by Ari Baum - March 9, 2006
Week 17: Guess Who

No, they are not some lesser pushover. In fact, they are not even close. This Clarkson team is legitimate at every position, so much so that they could easily be considered the fifth best team in the entire ECACHL. Standings only tell part of the story and the Golden Knights are not your standard eighth place team. This team is dangerous, arguably more so than the team who shocked Cornell in the same setting just two years ago. This may sound like it is a bad situation and although it has the potential to turn into one, this could also be the best-case scenario for the Big Red. It is your classic double-edged sword situation.

On one level, it would have been nice to have a Union or Quinnipiac. Both teams may work hard, but the possibility of either coming into Lynah and taking two of three games would be slim to none. Maybe some would have said the same thing about Clarkson two years ago, but in reality, that team was in an entirely different time zone, and they proved it by going all the way to the post-season championship that year. Nothing against the Dutchmen or Bobcats, but they do not have the horses to make a run. They do not have the talent nor the depth. Clarkson, for the third straight year, does. They are an eighth place team with an overall record of 18-15-3. Their record within the conference of 9-11-2 may not be sparkling, but they did garner three of a possible four points at home against Cornell and Colgate just a couple of weeks ago. They also have a handful of very ugly results on their resume, including a couple blowouts at the hands of Union and Quinnipiac. Still, this team is for real, and the Big Red learned that on February 10th in Potsdam. And just a couple weeks prior to that, the two teams were tied heading into the third period before Cornell rallied mid-way through the period to get the win.

So why is this so good or even at all good? Why would Cornell want such a strong team when there were some decisively weaker teams they could have ended up playing? There are a few reasons, but at the top of the list is that this is the playoffs. It is a long grind filled with big battles. Some subscribe to the theory that the more layups, the easier. That may hold true for some teams in some circumstances, but the tougher the road, the better for the Big Red. This is a team that has thrived off of big battles the last couple of seasons. It all started in 2004 against this same Clarkson team that came in and simply out-battled the Big Red over the course of the three-game series. That painful series loss represented an enormous turning point in the program. The hangover from the team's Frozen Four run in 2003 was evident and a tumultuous defeat recommitted the players to a program of hard work and character. The realization that talent and systematic excellence only gets a team so far set in and since then, Cornell has thrived in the tight battles that have either been playoff games or resembled them.

Certainly there have been occasions this season where Cornell's character has come into question and probably with justification. It was not a regular season for the ages, but it was an interesting road where the team faced all kinds of challenges and all kinds of situations. But how does this make them different than any other team? Maybe it doesn't on the surface, but something has been building with these players. Going back to the 2004 loss to Clarkson, the players who are now juniors and seniors were forced to hold themselves accountable for one of the most crippling losses of the Schafer era. The program was at a crossroads. The talent was there and the coaching intangibles were there. The big question was whether the character and player intangibles were there. Enormous leadership voids had to be filled after 2003 and what was left in 2004 proved to be insufficient. After a relatively strong regular season, the team got flat-out beaten on home ice in one of the more hotly-contested ECAC playoff series in several years. Cornell just did not have it. They were decisively beaten.

At the program's crossroads, the juniors and seniors of last season gradually evolved to form the core of a very impressive Cornell teams, having found the intangibles which they so lacked just one season before. During the course of the 2004-2005 season, the program went from a state of uncertainty to one of extraordinary promise. It was not because of the team's level of talent or extraordinary coaching. It was the team's ability to battle and thrive at the mental aspect of the game that is so often overlooked. During the Schafer era, the program has been able to recruit players with more raw talent. The coaches themselves have established an on-ice system of the highest level, developing arguably the strongest defensive scheme in all of college hockey. Of course the brilliant class of 2003 thrived in all aspects, particularly the mental intangibles, but there was uncertainty in these areas beyond their careers at Cornell. This is where the importance of the 2004 defeat comes to the forefront because it was there that the Cornell hockey program was able to refocus beyond what the extremely-talented class of 2003 had brought.

