by Ari Baum - April 4, 2006
NCAA Midwest Regional: Déjà Vu

Battling back from an idle first half of the game and a 2-0 defecit to win 3-2 in the first round, check. Playing a road game against a top-ranked WCHA school with a handful of first rounds picks and losing in heart-breaking fashion in overtime, check. Although the roads to the NCAA Tournament in the last two years were drastically different, the regional scripts were nearly identical. For Cornell players, coaches, and fans, that does not make it feel any better. None of them will be closing their eyes the next couple of weeks without seeing Jack Skille one-time the puck past David McKee in the third overtime on Sunday night. Once again, Cornell came as close as you could possibly come to playing in the Frozen Four, coming up just a little bit short. As painful as the feeling is, the sentiment around Cornell hockey in the wake of such a disappointing result is overwhelmingly positive.

Cornell sure showed the west a thing or two. Hopefully all the brilliant people out there who have continuously insisted that Cornell is a trapping, clutch-and-grab, boring hockey team watched last weekend's games. After an embarrassing performance in the first period, Cornell absolutely dominated Colorado College. The Tigers' players and coaches were not at all complimentary of the Big Red, but anyone who saw that game knew what was going on. Colorado College's pathetic defensive effort and one-dimensional scheme were no match for Cornell's aggressive, skating system that pressured them in all three zones. Colorado College barely had the puck in the second and third periods and their two superstar forwards, Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling, were a non-factor five-on-five. The run-and-gun teams of the west like Colorado College and Mankato State in 2003 proved to be no match for the perhaps less-talented, but far better-coached and multi-dimensional Cornell team. There is a reason that the more comparable western teams to Cornell such as Denver and Wisconsin consistently beat the crap out of the Colorado Colleges. They emphasize physical play and defensive responsibility just like Cornell and that will almost always win out, particularly in the playoffs. It was awesome to watch after Cornell got its act together. It showed that Mike Schafer and the coaching staff have really been cooking something over the last few years. They have not simply risen to the top of the ECACHL but also to the top of the entire NCAA.

There is not much that can be said about the Wisconsin game that has not been said. It was one of the best college hockey games ever while being the second longest in NCAA Tournament history. It was a display of true hockey. Contrary to what some people around the world of hockey seem to think, you do not need tons of goals to have an exciting game. Hockey is about more than offense, especially in the playoffs. It is about heart, physical play, and superior team play. There was only one goal scored in five and a half periods on Sunday night but it was one of the most exciting hockey games just about everyone who saw it has ever seen. Both teams played their guts out, with several players on both sides playing through injuries. There were many big hits, even deep into overtime and both teams made some great offensive plays. Both teams executed perfect hockey in that they were each extraordinary defensively while battling hard to break the respective goose eggs on the scoreboard. The game exemplified what hockey is all about.

More than anything that was great about the game, the performances of the goaltenders were simply breath taking. There is no way a 7-6 thriller would hold a candle to a goaltending duel that sees both carrying shutouts through nearly two straight games. Brian Elliott may not have been tested nearly as much as David McKee but his save on Byron Bitz in the second period was one of the best saves anyone will ever see, and with just about any other goalie in the net, Cornell wins the game 1-0 in regulation. It was a sure-goal. Bitz got the shot off quickly and Elliot somehow got over and made the sprawling glove save. The great saves that people often hear about are ones where the goaltender gets lucky and manages to get in the way of the shot. The Elliot save was pure technique and determination. He was far out of the play but positionally got himself over to make the save. He went on to make a handful of other amazing saves that also would have been sure-goals on most. There is no question who the best player in college hockey is.

McKee was not too shabby himself, stopping 59 shots, many of which came on golden opportunities. The most impressive sequence came at the end of regulation when he made five or six huge saves in a matter of two or three minutes. With Cornell killing a penalty, the Badgers got two point-blank chances down low with another three or four huge slap shots coming through screens. McKee was not stopping any of those types of chances just a week before against Harvard. On this occasion with the game on the line, he stopped them all and did so with complete composure. The big slap shots came through screens and there was no way on earth McKee could have seen them. Somehow, he managed to stay square to the shooter and react to each shot as if he saw them coming all the way. As great as he was last season, it was easily the best performance of his career and among the greatest in NCAA history.

