Speaking of championship droughts...
In March, it will be 35 years since Cornell won its last NCAA Hockey Championship. That may be considerably shy of the 86 years the Boston Red Sox went without winning the big one, but it is still a long time. After all, my father was a student at Cornell the last time they won college hockey's ultimate prize and Richard Nixon was President. Could this long-lasting span of futility finally come to an end in 2005?
Two years ago, the Big Red had a team worthy of the National Championship, but came up just short, not because they were not good enough, but because everything that could have gone right, did not go right. With four or five teams good enough to win the National Championship every year, what generally separates the one that actually does win from the others has much to do with luck. How is a team good enough to be in the four or five that could potentially win? The right mix of elements. The 2004-2005 edition of the Big Red could very well be good enough to win it all.
Nearly all signs indicate that Cornell will be extremely competitive this season, more comparable to the squad of 2002-2003 than the one that struggled with consistency and offense in 2003-2004. They are strong and deep in all positions, something that could not have been said last year. Last season, the Big Red had difficulty absorbing the many injuries that occurred throughout the season. As well, there were too many nights when their offense was anemic at best. Both of these areas will be greatly improved this year. That being said, last year was not a bad year by any stretch, considering the Big Red were the third best defensive team in the NCAA. An overwhelming positive about this year's team is that it returns a huge portion of that defensive dominance from a year ago. So, add more offensive weapons, more depth, and experience to a team that although spectacular defensively, struggled offensively, could not absorb injuries, and seemed inexperienced frequently and what do you get? A vastly improved team.
Cornell will be even better defensively with David McKee more experienced and seasoned as well as the fact that the Big Red returns the entire defensive corps, hold Ben Wallace. Although Wallace will be missed for his stalwart defensive abilities, Jeremy Downs, Ryan O'Byrne, and Dan Glover, all of which have top notch shut down abilities and will regularly see time against the opposition's top forwards. These three defensive stalwarts will easily absorb Wallace's solid defensive presence. O'Byrne and Downs were paired together exclusively last season, regularly seeing big and important minutes. Expect the same this year with them being even better after playing a year together.
A major issue last season was offense from the blueline. The offensive presences of Doug Murray and Mark McRae, although irreplaceable, were entirely absent. Only Charlie Cook and occasionally Jon Gleed displayed an offensive threat from the blueline, but both lacked the booming shot of Murray or the vision of McRae. Two freshmen, Sasha Pokuluk, and Doug Krantz both excel offensively, and have booming shots and decent on-ice vision. Should we expect the Murray-McRae effectiveness from them? Of course not, at least not right away. Regardless, there are more offensive weapons from the backline (including Evan Salmela as well) and this will help tremendously in adding to the team's overall offense on the powerplay as well as 5-on-5.
In all, the defensive corps is actually deeper than that of '02-03, but it is also well balanced. There is a healthy combination of size, skating, and skill amongst the eight blueliners, making the unit adept to all situations, regardless of the opponent.
On the topic of well balanced and deep, the forwards will be drastically improved in these areas as well. Last year's team had a lot of difficulty in adjusting to injuries and struggled mightily at times in altering to the opposition's varying defensive schemes. Most importantly, Coach Mike Schafer did not have the luxury of rolling four lines. The depth just was not there, especially when the team got into injury trouble. To start the season, there are 15 forwards on the roster, all of which can fill a specific role. Therefore, Schafer will be able to ice four lines that have specific duties. Replacing Ryan Vesce is impossible, but not actually as important as one might think. The Big Red will boast a far more balanced attack this season, meaning the team will be able to absorb injuries far better than they did last year.
As has become Cornell's trademark in the last decade, the Big Red's most notable trait up front is its size and strength. They a boast an arsenal of power forwards that no team in the NCAA can match. Shane Hynes, Byron Bitz, Mike Iggulden, Mike Knoepfli, Paul Varteressian, Mitch Carefoot, Kevin McLeod, and highly touted freshman Raymond Sawada as well as Matt McKeown all have big frames and utilize them effectively. This group will win the majority of their battles in the corners, but also of note is that these players all skate well. Matt Moulson, who is now listed at 6'1" and 205 lbs can also be classified in the above category. It will be interesting to see how Moulson uses his newly found size to complement his top-notch offensive skills.
On the topic of skills, the Big Red has a group of skill players that will complement the size and power of the aforementioned group: Daniel Pegoraro, Cam Abbott, Chris Abbott, Mark McCutcheon, and Vesce-clone (except three inches shorter) Topher Scott make up a group of reasonably high skill players. Make no mistake, Cornell is not going to match up with the Boston College's of the NCAA because of their skill. But it is important that they have the skill necessary to score goals as size will not always get the job done.
Important in noting, the Big Red enjoys a group of forwards who almost all have reputations as good defensive players. The defensive strengths of the forwards are an underrated component of the Big Red's successful defense in recent seasons. In all, this group of forwards displays potential for tremendous balance and will likely prove to be much more formidable than last year's even if there are some injuries along the way.
Of great importance to any successful team in sports are the intangibles. Leading the way in significance is heart. Heart can bring a team a long way. Heart can also prevent a team from fulfilling its potential, but a team can be successful without heart. National Champion in 2003, Minnesota comes right to mind. Cornell does not have the skill of that Minnesota team, so they will not be able to get away with coasting for long stretches and making up for it with pure talent. After watching Topher Scott for one exhibition game, it indicated that heart and energy will not be an issue on this year's team. Scott plays with the kind of edge and intensity that is contagious, and this will have an enormous effect on the team, even if he is a freshman.
The kind of team that Cornell has is built for high energy, physical games. If the Big Red come out and play the physical, strong defensive game that made them successful in 2002-2003, they could very well match and even surpass that team's success. The key will be playing to strengths, which the team did not do well with last year. The elements are there, dare it be said, to end the decades of wandering through the cold desert in search for the program's long-coveted third National Championship. Of course it is the greatest and easiest time for optimism--the time prior to the start of the regular season.