by Ari Baum - November 29, 2004
Week 5: Offense a Growing Concern

The floodgates did not open against Canisius on Saturday night as was expected by many. Despite being the much better team, Cornell could not find the net in the first period and could not widen their gap past two goals until they scored an empty net goal in the final minute. Although they were not plentiful, Canisius did get some excellent scoring chances on the night as a result of Cornell miscues. Had the Golden Griffins any talent whatsoever, the end result could have been less favorable Saturday night.

In the grand scheme of things, Cornell's offense is not performing to potential, just as the team is underachieving to a degree. It is not a dire situation or anything, but the Big Red can play better than they have the last five games. A lot better. It says a great deal about the state of the program when a 5-2-2 record has people concerned, but beating an opposing goaltender only six times in the last five games indicates that there is a scoring issue facing this team. This comes as a big surprise after this very same group seemingly scored at will in their first four games.

As far as personnel, Cornell has an extremely high offensive capacity. This was evident in their first four games when they scored 23 times. Despite the fact that three of the four teams had below average goaltending and defensive schemes, it was quite evident how much depth and upside exists within Cornell's forward corps in how they consistently dictated the flow of play in those contests. They may lack a true superstar, but the Big Red boasts a group of forwards that fill all of the roles necessary on a team. More specifically, there is a good mix of physical forwards and skill forwards to the point where they match up well with teams playing a physical brand of hockey or match up reasonably well with the more skilled teams. But what has happened in the last five games to make Cornell's offense not potent enough to outscore opponents who never garnered more than two goals in a game?

It is not just one thing contributing to the Big Red's recent scoring woes. Some of the time, Cornell has merely not generated enough chances to score. Although they are usually getting a good amount of shots on net, the golden opportunities to score have not been there as players are not getting to the net with regularity and converting rebounds. But the primary issue for the majority of this goal-scoring slump has been the team's failure to convert on the golden opportunities they are getting. With the group of forwards Cornell has, each of the four lines, regardless of the actual combinations, will have size and skill, enough so that they should consistently be generating chances and finishing them.

At times, players have gotten too fancy, whereas at other times they have not been fancy enough. There were a couple chances late in the Dartmouth game that would have easily beaten Dan Yacey with one more move. On Daniel Pegoraro's short handed breakaway in the third period against Canisius, he got ready to make a move on goaltender Bryan Worosz, but Worosz read the play perfectly and poke-checked the puck away to kill the chance. Again, personnel-wise, the Big Red absolutely has the capacity to score three or four goals against almost any team. It is coming down to decision-making with the puck and overall execution in the offensive zone. The latter is multi-faceted in that there are many ways to effectively execute in the offensive zone. Of late, Cornell has not been able to generate and sustain the offensive system necessary for scoring the amount of goals they need to win games.

Big Red forwards need to do a better job physically wearing down opposing blueliners by always finishing their checks from start to finish in games. By effectively doing this, not only will opposing defensemen be more fatigued in the latter stages of games, but they will also panic more with the puck knowing that a 6'5" Cornell forward is coming in fast on them.

Off the rush, forwards need to do a better job of getting to the net. Cornell boasts enough players that are adept at getting the puck to the net off the rush and getting a good enough shot to get a rebound. The big and small forwards alike need to go to the net kamikaze-style to get on those rebounds for the entire 60 minutes. Defensemen hate forwards coming at them with speed and the more that happens, the more prone they are to fade away and let them by. Cornell unquestionably possesses the right mix of forwards that can get the puck to the net off the rush and pounce on the rebounds because nearly every forward on the team either boasts size or quickness.

Cornell has done a good job the entire season of getting the puck deep in the zone and keeping it there. The defense has done an excellent job for the most part in deciding when to pinch and when to back off. All of Cornell's defensemen have exhibited very good decision-making and all have done a good job of getting the puck to the net. This is evident in the fact that six of the seven defensemen have scored goals. Dan Glover, the only one that has not scored, has only played in three games and he even came very close to scoring on a few occasions against Canisius. The Cornell forwards are not doing a bad job in the offensive zone, but they have not been able to get the job done on a regular basis. Both of their 5-on-5 goals on Saturday came from good plays by the forwards getting the puck to the net after cycling. But, in general, Cornell's effectiveness once in the offensive zone has been below what it can be. A lot of this comes back to the need for the forwards to always finish their checks below the goal line to create space as well as force turnovers. The more skilled forwards need to use their skills more effectively and more intelligently to get around opposing players and get into the danger zones at the right times. Daniel Pegoaro, Cam Abbott, Topher Scott, and Chris Abbott have all been effective off the rush, but have not displayed their shiftiness and skills off of sustained pressure in the offensive zone as much as they can. Matt Moulson did an excellent job against Canisius using his offensive skills to do exactly what the players of this ability should be doing. He made several little plays with the puck to get into the slot and get a good shot off. The bigger forwards then need do their job in crashing the net and finding a rebound if there is one. In addition, the bigger forwards will need to buzz around the zone throwing their weight around to create space for the smaller, skilled players to operate in. Because there will always be skill players and physical players on the ice for the Big Red, it is only a question of linemates reading off each other and off the play to complete the offensive zone execution.