Wisconsin was undoubtedly the better team but it is important not to overlook the fact that they were playing their best possible game. With the talent and coaching that they have, their very best is probably better than any other team in college hockey. Despite all that, Cornell hung with them for two games after playing the much tougher game less than 24 hours before. Although they were more fatigued and physically beat up, Cornell still managed to play their best game of the season and to their fullest capacity. This comes back to how great of a game this was with two very high quality teams playing their absolute best hockey.

It was a very up-and-down season for Cornell, especially compared to the last three years they made the NCAA Tournament. The Big Red team that was so uninspiring just a week earlier morphed into a legitimate NCAA Championship contender. Nobody thought they could get by Colorado College, much less take Wisconsin to three overtimes. There have been better seasons for Cornell hockey and after failing to win the Ivy or ECACHL titles, only one banner - NCAA Tournament - will be in the rafters of Lynah Rink from the 2005-2006 season. That can be considered a bad thing but considering they were potentially just one shot away from being in the Frozen Four, it shows that they got the last word in. It also showed how much stronger the ECACHL has gotten in just a couple of years. Perhaps most importantly, Cornell has proven that it has become a perennial contender. They have been in the top eight teams in college hockey four of the last five years and although they have not had a great deal of success in the NCAA Tournament, they have advanced from the first round in each of those years and lost by one goal in each of their eliminations. It was not just one class or even two classes that led Cornell to supremacy. They have sustained their level across a handful of classes. As great as the class of 2003 was, the program has moved on and in the last two years has been an overtime goal away from getting just as far as they did in 2003. The talent is coming in every year more than it has for decades, but more importantly, the coaching staff have instilled a winning attitude within the program that is being passed on from year to year.

There was legitimate concern that the program would not be able to get back to serious contention after 2003 and that concern was only magnified with the disappointing 2004 season. Then after they got back there with a vengeance in 2005, there was again legitimate concern as to whether they would be able to replace those seniors and get back to that level. Just a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like a very real possibility that the 2006 team would have a similar fate to the 2004 team rather than 2003 or 2005. However, they proved that they were just as capable. A few months ago, there was not a great deal of hope for the 2006-2007 season but those concerns have evolved into great optimism.

So what now? A great deal of uncertainty surrounds the near-future of Cornell hockey, most notably where the team's home games will be played at the beginning of next season. More pressing is who will step up to replace the leaving seniors. And on that note, will all non-seniors be returning next season? Without knowing the answers to these questions, it can be safely said that Cornell will be back next season and will again be a legitimate contender to win the National Championship. Coming in will be one of the most talented recruiting classes in years with a lot of offense to spare. If no one else leaves early, there will be a lot more depth at every position, but also a very solid core for the team to be built around. The junior class in particular showed tremendous growth this season and proved more than capable of taking the reigns of the team for next season. Expect the Big Red to get some revenge on Harvard and take back the ECACHL Championship, but the two programs will retain ownership of the conference regardless. Most importantly, Cornell will get some more consistency and hopefully abandon the injury bug that hurt them this season. That will allow them to make the right strides nationally and hopefully end up in Rochester for the NCAA Regionals. Expect a return to the Frozen Four in 2007. See you in St. Louis.

3 Stars of the Weekend for Cornell

1. Jon Gleed
What a way to go out. Gleed peaked at the right time, playing the best two games of his Cornell career. He was outstanding in both games, both offensively and defensively. Gleed really elevated his play over the last few weeks of the season but found a whole new level in Green Bay. It was fitting that he scored the game-winning goal against Colorado College, seeing as he was far-and-away the best player on the ice in that game. In addition to his offensive contribution, Gleed made dozens of great defensive plays on the weekend. He broke up several odd man rushes all by himself in both games, including a couple in overtime against Wisconsin. It was a great way to go out for Gleed and one has to think he will have a lengthy pro career ahead of him. His development over four years is astonishing considering he was not even a regular in the lineup as a freshman.

2. David McKee
McKee put forth one of the best goaltending performances in the history of Cornell hockey against Wisconsin, making 59 saves, many of which were of the spectacular variety. The sequence in the closing minutes of regulation where Cornell was shorthanded saw McKee come up with at least five unbelievable saves. One Wisconsin fan put it best, saying that he could not bring himself to yell "sieve" at McKee after the goal was scored, given his incredible performance. His breathtaking performance may have redeemed his mediocre season, but one has to think he had greater hopes and expectations for himself and the team.