This enormous growth was partially shown in the team's outstanding 2004-2005 regular season. The larger piece of evidence was in the ECACHL Quarterfinals where the Big Red again faced the Golden Knights. That Clarkson team may not have been quite as strong as the 2004 team, but they were just as capable of pulling off the same magic and it was evident in their first round upset of Union, winning the series in three games with two overtime wins. Cornell was decisively the better team and they clearly had something to prove against the Clarkson team that had ended their season prematurely just a year earlier in the same setting. The Big Red triumphed 5-0 in the first game and then 3-2 in overtime in the second game. If you look back on the series a year later, it was just a footnote in Cornell's playoff run that included an ECACHL Championship win over Harvard, a come-from-behind win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament over Ohio State, and a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to Minnesota in overtime of the NCAA Quarterfinals. However, it was that Clarkson series that truly affirmed the ascension of the Cornell hockey program.

Just like in 2004, the Big Red had the talent and the coaching. They were, of course, a year more experienced and had a far more confident David McKee in net as well as the fact that they had revenge and redemption on their minds for the 2004 loss. However, not many people remember that the 2005 series had some striking resemblances to 2004. In both years, Cornell had thoroughly dominated the opening game winning 5-1 in 2004 and 5-0 in 2005. Towards the end of each game, the chippiness increased. In 2004, the infamous Paul Varteressian-Matt Nickerson "fight" occurred in the closing minute. In 2005, there were several altercations and emotions were running high on both sides. As a result, a much different Clarkson team came out the second night each year and the respective game twos were much closer. And here is where the dissection of the program's growth really came to light. Some would just attribute Cornell's success in 2005 and failure in 2004 to just bounces and luck, considering Clarkson won 5-4 in 2004 and Cornell won 3-2 in overtime in 2005. But there was something deeper and more meaningful going on and that was the ultimate difference in the second games and more importantly the seasons as a whole for Cornell. The Big Red carried with them an aura of invicibility on that night and everyone in Lynah just knew they were going to win it, whereas that confidence was far more uncertain the year before. The 2005 team knew what it took to win and was willing to pay that price. It was clear on so many occasions last season and on so many more this season. That swagger and attitude is something that is learned and gradually perfected. No matter how much talent Cornell has or how well-coached they are, that dimension of mental toughness is what will be the difference at this time of year and, just like the last two years, it will surface one way or another this weekend against Clarkson.

Say what you will about Clarkson, but this team has proven it will battle in the big games. Just like they did in game one of the last two quarterfinals and like they did against Quinnipiac, Union, and Dartmouth this season, the Knights will get beaten badly from time to time. But they have mastered the idea of looking at stretches rather than just single games. Not many people remember that Cornell dominated game one in 2004 because Clarkson was able to come back and win the series. Just the same, not many people have given Clarkson much respect given their ECACHL record. But this team, just like the one from the last two years will rise to the occasion of the big game in the big atmosphere of Lynah. Behind fiery head coach George Roll, Clarkson is always going to be tough when the games matter most, and they are always going to be tough over stretches. This is especially pertinent given their level of talent which is far more comparable with the top four teams of the conference rather than the bottom four. They may get blown out one night, but more often than not, they will battle back for a close win the next. It will go into the standings as one win and one loss just the same.

Over the last two years, Cornell has evolved from a talented, well-coached team to one that is built for the playoffs. They are still talented and well coached, but they now have those intangibles. There were occasions this season where the insurmountably important intangibles were completely gone. The blowout at Dartmouth, the home weekend versus Rensselaer and Union, the first half at St. Lawrence, and the game at Rensselaer all come to mind. Those games are completely irrelevant at this time of year because they do not emulate the playoff mentality. They were not back-against-the-wall, sudden death, must-win games. The Big Red have played in plenty of those this season, including the game at Harvard, the home game against Quinnipiac, the home games against St. Lawrence and Clarkson, the home-and-home against Colgate, the game at St. Lawrence, and the home weekend against Dartmouth and Harvard. Except for the home game against Harvard, which was lost on one play in the third period, Cornell's intangibles became evident. They took their talent and coaching and brought it to a higher level where the team exceeded the sum of its parts. The leaders led, but maybe even more importantly, so did the non-leaders. There were no passengers.

These are the playoffs and Cornell's oppponent theoretically should not matter because they are good enough to beat anyone. Good enough as in talented, well-coached, and having the leadership and mental mindset that a team must have to win at this time of year. You can have all the talent in the world with the best minds in the game behind the bench, but if you do not have that extra gear, that flare for the big game, it just will not matter. And this brings everything back to why playing Clarkson in the ECACHL Quarterfinal for the third straight year is the best possible scenario. They, more than any other potential opponent, will push Cornell to the level at which they need to be. It will not be even remotely easy for the Big Red, especially with considerable injuries, but that is why it is the best situation for them. They need the challenge. They need the battle of the big, winner-take-all situation and Clarkson will bring that as they have the last two seasons. They represent the critical test of whether Cornell can play at the level required to be successful at this time of year.