The right ingredients are there. It is not as if Cornell is destined to be a low scoring team as they have been some past years. They have a great mix and balance of different types of players. Once players figure out what they are to do in all situations and carry out their roles effectively off the rush and once in the zone, this a group that will be generating a ton of offense to the point where they will be able to outscore any team in the NCAA with their highly effective defensive scheme holding the opposition to two or less goals as they have done in every game so far this year. It is just a matter of development and a matter of time.

Line Juggling

The right chemistry in line combinations is generally a huge factor in how successful a player is. The coaching staff clearly recognized this by moving Topher Scott to center Mike Iggulden and Mike Knoepfli and moving Byron Bitz to center Shane Hynes and Matt Moulson. The move seemed to pay off as Moulson and Hynes played their best in quite some time garnering five points between the two of them. Bitz added a whole foot to the line and the added physical presence gave Moulson more space to operate. There is a question, however, as to whether Bitz is a natural center or not. His size and ability to win battles on the boards seem to make him a better fit on the wing.

The second line of Cam Abbott, Daniel Pegoraro, and Raymond Sawada was the team's best line the two weekends on the road and has a great mix of size and skill, so it likely will not be changing any time soon. Although Sawada has looked uncomfortable at times, he has provided a good physical presence and has sporadically displayed outstanding ability with the puck. He does need to do a better job of giving his linemates space both off the rush and in the zone. As he becomes more comfortable in his adjustment to college hockey, that line will get even better. The fact that this line has played so well can be overshadowed by the fact that they have not been able to convert on many opportunities they have created. Some would argue that there is no natural finisher on this line, but not only is that untrue, but it would not really matter even if it were. A properly executed rush will result in goals if the players make good decisions with the puck and driving to the net. Abbott and Pegoraro, although very poised and skillful with the puck, could be more patient at times and take the puck wider off the rush to draw a defenseman away from the net and in turn create space for the other players. They also could be more creative with the puck and try to make the fancy moves they are capable of more often.

Knoepfli and Iggulden have been incredibly solid and reliable. Their primary jobs are not necessarily to provide offense but they have done that on a fairly consistent basis. They both get the puck to the net and drive hard to follow up on the original shot. They have not gotten many favorable bounces of late but Topher Scott's recent inclusion on the line could change their fortunes with the additional room for him to maneuver. Although he has struggled to produce so far, Scott has certainly worked hard, but it would be interesting to see how Chris Abbott would do between Knoepfli and Iggulden. Abbott has played extremely well this season, greatly improving his offensive skills. He seems due for a promotion to a line with more offensive linemates and although Knoepfli and Iggulden might not necessarily be the right guys, they could complement Abbott's explosiveness pretty well. Another option for Abbott could be between Hynes and Moulson as he could create space and get the puck to them with more regularity than either Bitz or Scott.

The lines as they are now are okay, but changes can and will always be made as adjustments are made to different situations. Joe Marsh at St. Lawrence is known for the fact that he almost always sends a new combination over the boards. And it was Scotty Bowman's trademark to put out makeshift lines on a regular basis to get all of his players accustomed to playing with everyone. That strategy is not being suggested here for Cornell, but the right combinations have not been found yet. Moulson and Hynes should stay together but whom the right center is debatable. The second line seems set and poised to get even better. Iggulden and Knoepfli will be together on the third line, but who will be the other player? Bitz or Carefoot are obvious candidates, but is Iggulden better on the wing or at center? Is Topher Scott the right fit on a line without definitively gifted offensive players? Then there is the fourth line of Paul Varteressian, Chris Abbott, and Mark McCutcheon. As was mentioned above, Chris Abbott has been one of Cornell's most consistent players this season and seems poised for a promotion. Varteressian and McCutcheon have both been inconsistent, however, after strong showings early in the season. The former really thrived after being moved to center late last season. McCutcheon has the tools to be a good offensive player, but does he have the size or skating? Kevin McLeod did look pretty good in his cameo appearance against Dartmouth. Of course all of the above will be moot when Mitch Carefoot returns and takes someone's spot. Regardless, the right combinations are there somewhere, but just have not yet been fully identified.

Stars of the Weekend for Cornell

1. Matt Moulson
It took him longer than anyone would have liked to score his first even strength goal of the season, but Moulson had a breakout type game. He made the little plays with the puck and found the open patches of ice in the offensive zone with much higher regularity than he had done in any game this season. Bitz's added physical presence on the top line gave Moulson the room he needs to perform his excellent puck skills. Also of note is that his best performance of the season so far came the very next game after he was thrown out for a hit from behind, seemingly costing his team a point in Burlington.