3. Chris Abbott
As impressive as both Gleed and McKee were, the most inspiring performance belonged to Chris Abbott. Considering he was a question mark to suit up for the weekend in wake of the severe hand injury he suffered in the ECACHL semifinals, Abbott was still one of Cornell's best players. He is all heart and has to be considered one of the best two-way forwards Cornell has ever had. Abbott set up Gleed's game winner against Colorado College but also made several great defensive plays, battling through intensive pain to play a pivotal role with the team. As strong as next year's team can potentially be, the biggest hole that will need to be filled will be the one on the third line left by Abbott.

Burning Questions

Who should next year's captains be?
Any combination of Ryan O'Byrne, Byron Bitz, and Mark McCutcheon. A case can be made for Dan Glover and Mitch Carefoot, but the other three have done the most on the ice to earn the honor of officially leading the team next season. We do not see what happens in the dressing room between periods but based on how they play and conduct themselves on the ice, these three are the right choices. O'Byrne has become a rock on the blueline and a fixture on the team's first powerplay unit. He has became the stabilizing presence that the team envisioned when they originally recruited him and is poised to have a big senior year where he will be one of the top two-way blueliners in college hockey. Bitz showed tremendous growth this season and played with a lot more emotion and energy in the second half of the season. He was the team's best overall offensive player over the last two months of the season and has the potential to have a huge season in his senior year. The edge that his game developed over the course of the season became a big part of the team's overall mental game and was very representative of his growth as a player and as a leader. McCutcheon represents the blue-collar importance of the team with his work ethic and solid two-way play. The expectation for him when he was recruited was that he would be a dominant offensive player. Although his offensive game showed tremendous improvement this year over his first two seasons, McCutcheon has become a great example of what Cornell hockey is about - hard work, character, and defensive responsibility. His place in the program has been comparable to Mike Iggulden's, struggling to find a role in his first two seasons and eventually rounding out his game and finding his niche on the team as a solid, character player. As important as the big-time players are to Cornell's success, what has separated them from the pack of the ECAC over the last few seasons has been the strength of their third and fourth line players.

Who, if anyone, will be leaving early?
By now everyone knows that David McKee has signed with Anaheim. There are many signs indicating that Sasha Pokulok could be on his way out, as well, but I really believe he will be back. Washington is in full-out rebuilding mode and would seemingly have nothing to lose by getting Pokulok to the pros. However, you can sense Cornell's growing urgency to be successful at the highest level and all the upperclassmen will have to be integral parts of that. On the other hand, you can never rule out a player to unexpectedly leave early like Shane Hynes.

Why are Wisconsin fans superior to Minnesota fans?
It came down to Wisconsin being far more gracious and far less arrogant. Gopher fans seemed to think that they were supreme in every way to anybody else and were shocked to see Big Red fans cheering for their team rather than bowing to the Gopher. Wisconsin, while being startled by the Cornell fans, were more understanding and objective. They have not been to the Frozen Four since 1992 and appeared to realize it was a privilege to be there as opposed to Minnesota fans who believe it is their birth right. It is funny to think that the Gophers lost to mighty Holy Cross in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They deserved it and even though it unfortunately came at the expense of Cornell, Wisconsin deserved to be in Milwaukee. The bottom line is that Wisconsin as a whole from the coaches to the players to the fans acknowledged Cornell's presence and quality as a program while Minnesota was completely ignorant to it just like they were to Holy Cross's.

Frozen Four Outlook

Unfortunately, it appears that the WCHA's dominance will continue for another year. The east unquestionably closed the gap this season, but its top teams will not be at the Frozen Four. Cornell proved that they remain among the elite eastern teams, but Harvard and Boston University both mailed in their final games, getting blown out in the first and second rounds respectively. At their best, any of those three teams would have been able to give North Dakota and Wisconsin a run for the National Championship, but it is unlikely that Maine or Boston College will be able to do that. But as was seen on a couple of occasions last weekend, absolutely anything can happen. If all goes according to form, however, expect an all-WCHA final.

Semifinal 1: Maine 0 - Wisconsin 3
Semifinal 2: Boston College 2 - North Dakota 4
Championship: North Dakota 2 - Wisconsin 3