by Ari Baum - November 22, 2006
Week 4: Dumping the Old

All the opposing coaches who thought they had Cornell hockey down pat have to start over again. It takes more than eight games to fully realize changes from a spectator's point of view but, more importantly, it will take longer for the players and even the coaches to adjust. Not to worry, this is still Cornell hockey, but there is one very significant change. Coming through the neutral zone, it was commonplace to see a Cornell player carrying the puck to gain the red line and immediately get the puck deep. Then a wave of Cornell forwards would come charging into the corner in hot pursuit of the puck. Cornell's five-on-five offense would unfold from that point. In eight games this season, this has not been seen very much; in fact, less and less with each game. It has reached a point where the norm is to carry the puck into the offensive zone rather than to dump it. Believe it or not, the days of dump and chase hockey - previously a staple of Cornell hockey - are a thing of the past.

Cornell does not look entirely different on the ice, but their transition game is an area of definitive change. It would perhaps be far-fetched to say that this alteration has played a huge role in Cornell's success in the young season, but this change will lead to more of a big-picture impact. When comparing this year's team's play compared to the last couple years', it is truly staggering how different they are. The change has not happened overnight and the change is far from complete, but it is clear that this team is moving in a new direction.

It makes sense when you think about it. This year's version of the Big Red is faster and more skilled than previous years meaning the players have more ability to create plays off the rush rather than getting the puck deep and hoping to force turnovers and cycling down low. Furthermore, the way the game is being called now, with physical contact seemingly forbidden, transforming the offense into a puck carrying attack rather than a puck-pursuit approach will theoretically draw more penalties and be less prone to taking them. Opposing teams will be forced to use their hands or sticks to hold up players coming through the neutral zone and those types of infractions are being called a whole lot more this season. Ask any defenseman and they will tell you that the hardest situation to defend against is when opposing forwards are coming at you with a lot of speed. If the defenseman gets beat, he has to take a penalty or allow the scoring chance.

That may shed some light as to why the coaching staff has enacted this systemic change, though its execution may still be in question. Cornell started to move in this direction last season when the team was clearly faster than the previous year's squad. This year, the team is even faster and far more skilled top-to-bottom. Returning players like Topher Scott, Mark McCutcheon, Tyler Mugford, and Mike Kennedy are noticeably faster this season than last. This is particularly the case with Scott who has led countless rushes this season as a center. During his first two years, Scott was not really that effective off the rush and relied more on the cycle, which may be somewhat surprising given his lack of size. Still, he was obviously effective playing that style. By improving his quickness and open-ice speed, he added another dimension to his game and his productivity has gone up as a result.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of this system change have been the defensemen. In the past, Cornell blueliners have had the bulk of their production on the powerplay. This new style encourages and actually requires defensemen to jump up into the play and help create chances. If the forwards are going to carry the puck into the offensive zone, it would obviously help to have a fourth player with them to potentially create an odd-man situation. If this group of defensemen had any strength heading into the season it was their ability to move the puck and join the rush. So far, the defense has had mixed success at moving the puck into the offensive zone and out of the defensive zone. Their play directly resulted in two Quinnipiac goals on Saturday and one Princeton goal on Friday. This higher-tempo puck-carrying style makes a team more susceptible to turnovers, especially against a hard forechecking team like Quinnipiac. The defensemen will only get better with their decision-making coming out of the zone so this area should improve.

The new players are the ones who are supposed to really benefit from this puck-carrying system because of their immense skill level. Except for Tony Romano, the results have been somewhat mixed to this point. Romano has obviously been exceptional off the rush and is the type of player who skates a lot faster when he has the puck. Given his extraordinary skill level and ability to make moves at full speed, this style is tailor-made for him. It has been somewhat surprising that Justin Milo and Blake Gallagher have not thrived off the rush. Fortunately, despite the myth that small players cannot cycle, they are also well-suited to playing a dump-and-chase style.

The team certainly has shined at times with this new style. At the very least, this break from the old dump-and-chase has thrown a couple of teams off guard, notably Yale and Princeton. Against Harvard and Dartmouth, Cornell seemed to get lost in the neutral zone as both teams have passive, trapping styles. This begs the question: why can't Cornell do both? Considering that most of the team is able to play dump-and-chase and make things happen off the rush, it would make sense to play it by ear. It would be awfully hard to defend against a team that can beat you either way. For Cornell, using both styles would increase the effectiveness of their offense and better utilize some of its players.

This change has been the cause of some frustration from watching the team through eight games. At times they have been completely ineffective. At times they have been dominant. The fact that they are 6-2 despite going through this substantial philosophical shift, while absorbing the losses of several key players, speaks to how good this team will eventually be. It will not happen overnight, but ultimately Cornell will have a team that has the capacity to play multiple styles depending on the opponent. They have the right mix of players to do that, but there is a steep learning curve. The bottom line is that Cornell is better than most expected them to be at this point and will be better than most expected them to be in March. The question is whether they will be playing in April, and despite preseason predictions, it's not out of the question.

3 Stars of the Weekend for Cornell

1. Jared Seminoff
Unquestionably the team's best defensemen through eight games, a good case can be made that he has also been the team's best player. Playing upwards of 30 minutes a night, Seminoff has contributed at both ends, being a staple on the successful powerplay unit while playing mistake-free hockey in his own end. It is extraordinary how much progress he has made in just a year and has quickly developed into a bona fide number one defenseman. The big question is whether he will be able to sustain his play and even improve upon it as the season progresses. Considering how young he is and how quickly he has improved, one has to think that he still has room to grow.