As important as the team's dominance was last season, their mark and direction will be truly made in the coming weeks. It all starts with the same Clarkson team that has forced them to see who they really are as a team and what Cornell is becoming as a program. Forget about the PairWise Rankings, the out-of-town scores, and winning the ECACHL post-season championship. It is one game at a time and it is playoff hockey. Cliché maybe, but reality all the same. Clarkson in the quarterfinals will again be the measuring stick and will be the hopeful springboard for spring hockey. The time to see what the players themselves are made of and what the team as a whole is capable of is here and having it all begin at Lynah Rink on the eve of program-altering renovation against the feisty and underrated Golden Knights provides the ultimate backdrop. This is the time for all players to rise to the occasion, but particularly the juniors and seniors who have personified the drastic shift of Cornell hockey to a level on the brink of national contention. It is they who have experienced the failure and the glory that comes with this time of year and will be the ones who will usher in the team's new identity. Welcome back to the playoffs.

Game 1: Clarkson 1 - Cornell 3
Game 2: Clarkson 2 - Cornell 3

Regular Season Superlatives

Best Freshman: Tyler Mugford
It was a quiet regular season for the highly-touted freshmen class. One of the players who did not come in with high expectations was Tyler Mugford. He is a fight-for-every-inch kind of player and he played that way every game for the whole season. He will rarely be the difference on the scoresheet, but he brings the intangibles that championship teams always seem to have. He blocked shots, finished his checks, outworked opposing players, and was always emotionally involved in games.

Most Improved: Byron Bitz
Over the last month, Bitz has taken his game to a higher level and has become Cornell's biggest offensive threat on a nightly basis. He has gotten a lot more confident with the puck and is being more creative, generating more chances as a result. Earlier in the season, Bitz would often fight the puck and seem unsure about what to do with it. His emergence has given the Big Red an important offensive resource for the playoffs and next year.

Unsung Hero: Jon Gleed
This one was close with Raymond Sawada, but Gleed has been called upon so much over the last month that he gets the nod. He spent a good portion of the first part of the season injured and, when he did play, he could not seem to find his game. When he returned to the lineup in late January, Gleed brought a much-needed stabilizing influence to the blueline and the team as a whole. He has never been a flashy player so he often goes unnoticed, but Gleed puts forth a workmanlike effort every night, logging important minutes. Since Ryan O'Byrne and Sasha Pokulok have gotten injured, Gleed has played more than thirty minutes a game and kept the team defense elevated. Aside from being the "unsung hero," Gleed has been perhaps the team's most important player in avoiding a total collapse over the last month.

Clutch Performer: Mark McCutcheon
No doubt about this one as McCutcheon became the 2005-2006 Mike Iggulden, scoring some huge goals for the Big Red. He is another drastically improved player since last season when he lost his spot in the lineup. It all started with his brilliant third period two-goal performance in the first Niagara game back in November where he scored the team's last two goals in the 5-4 win. The very next weekend, he converted the game winner over Quinnipiac with just 23 seconds left in the third period. His biggest goal came in the closing moments of regulation at Colgate just as Iggulden's did the year before, coming onto the ice and receiving a pass in the high slot, beating the Colgate goaltender with just 39 seconds to play. Don't be surprised if he, like Iggulden, goes on to score a couple of huge goals in the playoffs.

Best Overall Defenseman: Ryan O'Byrne
O'Byrne made enormous strides this year in all aspects of his game and is another player who could have easily been "most improved." O'Byrne went from sporadic liability and bad penalty-taker to being a legitimate number one defenseman. He became the focal point of the first powerplay unit with his powerful one-time shot and led the team's defense in scoring with six goals and five assists. In the defensive zone, O'Byrne was outstanding, playing with a great deal of poise and confidence, utilizing his massive frame far better than he did in his first two seasons. He was a presence every time he was on the ice, throwing big hits and always making the first pass effectively.

