by Ari Baum - February 2, 2006
Week 12: The Twin Towers

It's hard to miss either of them on the ice and not just because they are the biggest players out there. Over the last handful of games, they have arguably been the team's two best players. And recently, they have even been paired together.

Junior Ryan O'Byrne has been the team's most valuable player so far this season, logging a ton of minutes and contributing at both ends of the ice. He came to Cornell with a great deal of promise and an unusual amount of press for a Cornell recruit. The fact that Doug Murray was leaving at the same time meant that fans had even higher expectations for him. As most figured out quickly in the 2003-2004 season, it is impossible to replace a player of Murray's presence and caliber and it is ridiculous to expect a freshman to step into that role, particularly when they are not exactly replicas of one another.

So O'Byrne's first two years were met with some growing pains. He took a lot of penalties and struggled to get comfortable at the college level. He often drew the ire of fans with his undisciplined play and untimely mistakes, most notably his missed assignment that led to the overtime goal against Minnesota in the NCAA Tournament last season. As difficult as his first two years were, he slowly progressed in each area of his game. This year, with the team's top defensive defenseman and top offensive defenseman both graduating - Jeremy Downs and Charlie Cook - O'Byrne was essentially handed the reigns of the team's defensive corps. Certainly assistant captain Jon Gleed shoulders the leadership and other intangibles but O'Byrne received the most on-ice responsibility in wake of last year's graduations.

From the very beginning of the season, he has been the main pointman on the first powerplay unit, serving as a second scoring option to Matt Moulson. With four powerplay goals, all coming on his lethal one-timer, he is clearly a legitimate threat from the point. However, O'Byrne could have zero points and he would still be the team's best defenseman. When Gleed and Danny Glover were hurt earlier in the season, O'Byrne was seeing an astronomical amount of ice time, playing well over 30 minutes a night, something that perhaps no other defenseman in college hockey does. He does not just play against the opposition's top players. He will probably also see a fair amount of ice time against their second line, as well as time on the penalty kill.

Composure is not something that a defenseman is born with; he gradually gains it with experience. Some do it faster than others but O'Byrne has shifted from second gear to fifth gear this season. All over the ice, he has a presence that only truly dominant players like Murray, Baby, and Vesce have. And that is not to compare his style to theirs. He just controls games with his poise both with and without the puck. When a player has that poise and decision-making ability while being 6'5" and 210 pounds, you get a dominant force that controls the tempo of games. A year ago, the National Hockey League seemed a galaxy away for O'Byrne. Now, all of a sudden, it is very realistic. The hope for Cornell fans is that he stays around for his final year before undoubtedly signing with the Montreal Canadiens.

As unbelievable as O'Byrne has been this season, not many people remember that he missed a game, which happened to come against arguably the best team the Big Red have faced all season, St. Lawrence. That game also happened to be the best game Cornell has played all season, despite O'Byrne being out with an injury. Some might wonder how this could possibly be unless they were actually at the game. Anyone at the game that night probably left with jaws dropped from the play of another 6'5" defenseman, Sasha Pokulok. If a scout from the Washington Capitals were on hand for that game, then Pokulok would probably be playing in the National Hockey League right now. If one thinks this is an exaggeration, then they probably were not at that game. In fact, he has not been all that bad since then either, garnering three goals and three assists in his last four games, starting with his two goal performance against the Saints.

Some, including myself, have suggested that National Hockey League scouts vastly overrated Pokulok and that the Capitals were very much reaching when they made him their first round pick last July. After all, if there is anything NHL execs love in prospects, it is size. How else can one explain a player of Hugh Jessiman's mediocre ability going in the first round? While Jessiman dominates the East Coast Hockey League, Pokulok is poised to be playing in the big time sooner rather than later. Like O'Byrne, Big Red fans hope he sticks around for at least another year.

The fact of the matter is that Pokulok struggled mightily through the first portion of the season but has more than doubled his point totals over the last four games. Getting invited to the Canadian World Junior camp will very likely prove to be the turning point of Pokulok's entire career. He looked lost, confused, and almost disinterested prior to the World Junior Championships. Since then, he has been completely dominating games.

