by Ari Baum - March 23, 2006
NCAA Preview: Under the Radar

The world of Cornell hockey has gone dark. Truly amazing what one game can do. Cornell let a golden opportunity slip away by getting brutally beaten by archrival Harvard and it cost them in a big way. Last year, they did seemingly everything in their power, dominating after January 1st and winning the ECACHL regular season and post season championships yet still ended up going to Minneapolis to play on an Olympic sheet of ice. This year, nobody has any sympathy and nobody is at all impressed.

They are the lowest second seed but with the chances most people are giving them, Cornell might as well be a four seed. These guys are underdogs in the biggest way possible. Unlike last year, nobody feels like the team got the short end of the stick by having to go to Wisconsin. They made their own bed, blowing countless opportunities, but the only one that mattered was not even a game. It was in their hands and they flat-out blew it.

There probably will not be several hundred Cornell fans in Green Bay on Saturday like there were in Minneapolis last year. There will not be a lot of people in their corner believing they got "screwed" by having to go so far away. Cornell fans are as bitter as they have been in a long time while "the experts" have no confidence in this team's chances. That was made pretty clear during the selection show on ESPN 2 when the "expert" did not even make mention of them as a possible contender in the Green Bay bracket. Don't feel bad, Bemidji State did not get mentioned either. Cornell is not even a blip on the radar screen.

Guess how much all of this matters? None at all. No, Cornell will not be the favorite on Saturday and will not even be close to the favorite on Sunday should they beat Colorado College. As turned-off as Cornell fans are and how overlooked the Big Red may be, their job remains the same: win. The reason the NCAA Tournament is so great is that everything is black or white. You win and move on or lose and your season is over. No more looking at the PairWise Rankings and hoping that the outcome of the World Baseball Classic does not affect where Cornell ends up. They are going to Wisconsin and playing Colorado College and likely Wisconsin if they win the first game.

It will be a relatively new mentality for the Big Red this season as they will be massive underdogs, but they are still alive. There is life after death for the Big Red and as bad as things seem in wake of the terrible and costly loss on Saturday night, their goal of winning the national championship is still afloat, albeit barely. If Cornell thought Harvard was tough to defend against, they are really in for a treat with Colorado College. The Tigers boast two of the top forwards in college hockey, Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling. They were both nominated for the Hobey Baker Award for a second straight year while they finished 1-2 in the voting last season. As a team, think St. Lawrence. They are fast and skilled, but also small and not strong defensively. Theoretically, Cornell matches up very well with them as they have historically thrived with these types of teams, most notably Mankato State in 2003.

Make no mistake, Cornell may not be favorites this weekend, but so much of what happens will still have to do with the Big Red players themselves. First and foremost, David McKee needs to play the best games of his career. There are many reasons as to why he has struggled this season, but if he is going to play this weekend, he has to be at his very best. He played very well at Minnesota last season so he has proven he is able to perform in the big games against the offensive powerhouses of the West. Cornell cannot change the way they play and must thrive off of the style that has made them successful over the last few years. It all starts with goaltending and defensive play. If McKee is at his best, Cornell can beat anyone. He has not been good enough this season, but will have to be if the Big Red is to have any success this weekend.

The team in front of McKee will have to be at their best as well. The defense is going to be tested more than they have by any team this whole season with the quickness and creativity of Colorado College's forwards. The key will be exploiting their size both offensively and defensively. Colorado College is small up front and not used to playing big, physical defensemen on a regular basis. On the blueline, the Tigers are not that much bigger, so Cornell will need to cycle and cycle and cycle. Having Chris Abbott in the lineup and the third line going on all cylinders will be absolutely enormous, but the team has the personnel to have four lines that can effectively forecheck. They are not a gifted group of forwards and not even remotely comparable to Colorado College or Wisconsin, but when they get their forecheck going, they can manufacture all the goals they will need to win.

Shutting down their top players - Sertich and Sterling usually play on different lines - will likely be the difference in the game. When Cornell was able to hold the TJ Trevelyans, Tyler Burtons, and Mike Ouelettes of the ECACHL in check, they always won. Colorado College may have a big and imposing name in the world of college hockey, but they are very beatable. Not only did they lose in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, but they are just 7-9-1 since January 1st, albeit playing a much tougher schedule than any ECACHL team would ever have. The bottom line is that they are beatable and not difficult to play against. There no mystery to beating them: contain their offense and stay out of the penalty box.

As for Wisconsin, you do not want to know. They are that good. Take the talent of the Minnesota team from last year and add more of a defense-conscious, physical element. They are the favorites for many to win the national championship. Considering they will not be leaving the state for any NCAA Tournament games and the fact that they are number one in the PairWise rankings indicates that they have everything going for them. That being said, there is a reason they play the games. Nobody ever thought Bemidji State could come close to taking Denver to overtime last year. This Wisconsin team is worse than that Denver team while Cornell is obviously better than that Bemidji team. The point is, anything can happen. The Badgers are not an offensive powerhouse either, though they are very well-balanced and extremely well-coached. They are much better than Colorado College and are a truly elite team that will be playing in a home-like atmosphere. Yes, Wisconsin is the overwhelming favorite to take this regional, but if you get a couple bounces here and there and get some stellar goaltending, anyone can beat anyone.

It is truly time for Cornell's best players to answer the bell. Everything Matt Moulson has done in his career must culminate with his best-ever performance(s). He has never been great in the playoffs and is coming off a very tough season. He was a non-factor in Albany both offensively and as a leader. He must be better and, like McKee, has to play at his very best for the Big Red to be successful this weekend. The same goes for Sasha Pokulok. He will need to play at the level he was at before he got injured against Colgate over a month ago. Everybody needs to play their best hockey, but specifically their big guns must if they are to have any shot this weekend.

Cornell has proven themselves in tough situations this year. They have battled through some really tough stuff, though nothing close to what they will see this weekend. Nobody, not even their own fans, thinks they have a shot and probably rightfully so. But that does not matter. In a one game playoff, anybody can beat anybody and it is not as if Cornell is some lower-tier team. They may not be at the level of Wisconsin or even Colorado College for that matter, but all they need to do is beat them one time. Cornell can win this weekend. Do not bet on them to, but do not count them out either. Regardless, this situation where nobody even notices them is an interesting one and different to recent years. They have an opportunity to surprise some people and make everyone forget about Saturday night's atrocity.

Midwest Regional

Colorado College 3 - Cornell 4
Bemidji State 1 - Wisconsin 5

Cornell 1 - Wisconsin 3

West Regional

Michigan 2 - North Dakota 5
Holy Cross 4 - Minnesota 5

North Dakota 4 - Minnesota 2

Northeast Regional

Boston College 3 - Miami 2
Nebraska-Omaha 1 - Boston University 4

Boston College 3 - Boston University 2

East Regional

New Hampshire 2 - Michigan State 3
Maine 1 - Harvard 3

Harvard 4 - Michigan State 2