by Ari Baum - November 30, 2006
Week 5: Weekend Off

Pardon the profanity, but that was the shittiest weekend of Cornell hockey in years. They have delivered some brutal gamesin the past, but rarely twice in one weekend, and almost never against horrendous competition. The Big Red splits with the freakin' Warriors of Wayne State, arguably the worst team in all of Division I hockey. Lots of words come to mind including, but not limited to, embarrassing, pathetic, and unacceptable. What is it that went wrong though? If the two teams played one hundred times, Cornell should win all 100 games, and by a consistently wide margin, yet they hardly appeared to be even slightly superior this weekend.

Prior to the weekend, comments from head coach Mike Schafer indicated that the freshmen were a big part of the team's struggles of late. Whatever you make of that statement, the players who actually showed up to play this weekend were freshmen, so he can't blame them. Rather, some of the veterans mailed it in and the defense had its worst game of the season, resembling what most were fearing heading into the season. Still, who would have thought it would take the high-powered Wayne State attack to make the Cornell defense look ordinary?

Cornell's worst weekend last year came this very weekend after Thanksgiving. A two-game set with another CHA team in Niagara, with one game at Lynah and the other at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. The Big Red dogged it defensively in each game while David McKee struggled in net, leaving the team in a position to actually lose each of those games. They found a way to win each night but it was their worst weekend of the season. Obviously they played in worse individual games, notably the game at Dartmouth and the ECACHL Championship against Harvard, but that was their worst weekend effort. So maybe it is the difficulty of having to play hockey during a week where the school is practically deserted along with playing against brutal competition.

On a more technical level, Cornell's mediocrity of late is pretty easily explained. Their special teams have been nothing short of horrendous. The numbers are pretty staggering. Until Sunday's shutout, Cornell had allowed at least a powerplay goal in seven straight games, giving up 14 goals in total. In that same stretch, Cornell gave up five even-strength goals. By comparison, the Big Red's powerplay has been better, but it still is not even close to where it needs to be. The powerplay's numbers may look better, but it is still costing the team dearly. Cornell's performance on the powerplay is affecting the way they play games. The numbers on Saturday may show that Cornell went 3-for-11 but the complexion of the game was changed by its inefficiency. Before Wayne State got on the board, Cornell actually had four powerplays and failed to even come close to scoring on any of those opportunities. Prior to the eight minute mark when the flood-gates opened for the Warriors, Cornell was the much faster team, thus drawing the four powerplays. Powerplays are great, but they are very much a double-edged sword, particularly with the amount being given out this season. If you do not have a productive two minutes on the man-advantage, it can deflate a team and the momentum of the game goes the other way, as do the penalties. Part of that is the predictability of officials to even things up in the long run. Another part is that the deflated team is less prone to skating and taking lazy penalties. This was the case in the first period on Saturday and it was unquestionably the difference in the game.

Part of the inefficiency of special teams falls on the coaches. It is up to them to get the right players out there and set the units up catering to each player's skillset. The coaches have switched up the powerplay units quite a bit with very mixed results. The first unit has over-used the one-time pass to Mark McCutcheon to the point where it is easy for opposing teams to cover. Topher Scott has done everything in his power to make things happen down low but neither Raymond Sawada nor Byron Bitz have been moving enough to make the opposing penalty kill have to adjust. The pointmen have not been cheating down to create the backdoor play. The biggest issue has been the unit's failure to get pucks to the net. The second unit did better over the weekend, converting twice on Saturday, but we still have not seen goalless Blake Gallagher's lauded scoring ability off the half-boards or Justin Milo's big shot from the point. Still, that unit was getting the puck to the net. It wasn't pretty. Thew were just throwing pucks to the net and Colin Greening did an excellent job of getting in position and cleaning up the garbage. A good powerplay needs to have more than just a good percentage though. There need to be timely goals and early goals, neither of which happened this weekend.

In the first five games, Cornell gets five wins and its best start in 33 years. In the second five games, Cornell has a 2-3 record against opponents at a relatively similar level. The Big Red have seemed to struggle during this stretch in the last few years and have always rebounded nicely, so that is a good sign. Last year, the team was 2-2-1 during the second five games with the two wins coming against Niagara. That stretch was easily the team's worst of last season with the blowout at Dartmouth and an embarrassing home loss to Union. In 2004-05, they again were 2-2-1 with wins over Canisius and Yale (easily the worst team in the ECACHL that year). And in 2003-04, they were 1-1-3, stinkers in the second five games each year.

Just like the last three years, this team is not even close to where they need to be. Any time you lose to Wayne State that's a given. Improving the special teams will go a long way to helping this team get back on track, but they need to get back to playing with an edge. It is tough to keep it after the first few games as you lose the excitement from starting the season, but it is that very attitude that has brought Cornell so much success. They almost never lose when they have that swagger and it has to start with the older guys. Some have had it while others have not. That is the silver bullet right there.