2. Shane Hynes
Hynes was noticeable every time he was on the ice and garnered three assists to show for his efforts. He played well below the goal line and off the rush, using his size to protect the puck and get it to the net consistently. This came after a weekend in which he seemed to struggle with the bigger defensemen of Vermont and Dartmouth. Game-to-game consistency remains the biggest issue with Hynes, but it is improving this season.

3. Jeremy Downs
He was Cornell's best and most noticeable defensemen, using his speed to join the rush far more than usual. Downs played with great energy all night and played well in all three zones.

Burning Questions

Is the ECACHL as good as results are indicating of late?
Still early in the 2004-2005 campaign, the ECACHL is having its best out-of-conference results in a very long time. There appears to be a handful of teams that can win the conference and potentially be worthy for an NCAA berth.

Vermont is obviously the biggest surprise as they are now unbeaten in ten games, coming off a huge win over University of New Hampshire. The Catamounts appear to be for real after several years of below mediocrity. For Real

St. Lawrence had some eyebrow-raisers early in the season but have cooled off considerably in the last month or so. Not For real

Union has played very well in-conference, but their out of conference results have been mediocre, indicating that they are not quite at the level of national contender. Probably Not For Real

After a slow start, Harvard has played outstanding hockey, including two huge wins against Boston College and Boston University. They boast one of the better defensive corps in the NCAA as well as a top-notch goaltender, and that can take a team far. Possibly For Real

It has not been much of surprise that Colgate has played well so far. They were expected to have a very good team in the ECACHL, but have had only average out-of-conference results. They have wins over Dartmouth and Harvard, and although those are only intra-conference games, it appears that the value for those wins is much higher this year than the previous few. Probably For Real

It has been an up-and-down season for Dartmouth thus far, but their high potential written about prior to the season still remains. They have a big, physical lineup that has good scoring punch. The Big Green lost to Quinnipiac but they tied Maine indicating that they are potentially a team that could make some noise in March. Possibly For Real

Throw Cornell into that mix and it will be another fight to the finish in the ECACHL this season where anything can happen both in the regular season and in the playoffs. The only thing that can really be said is that one should not necessarily put all their money on the regular season champion in the playoffs.

When Mitch Carefoot returns, whose spot will he take?
The question really is a continuation of the Byron Bitz debates early in the season, but really the question remains the same: who is Cornell's 13th forward? Daniel Pegoraro has asserted himself as one of the team's best players after a season in the doghouse. Chris Abbott, although never really a candidate to fall out of the lineup, has played easily his best hockey at Cornell the last two weekends, playing far better than his fourth line center position indicates. The only other forwards that could come out are Mark McCutcheon and Paul Varteressian. Two very different players on the same line, it will come down to what the coaching staff views as the more important type of player to be on the fourth line. Varteressian started the season where he finished last year playing physically and filling the dependable, enforcer-type role. In the last few games, however, he has not played with that edge and looked a bit lost at times. McCutcheon is an offensive player that works hard on a regular basis, but the results just are not there for him.

Has Dan Glover overtaken Doug Krantz on the depth chart?
After Krantz was clearly in the sixth spot for a couple weeks, Glover played over him against Canisius. They are very different players that bring different things to the table, but Krantz really struggled in the four games played on the road. Glover played for Jon Gleed last Saturday at Dartmouth and played with his normal poise and again played solid against Canisius. Unless the blueline stops generating offense, which does not seem likely, Glover seems to be the more logical choice for the number six spot.

Is Byron Bitz the answer on the first powerplay unit?
Sasha Pokuluk was removed from the first powerplay after a couple unsuccessful tries in the first period in favor of Byron Bitz. The powerplay unit seemed to be more effective with Bitz on it as his size on the boards created much-needed space for Cook, Moulson, and Scott and took some of the physical pressure off Hynes. Ultimately, Pokuluk is definitely the guy for the first powerplay unit, but for the short-term expect Bitz to get time there.

Upcoming Weekend Outlook

Certainly not the most challenging of traveling partners, Yale and Princeton come to town this weekend in what should be a four-point result for Cornell. But as has become even more evident this season, there are no easy wins in the ECACHL any more. The league has gotten much more balanced and competitive so even a team that was beaten badly on a consistent basis, like Yale has this season, can blowout a respectable team like Princeton as they did on Saturday 7-1 in New Haven. Yale is still likely the worst team in the ECACHL but Cornell will have to come out and beat them even on home ice. The Eli are probably feeling pretty good about themselves after winning their first game of the season (following nine straight losses to open it) so the Big Red will need to bring their A-game, especially in the opening frame. Defensively, Yale is awful, allowing 52 goals in ten games this season. Do not rule out a blowout.

Yale 0 - Cornell 4

After being the biggest cupcake in the ECACHL for the last couple seasons, Princeton has ascended from the doldrums of the league to become a respectable team. The Tigers did shut out Dartmouth earlier in the season, but other than that they have lost to teams better than them and beaten teams worse. On any given night any team can win. There is a reason they play the games. If Cornell plays their game reasonably well, they should win easily.

Princeton 1 - Cornell 3