2. Byron Bitz
Bitz played far-and-away his two best games of the season, making his presence felt in each game. He scored his first goal of the season against Princeton but factored in to a lot of other plays as well. Bitz drove to the net with more consistency and better-used his 6'4" frame. He also played with more emotion and was generally more aggressive. He still was not close to the level at which he was for the second half of last season, but he made good strides over the weekend. There were maybe a dozen occasions where he skated the puck end-to-end and was able to get the team set up in the offensive zone all by himself. If Bitz can get going offensively, it will be a big factor in generating more offense and should make the players around him more effective.

3. Brendan Nash
After a sparkling first weekend, the freshman defenseman came back to Earth. He found his way back to that exceptional level over the weekend, making smarter, safer plays with the puck. Nash made the second goal happen on Friday night with a dazzling move to get around a forechecker and set up the first goal on Saturday by making a great cross-ice pass to Topher Scott. Nash is a gifted offensive defenseman and is adept at making the first pass but has the frame to be tough to play against defensively as well. Once he improves his skating and quickness to complement his offensive abilities, Nash will be a legitimate top-pair defenseman.

Burning Questions

How close are the line combinations?
Schafer continued to juggle the lines this weekend with some combinations working better than others. There appear to be a couple of duos that are working, which should provide a framework to form combinations around. Topher Scott and Tony Romano have played together the whole season and have been good. The same goes for Mike Kennedy and Tyler Mugford in the checking role. The only other constant duo through eight games, Blake Gallagher and Mark McCutcheon, has struggled to generate offense. Byron Bitz and Raymond Sawada came together this weekend and were easily Cornell's two best forwards at generating offense against Quinnipiac. They obviously have a lot of size between them but also have some speed and skill. If they have a goal scorer on the left side, that line could be a keeper. Evan Barlow was there on Saturday and was pretty good, but it would be interesting to see Justin Milo there. Milo has played his best hockey alongside Bitz in the last couple of games and his skill and shot would complement that line well. The Barlow-Scott-Romano line was good when they were together although they seemed to struggle against the more physical teams. Adding some size to that line would help, making Colin Greening a good option. He has size but is also fast enough to keep up and is skilled enough to play with two of the team's most skilled players. That would move Barlow alongside Gallagher and McCutcheon, though having Scali in Gallagher's place may be the better fit. That would leave Mugford-Kennedy-Carefoot as the team's shutdown line and that trio was very good against Quinnipiac.

How did Scali play in his first game and where does he fit in?
Scali was playing his first real game in over half a year so he naturally looked a little out of place. That being said, he showed some good speed and a willingness to get his nose dirty. Still, Scali is probably a better fit at center. He is a different type of player than the player he replaced on Saturday, Justin Milo, so do not expect him to stay in that spot. He played on a scoring line alongside Scott and Romano which was rather curious considering he is more of a checking line-type player. For the short term, if Milo comes back, it is likely that Scali will go back to the press box. However, it is possible he could keep Milo's spot while moving to a different line. Another player whose spot he could take is Blake Gallagher's. He has struggled to produce offensively, though he has been better-than-expected defensively.

When will Scrivens get a start?
If recent history is any indication, perhaps the better question is whether Scrivens will ever get a start. Schafer has ridden his number one goaltender the last four years and only started his backup when David LeNeveu was at the World Junior Championships. Troy Davenport left his freshmen year because he was not starting and there was no indication that he would ever get the chance to. Perhaps we should be asking a different question. What would have happened to Cornell either of the last two years if David McKee had gotten hurt in the playoffs? Well, Louis Chabot would have gone in without having started a game during his Cornell career. Quite frankly, that is unacceptable. Although it is Schafer's job to go with the team he thinks has the best opportunity to win each night, he also has an obligation to the long-term success of the program. The team cannot be left in a situation where late in the season injury or poor performance results in Scrivens being thrown to the wolves with no team confidence behind him. It is important for him to get a couple of games of collegiate experience and for the team can get comfortable with him in net. Theoretically, one of the games against Wayne State would be a good candidate. Really, Cornell should be able to beat them regardless of who the goalie is. Hopefully, he will get a couple of games so he feels like he was given an opportunity to prove himself. In addition, it could push Davenport a bit. There is very little to lose and a lot to gain by giving Scrivens a game or two at some point.

Where does Cornell rank in the ECACHL?
If you ask Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold, Cornell is the best team in the conference. Still, there are a lot of questions with regard to who sits where in the conference. Expected top-tier teams Harvard, Dartmouth, Colgate, and Clarkson have all stumbled out of the gates while teams with lower projections, Cornell, St. Lawrence, Yale, and Quinnipiac have "overachieved." The four teams who have underachieved in the early going are just as good as people thought they were before the season started. They have just struggled for various reasons in the early season. Wherever they end up finishing, they will all be threats come playoff time. Still, expect things to normalize a little bit in the coming weeks. The standings will looks a little more familiar when everything shakes out in the end. As far as Cornell is concerned, they are a better team than anyone expected they would be and they are only going to get better. An argument can be made that Cornell is even better than the teams they lost to, Dartmouth and Quinnipiac. The Big Red are a top four team in the conference and when all is said and done, they may very well be the top team.

Upcoming Weekend Outlook

There are no easy opponents in the NCAA but if there were, Wayne State would have to be considered among them. Since the games will be played over Thanksgiving weekend, it will not be the same Lynah environment we are accustomed to. It is probably difficult being away from home on a holiday for the Americans on the team as well. Still, Cornell should take both games convincingly. It will be a good opportunity for some of the lines to generate chemistry and for some of the players who have struggled to produce to gain some confidence. One of the games will be as good of an opportunity as any to get Scrivens a game. Every game should be treated as a chance for the team to get better whether they are playing Wayne State or Michigan State.

Wayne State 2 - Cornell 5
Wayne State 0 - Cornell 3