Pokulok and O'Byrne may be the same size but they are pretty different players. Pokulok could use his size a lot more defensively, but he uses his body perfectly to protect the puck and make plays. He is a puck possession defenseman in that he needs the puck to be effective. He does not necessarily need the puck in the offensive zone to create offense. Pokulok has created a great deal of offense of late by starting in the defensive zone and threading a perfect pass to start a rush. He has unbelievable skill and ability with the puck. The decision-making aspect of his game is the area that he needs to improve on, but it has improved extraordinarily since the beginning of the year.

O'Byrne is the main pillar of the team's defense while Pokulok has quickly become that of the team's offense. Even as a defenseman, Pokulok is creating a ton of chances for a team that does not generate many of them, particularly five-on-five. Not many teams at any level of hockey can say that their two best players are defensemen but that is quickly becoming the case for Cornell. Moulson and David McKee are of course legitimate contenders for that title as well, but it is the two towering blueliners that have proven to be the biggest difference-makers for the Big Red of late. What is scary is that they could both return next year. As good as they have been, they can be a whole lot better. They are already two of the top defensemen in the ECACHL and probably for all of college hockey.

3 Stars of the Weekend for Cornell

1. Ryan O'Byrne

2. Sasha Pokulok

3. Chris Abbott
Whether he was actually the one who scored the overtime winner against Brown or not, Abbott was the team's best forward on the weekend. He anchors the checking line with Tyler Mugford and Raymond Sawada and the trio was the team's best line both offensively and defensively. Abbott showed great hustle and made a lot of little plays in all three zones.

Burning Questions

Who is the worst referee Cornell has seen this year?
Dave Hansen embarrassed himself over the weekend, particularly on Saturday night. The officiating is pretty much always going to be terrible at the college level, but Hansen managed to take it down even farther this past weekend. All you want is consistency and Hansen never approached it. A penalty on one shift was not a penalty the next shift while the hooking and holding that cripples the game was at the forefront both nights. The hit-from-behind on Jared Seminoff late in the second period against Yale was one of the most obvious calls you would ever see and play went on. Meanwhile, little hooks or checks away from the play with no actual impact on the play got called. All in all, it probably did not have any effect on the outcomes of either game because the officiating was horrendous both ways.

Just how much do the polls overrate Cornell?
Please, just stop having polls. They serve no purpose whatsoever. It is getting painful as a Cornell fan to see Cornell overrated every week. How they can be fifth while Colgate is seventeenth shows how little the pollsters themselves know, and how insignificant and inaccurate the polls are. And for some reason more than one-third of Division I teams are ranked, while almost half receive votes. What is the point? The fact of the matter is that things are too close to call right now. The top 15 or so teams in college hockey are very close and results over the past month very much indicate that. Both Cornell and Colgate are in that group but are closer to the 15-mark. Which one is actually better will be determined this weekend.

Was McCutcheon's goal the prettiest Cornell goal this season?
For a team that does not score a lot of goals and does not have a ton of talent, there have been some pretty goals this season and it so happens that McCutcheon has been involved in a good portion of them. However, his goal against Yale, where he undressed two Yale players before deaking the Yale goaltender out of his pads, all with almost no room to work with, was the goal of the season for the Big Red.

Who is the most improved freshman?
One of Cornell's better players over the weekend was Jared Seminoff. Seminoff has quietly improved every aspect of his game and it was on display against Brown and Yale. He is a lot more physical than one would expect for a defenseman of his size, but he threw around some very nice checks and more importantly angled opposing forwards into the boards with perfection. You also have to love the intensity he brings to the game night in and night out.

Upcoming Weekend Outlook

The most anticipated weekend of last season again turns out that way this season. It does not get any better than this with the top two teams in the conference battling it out - two teams that mirror each other in stingy defensive play and superb coaching. First place will be on the line but things are tighter at the top as a result of Cornell tying Yale. It is important not to forget that both of these teams still have to play St. Lawrence again and that will have a huge impact on the final standings. As great as it would be to take over first place, it will be more important for the Big Red to get some quality wins under their belts as they approach the playoffs. Colgate is a high quality team that appears to be extremely close to Cornell in almost every area. The games will be hotly contested, but this will be the turning-point in Cornell's season. They have played a lot better the last couple weeks, but the time has come to shift into the highest gear for the stretch drive. Last year, the three-point weekend against the Red Raiders proved to be the ultimate sling shot for the Big Red.

Colgate 1 - Cornell 2
Cornell 2 - Colgate 1