Despite the horrific weekend, the long-term projection has still not changed. Just like the last three years, Cornell was bad in November and just like the last three years, they will be a lot better come March when the games really matter. The split with the fifty-ninth best team in college hockey may hurt in the PairWise Rankings, but when it comes down to it, Cornell can make or break that in Estero at the end of December. There is a lot of hockey to be played and there is no question that the Big Red have not even scratched the surface to how good they can be. How good they can be is still a mystery, far moreso than the last two seasons. All the same, as miserable as this weekend was, it will operate as a point to move forward from. Last year it was the 6-1 embarrassment at Dartmouth that was rock bottom and the team seemed to get better with each game from that point forward (with a few exceptions obviously). If losing at home to Wayne State is not rock bottom, then Cornell hockey is in real trouble. Fearless prediction: Cornell will make the NCAA Tournament and play in Rochester. This is a good hockey team. They just don't know it yet. Neither do the fans. Neither does Wayne State.

3 Stars of the Weekend for Cornell

1. Colin Greening
Definitely his two best games thus far, Greening was easily Cornell's best player on Saturday and was good again on Sunday. He scored two goals on Saturday, just by paying the price in front of the net and whacking away at rebounds. Greening was also a force away from the puck, throwing his weight around a fair amount.

2. Mitch Carefoot
Carefoot struggled early on but has come on a bit in the four games heading into this weekend. He continued his strong play by turning in his best game of the season on Friday night, setting up two goals. Carefoot was also one of the only veterans on the team who showed a consistent work ethic in each game.

3. Justin Milo
He has quietly improved and made a bigger impact with each game. Milo scored his first collegiate goal on Saturday and had a handful of other chances during the course of the weekend. He also threw one of the bigger hits of the weekend at the end of the second period on Sunday, despite the roughing penalty he got for his efforts. He works hard every shift and is becoming more effective offensively. That being said, Milo has curiously seen a reduction in ice time this weekend after being taken off the second powerplay unit.

Burning Questions

How did Joe Scali play in his second game?
Scali was one of Cornell's best players on Sunday. He set up two of Cornell's best scoring chances, drew two penalties, and was playing with gusto all night. Scali was also a regular on the penalty kill, looking pretty good there. He plays a high-energy game and has better skills than he is given credit for. It is conceivable that Barlow could stay out of the lineup for Scali but he will need to continue to play at that level. Regardless, Scali is one of those guys who plays with that "edge" the team has been lacking of late, which indicates that he could stay in the lineup.

How did Ryan Kindret play in his first game of the season?
He was not as noticeable as Scali but he did not get nearly as much ice time. Kindret plays a simple game but is a serviceable player all the same. Even though it is unlikely that he will stay in the lineup, Kindret certainly played with some urgency on Sunday, something that most of his teammates did not do.

Why did Ben Scrivens not get the start on Sunday?
Scrivens did get his opportunity to play on Saturday and did okay. It was very possible that he was scheduled to start Sunday but he got 45 minutes on Saturday. It was a good move going back to Davenport as it gave him an immediate opportunity to get his confidence back. Scrivens did not play badly in relief, stopping a penalty shot at a critical juncture, but he was not good enough to force Schafer to go back to him on Sunday. It appears that Davenport is the number one until he plays himself out of it.

Upcoming Weekend Outlook

The Engineers have done pretty well in the early stages of the Seth Appert era. Their 4-3-4 record, however, is behind their pace from last season after 11 games, when they were 6-4-1. Rensselaer had a decent season last year with a .500 record in the ECACHL and were actually the only team in the conference Cornell did not beat. They have good goaltending and a pretty potent offense. Their defense has struggled lately, however, allowing 15 goals in their last three games, including two losses coming at the hands of Sacred Heart and Niagara. They may not be Wayne State, but those are teams that RPI should beat, especially after posting a win at Denver and tying Boston University early on. This will not be an easy game with the Big Red try to come out of their recent funk.

Rensselaer 2 - Cornell 4

The Skating Dutchmen were not an easy foe for Cornell last year either. They always seem to give the Big Red a tough game, even at Lynah, and expect no different on Saturday. Union has more talent than they have had in recent seasons and have put together some good wins. They do appear streaky, however. They opened with an impressive sweep on the road at Ferris State but followed that up with a five game winless streak including a tie against RIT, a blowout at Northeastern and two losses to Quinnipiac where they gave up 16 goals. Since then, Union has won three straight and look to be back on track. The Dutchmen always work hard and look to have a pretty potent offense but have definitely struggled to keep the puck out of their own net.

Union 1 - Cornell 5