Best Overall Forward: Chris Abbott
This is a bit of an off-the-board selection, considering Abbott finished eighth among forwards in scoring with seven goals and three assists, but his overall game has just been that strong. After suffering an injury early on in the season, it took Abbott about a month to fully recapture his form. From about late November, he has been a consistent presence both defensively and offensively and has centered the team's most consitently effective line. His seven goals were fourth on the team, all while playing against the opposition's top forwards every night. A lot of the credit for the team's strong defensive scheme is attributed to his ability to effectively shut down opposing forwards while being a constant threat on the forecheck. He was the team's best faceoff man and best energy player as well.

Top Performer: Matt Moulson
The year did not go as envisioned for the team captain. At 16 goals and 17 assists, it is tough to be disappointed with his output, but Moulson was unable to recapture his magic from last season. All the same, nobody came close to him as far as output. The second leading point scorer (Bitz) had eight fewer points while the second leading goal scorer (McCutcheon and Bitz) had half as many goals. It was not the best regular season, but Moulson will still go down as one of the top offensive performers in Cornell history.

Most Valuable Player: Ryan O'Byrne
Many of his attributes were listed above, but anyone who has watched this team's last four games has noticed O'Byrne's absence. O'Byrne was able to elevate his play to a point where he factored into every aspect of the team and regularly controlled the flow of games. As great as the most dynamic forwards are and the most dominant goalies can be, only a defenseman can control a game in the fashion that O'Byrne did this season. He looked a lot like Chris Pronger, strong and steady in his own zone, while often starting rushes with his great outlet passes, while possessing a booming shot on the powerplay. The team fed off his poise and control and the fact that he often played injured adds to his value. And just think, he can be better and has one year left at Cornell.

ECACHL Quarterfinals Outlook

11. Yale vs. 1. Dartmouth
It is no fluke that Dartmouth finished in first place. When you factor in that they lost their first four ECACHL games and see that they went 14-2-2 after that, their capability appears to be substantial. They have a great mix of size and skill up front, very much emulating the Cornell teams of 2002 and 2003 while having size and speed on the blueline. Their only question marks are in net and behind the bench. Yale struggled through the latter parts of the season, but proved their mettle last weekend in Schenectady. Despite their eleventh place finish, this is actually the best Bulldogs teams since Chris Higgins was there in 2003. They may just be the best eleventh place team ever. With their rugged physical play and the outstanding goaltending they received last weekend, one has to take Yale seriously and think that they are a legitimate upset threat, especially when you take into account Dartmouth's weakness in goal.
Dartmouth in 3

10. Quinnipiac vs. 2. Colgate
After getting swept by Cornell and struggling in the two following weeks, Colgate was able to get four points in the final weekend and secure a tie for first place in the league. The Red Raiders have a very strong team and are deep at every position, while boasting arguably the best goaltender in the ECACHL this season. They have proven vulnerable, however, with their struggles prior to the final weekend. One has to think that the weekend off really benefited them just as it benefited the Big Red and they have to be considered at least among the legitimate favorites to win in the playoffs. Unlike Cornell and Harvard, Colgate has the pressure of knowing that they must win the ECACHL Tournament in order to advance to the NCAA Tournament because their PairWise ranking is so low. Do not count out the feisty Quinnipiac team, however. The Bobcats got their asses handed to them on more than occasion this season, but they have absolutely nothing to lose as they have already surpassed expectations in their first season in the ECACHL. They are the type of team you do not want to face in the playoffs because they work so hard. Colgate is the much more talented team top-to-bottom and should theoretically handle Quinnipiac, but it will not be a one-sided affair.
Colgate in 2

5. St. Lawrence vs. 4. Harvard
This could be a very good series as both teams proved their respectability throughout the season. Harvard is a very dangerous team, although not nearly as talented as their team from last year. Still, with Ted Donato behind the bench, they are one of the best-coached teams in all of college hockey and do not have any apparent weakness. They finished the regular season with three big wins at Cornell and at home against St. Lawrence and Clarkson, not to mention that they have the strongest theoretical PairWise position and are just about a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. St. Lawrence is not nearly as balanced as Harvard, but have a more dangerous attack. Defensively and in net, the Saints are very vulnerable and that was evident last weekend when they needed overtime in the third game against last-place Brown. St. Lawrence is also very well-coached and the team works very hard so they always have to be taken seriously. Harvard's experience will come into play over a three-game series and they should be considered the definite favorite, although an upset should not be overlooked.
Harvard in 3