than they have been. At this time of year, the players with experience in the big games have to lead the way. That is not to say that the younger guys cannot and will not contribute, but it is the responsibility of the leaders to set the tone in games, particularly on the road where there is not as much natural motivation as there is at Lynah.
Bitz had two plays that defined his weekend. The most obvious was his hit from behind on Saturday night that led to his ejection from the game. Harvard scored on the ensuing powerplay. Perhaps more concerning was the night before when Bitz tipped a shot past Mike Devine with under nine minutes left in the third period to make the game 4-1. Bitz celebrated the goal as if he had tied the game or won it in overtime. There is no problem with trying to fire up your team when getting blown out in such a meaningful game, but there is a problem with trying to fire your team up when they had been emotionless for the first two and half periods. As the captain, one has to ask where that enthusiasm was before the game was already out of reach. It was both frustrating and disappointing to watch.
In such a huge game, you had better show up at the start or chances are you will not have to bother showing up at all. Although the game was scoreless after one and even within reach after two periods, Cornell was not playing with the urgency and emotion necessary to win games at this time of year, particularly against such a strong team in Dartmouth. In watching the team play Friday, you would not have known how important the game was for Cornell. Even though they ended up securing the first round bye, the uninspired weekend was still significant as it cost the Big Red any chance at securing an at-large bit to the NCAA Tournament.
Working hard is not quite enough though. When the Big Red went winless in seven games, they were working hard and just getting beat. The style they were playing was simply not conducive for this group to be successful. The strength of the team is up front, where there is a lot of talent and depth. Getting pucks to the net is one thing, executing is another. Cornell had plenty of shots, but few good scoring chances. The goaltending they faced was good, certainly better than what they saw against Princeton and Rensselaer, but it was not that good.
Cornell needs to open up the offense to a certain extent in order to be successful. As has been said here several times of late, the defensive scheme just is not good enough to win every game 2-1. They need to utilize their offensive capabilities and risk winning games 5-4. Against Dartmouth, Cornell's defensive deficiencies could have been absorbed by a proficient offense. Instead, there were few opportunities where Cornell had players around the net, generating traffic and hungry for rebounds. That hunger game was just not there anywhere on the ice.
As miserable at it was, last weekend does not matter any more. It cost them in the PairWise Rankings, but at least now, Cornell's destiny is very clear in that it is entirely in their hands. If they win the ECACHL Championship, they will go to the NCAA Tournament. If they do not, they will not go. One of the primary and integral goals, earning a first round bye in the ECACHL playoff, has been achieved, ugly as the trip was. They are not playing this weekend which means that they will get the rest and recuperation that all teams need at this time of year. Cornell desperately needs it as this they are clearly physically and mentally beat up.
The Big Red, like most ECACHL teams, have played for nine consecutive weekends and it has definitely been more of a grind than previous years. Almost every player has had to adjust to their role while the very young team has gotten to know each other and the level of play. The weekend off could prove critical to their success. Any team can win the tournament. However, unlike the previous five seasons, Cornell will not enter the post season as much of a favorite. They will have the uncommon experience of flying under the radar both in the conference and potentially into the NCAA Tournament. This is very much a positive considering the Big Red have proven they can skate with anyone when they get their game together.
There is nothing complicated about the games now. Win and move on or lose and you are done. Cornell will need to get the edge in their game if they are to be successful and their play on home ice has brought that out more in recent games. And who knows, maybe Cornell will ice a completely healthy lineup next Friday to open the playoffs. There have been two games this season when the Big Red have been fully healthy and they came in Florida against the two best opponents of the season. Cornell proved that weekend that they can play with the best.
It has been a roller coaster season that has seen Cornell experience an uncharacteristic amount of lows yet they are still in prime position to make a run. Anything can happen in the playoffs; it is a new season where nothing that happened earlier is pertinent any longer. The powerplay that has been so poor and hindering to this team can even be rescued. The work ethic that eluded them last weekend is now a distant and unimportant memory. The improved goaltenders get to start fresh. Some of the players who have struggled will get a chance for redemption. The big picture now takes a back seat as does the past, and a more cut-and-dry approach becomes appropriate: win or lose. In the playoffs, it is the present that matters above all else. Cornell will be ready.
