by Ari Baum - January 12, 2007
Week 8: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

It has become clear that parity is the trend around the NCAA in the 2006-2007 season. Anybody can beat anybody and Cornell has experienced that firsthand during the course of the season. They have been embarrassed on home ice against Wayne State and Sacred Heart while convincingly beating one of the top teams in college hockey, New Hampshire.

In a year where Cornell was forced to endure the loss of much of their core from the previous season, maybe this lack of disparity between the top and bottom has come at the right time. A couple of years ago, a team breaking in as many new players as Cornell has this year would not be 9-5-1 and would not have beaten New Hampshire in Florida. There s a different environment now, however. Anybody can beat anybody. It is this climate that can ultimately make Cornell a successful team this year. Still, the Big Red have not produced anything resembling consistency and have only put forth two complete 60-minute performances 15 games into the season. That is obviously cause for concern but on the other hand, the team is still in a good position with respect to the ECACHL and still have a respectable overall record.

Just as we thought this team was coming together in Florida, even after the loss to Maine, the rising optimism came crashing back to Earth after falling to Sacred Heart. In Florida, Cornell played like a top team with no passengers and everyone playing with purpose. They just plain outworked New Hampshire and beat them in virtually every aspect of the game. They were winning the battles for loose pucks but more importantly, they were getting pucks to the net and regularly driving to the net. They had found the identity that had been lacking for most of the season.

All those things they did so well against New Hampshire were nonexistent against Sacred Heart. The enthusiasm, work ethic, and purpose that were all so prevelant against even Maine were absent for pretty much the entire sixty minutes against Sacred Heart. Where did it all go? Did they forget to bring it with them from Florida? Wherever it went, they had better get it back quickly or things are going to get a whole lot worse.

This was the point where Cornell shifted into a higher gear the last few seasons. At this juncture, they have been in similar standing both within the ECACHL and in their overall performance. Some good results and some brutal ones. All that really matters now is that they are in pretty good shape in the ECACHL and they control their own destiny, but from here on out, it is two games a weekend all within the conference. Therefore, Cornell needs to get things back in order and keep them that way.

College hockey is both a marathon and a sprint because you have to play at a high level every night and slumps just cannot happen. The Big Red needs to find 120 minutes of effort each weekend and they have not done that. If they are to finish in the top four, Cornell is going to need to find that high level of play and keep it going over the long term.

Certain players have progressed along nicely while others have struggled and been inconsistent. Every freshman is a better player now than he was at the beginning of the season and that is the biggest positive for the season right now. The goaltending has been very good at times and spotty at others. The presence from the seniors has been only sporadic. Captain Byron Bitz still is not anywhere near where he was in the second half of last season. He may not be hurting the team but he sure is not contributing as much as he can. Mark McCutcheon was the team's best player early in the season but has struggled for the half-dozen games up to his injury in Florida. Mitch Carefoot has played the best hockey of his career the last half-dozen games and is one of the players going to the net with regularity. Dan Glover was good for the two games he played in Florida and really provided some stability to the blueline but he was out of the lineup again versus Sacred Heart. Some of the sophomores have struggled after great starts to the season, including Mike Kennedy, Tyler Mugford, Evan Barlow, and Taylor Davenport.

Essentially half the team has played consistently well while the other half has been up and down. The formula is pretty simple. When everyone has been on their games and played their roles, the team has won no matter who the opponent. The talent level of this year's team may not be at the level it has been at in the past but the same can be said for college hockey as a whole. Anything can happen this season and any team can win on any given night. If Cornell has not learned that night by now, then they never will. The bottom line is that this team is good enough to be a national contender. This is not something anybody would have predicted before the season but it is a reality. If the struggling players can get things together then Cornell should take off as they have traditionally done at this point in the season.

3 Stars of the Last Three Games for Cornell

1. Raymond Sawada
Sawada is playing the best hockey of his career and has been Cornell's best player by a long shot the last three games. He completely dominated against New Hampshire and continued to be a force against Maine and Sacred Heart. Sawada went out every shift and knocked someone on their ass, all the while controlling the puck a good amount. His imposing physical presence has become a huge factor in games and the opposition is shying away from him every time he steps on the ice. The way Sawada is playing of late indicates that he can contribute at the National Hockey League level.

2. Colin Greening
After Sawada, Greening has been the team's second best player by a pretty good margin. Greening elevated his play during the Wayne State weekend and has not looked back since then. It has not been showing up on the scoresheet, but Greening has still been a huge contributor to the offense. He is using his frame a lot more effectively, winning more battles along the boards and driving hard to the net. Greening has also displayed his underrated puck skills and was responsible for a couple of huge goals against New Hampshire.

3. Tony Romano
There are times you don't notice him and there are times where you notice him for the wrong reasons, but there has not been one game where Romano has not brought people out of their seats. Interestingly, Romano has been pretty consistent this season, never going more than one game without registering a point. He made some great plays in each of the last three games and does things few players at the collegiate level can do. The scary thing is that there is not much reason to think he will not get better and more proficient offensively.

Burning Questions

How did Kevin McLeod play in his first action in two years?
It is amazing to think that the last time McLeod played before Saturday was 23 months ago. Back then he was a forward. Since that game on February 12th, 2005, McLeod had a stint with the Cornell club team after being cut in wake of Chris Fontas's arrival as a transfer, then was brought back to the team in September as a defenseman, a position he had never previously played. Now wearing number two (he wore 21 his first two seasons), McLeod actually saw a considerable amount of ice time on Saturday being paired exclusively with Taylor Davenport to form the team's third pair. Although he was certainly sixth in ice time among the defensemen, McLeod played a fair amount and actually did not look bad. He certainly looked uncomfortable at times but he kept his game as simple as possible and came away with a relatively mistake-free game. Who knows how long Dan Glover will be out this time, but it is fair to expect that McLeod will be the one who plays until he gets back as Evan Salmela has clearly fallen out of favor with Schafer.

How did Chris Fontas play in his first action in two years?
Like McLeod, Fontas went nearly two years without playing in a real game before suiting up against Sacred Heart. There was no doubt Fontas would be a checking-type who would give an honest effort each shift and keep things in order in his own end and he pretty much delivered upon that reputation. For some reason, he was on the second line with Topher Scott and Tony Romano putting him completely out of his element. Perhaps he was placed there to provide some size but in general, he seemed to struggle to keep up with the other two. It is unlikely Fontas will stay in the lineup with Carefoot due back on Friday and McCutcheon expected back soon. Still, Fontas showed he can play a role on the checking line if he is needed.

Why does Schafer talk about the officiating so much?
It seems that Schafer talks about the officiating more than almost any other coach. He certainly has a reputation for being a complainer and he spends more time talking to the referee in games than most, if not all, other college coaches. He also frequently comments on the officiating in interviews. The bottom line to me is that you do not just have to beat the other team; you also have to beat the officials. They are going to miss calls and make mistakes and they are going to be different every game, but you just have to accept that and move on. It is not going to change. Schafer needs to accept this like most coaches have (at least publicly).

Upcoming Weekend Outlook

The trip up to the North Country is often a defining moment in Cornell's season. No matter what year, it is extremely difficult to pick up points in the upstate region bordering Canada. This year should be no different as both St. Lawrence and Clarkson have strong teams. This is particularly the case with the latter who is arguably the strongest team in the conference and certainly among the most potent offensively. It should also be noted that these are the only two ECACHL teams Cornell has not yet faced.

After a relatively hot and surprising start, the Saints have struggled of late winning just once in their last six games. The lone win did come against Boston University, however. St. Lawrence is right behind Cornell in the ECACHL standings just one point back with a game in hand, making this game all the more important. Like Cornell, St. Lawrence is a young and talented team so this should be an interesting matchup. Still, Cornell does have a little more experience and the edge in depth.

Cornell 3 - St. Lawrence 2

Many believe the Golden Knights are the best team in the ECACHL. At times, they have lived up to that billing while at others they have underachieved. This is not all the different than what Clarkson has done the last couple years, but they have clearly taken a step forward this year to being among the elite teams of the ECACHL. Unlike St. Lawrence, Clarkson boasts a ton of experience in their lineup and also have a great deal of firepower. They are currently on an eight-game winning streak and boast an impressive 13-5-1 overall record. In those 19 games, they have scored 74 goals, averaging close to four per game. If Cornell can play with Clarkson at the Cheel Arena where they are always very tough, that will be a very positive sign for the Big Red.

Cornell 1 - Clarkson 4