1. Mark McCutcheon
McCutcheon carried over his strong play from the last two weekends and was one of two Cornell players to score on this trip, while being one of just a handful to give a full effort in each game. You can tell that McCutcheon wants his Cornell career to end in a meaningful and positive way with the urgency he is demonstrating in his game.
2. Justin Milo
Milo has quietly found a comfort zone for Cornell over the last month. He is not scoring as much as he can or as much as he would probably like, but Milo is doing a lot of the little things that a lot of his teammates did not do over the weekend. He is great with his stick and reads the play well making him an excellent penalty killer and forechecker and he forced several turnovers over the weekend. Milo is one of just a couple of Cornell forwards who play on both the powerplay and penalty kill.
3. The Goaltenders
The numbers were not pretty for either but they both played reasonably well and made timely saves in each game. It has been easy to blame these guys for Cornell losses this year, but the amount they have been left out to dry even in many Cornell wins is quite staggering. Most importantly, both have improved significantly over the course of the season and their respective comfort levels have increased as well. The bad goals they were giving up with regularity are decreasing at a pretty steady rate.
Take these to heart. Even though I have struggled with predictions for Cornell this season, I called every single ECACHL playoff round correctly last year until the championship where I had Cornell defeating Harvard.
[Editor's Note: Forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties and past performance is not indicative of future results.]
9. Rensselaer vs. 8. Colgate
This should be a very close series as both teams stumble into the postseason. Rensselaer won just two of their last eight games while Colgate lost six of their last seven games. The Red Raiders obviously have the edge in experience coming off of three straight trips to Albany. They have badly underachieved this season despite having the top goaltender in the conference (Mark Dekanich) and arguably the top player (Tyler Burton). Colgate struggles to generate offense and has scored more than two goals just once in their last nine games. Rensselaer has sporadically played very good hockey and have some impressive wins under their belts including a pair over Colgate. This one could really go either way with both teams having a lot to prove. Mark Dekanich is capable of stealing any series, though the Engineers have a decent offense.
RPI in 3
10. Yale vs. 7. Harvard
The Crimson are getting hot at the right time coming off of an impressive sweep over Colgate and Cornell at home to end the regular season. Although they are another team that has badly underachieved this year, Harvard has proven that they are capable of going on late runs and they do every single year. You just cannot count out a team that has been in five straight ECACHL Championships. The senior class has won the league twice and there is a wealth of playoff experience all through the lineup. Yale got off to a really hot start but has won just five games since November. Harvard is unquestionably a dark horse to win a second straight ECACHL Championship and do not be at all surprised if they end up in Albany.
Harvard in 2
11. Brown vs. 6. Princeton
Speaking of teams getting hot, Princeton swept the top two teams in the conference last weekend outscoring them 11-2 in the process. This team works extremely hard and can beat anyone on any given night making them another potential dark horse. They have won four of their last five games and will be a favorite to advance past this weekend. Standing in their way is a Brown team that improved slightly from last season. Most of their success came early in the season as they have only won three games in 2007. The Bears do play a ton of close games showing that their talent level is respectable. That being said, Princeton is the superior team and has won more games in the last three than Brown has in the last ten.
Princeton in 2
12. Union vs. 5. Quinnipiac
The Bobcats got the short end of the tiebreak stick in the race to the bottom with Cornell. After a very hot start to the season, Quinnipiac has seemingly declined, playing very inconsistently the last couple of months. They have not won two straight games in six weeks and have not won more than two straight all season which indicates that they are probably not going to make a long run in the playoffs. They are suspect defensively but boast one of the most lethal and deep offenses in college hockey, which makes them a threat to beat any team. However, these types of teams do not have that much success in tight, hotly-contested playoff games. Union has played good hockey at times but they will not be able to match Quinnipiac's firepower over a three game series. In three games this year, the Bobcats have outscored the Dutchmen 20-9.
Quinnipiac in 2