by Ari Baum - February 18, 2004
The Stretch Drive Continues With the Biggest Game Of the Season

Friday's Game a Must-Win

Just take a look at the standings and you will know just how important Friday's game is. Tied for third, but likely the two hottest teams in the ECAC, Cornell and Rensselaer have an absolutely critical match Friday night in beautiful Troy, New York. These teams both have much to prove, however. Cornell has won four straight, but only one of those wins has come against a consensus strong opponent (Dartmouth). Rensselaer has won three straight and nine of their last twelve, but the Engineers struggled against the stronger teams in the ECAC this season until last Saturday night when they impressively shutout Brown 4-0. But in recent games, Rensselaer fell to lowly St. Lawrence and barely slipped by doormat Vermont with an overtime victory.

One thing is for certain and that is that Friday night's game will feature a far different Cornell squad than the one that barely put up a fight at home against Rensselaer in January. Although the Big Red only fell 2-0 in this contest, the Engineers were the far superior team on this night with David McKee making several big saves to keep the score close.

At this point, five teams are battling out for the top four spots in the conference. The regular season ECAC title is Brown's to lose. Yale is three points back of Cornell and Rensselaer and is two points behind fifth place Dartmouth. It is highly unlikely that they could climb over two teams to get into the top four. But spots two through five could see the schools finish in any order. One has to think that Rensselaer has the toughest schedule, as they will meet Cornell and Colgate this weekend. At the same time, they have a huge opportunity: with two wins this weekend, they would solidify themselves in the top four. Cornell can do the same with a win over the Engineers on Friday night. The remaining three games after Rensselaer are all against sub-par teams that the Big Red should definitely beat. It all sounds pretty complicated, but in reality it is very simple: win all four games. Winning all four games will not be simple -- especially Friday's game. But with things as tight as they are, winning the remaining four games is the only formula that will guarantee a top four finish and all the perks that come with it. Friday's game is huge and unquestionably the biggest game of the season.

Hynes's Coming Of Age

"He will make what is already a good recruiting class into an outstanding recruiting class. He has the potential to make the impact on our offense that Doug Murray has made on the defense." This was Mike Schafer talking about Shane Hynes in March of 2002 just after he had committed to attend Cornell University. The freshman class of the 2002-2003 season is one that garnered a great deal of attention. Although he was certainly noticed, Hynes was not talked about nearly as much as Matt Moulson with his big offensive year and the exciting, energetic Abbot twins. Still, the long term potential of Hynes is greater than any player on the team with the possible exceptions of Byron Bitz and Ryan O'Byrne.

People did, in fact, notice Hynes last season. After all, he played on the second line with seniors Matt McRae and Sam Paolini and on the second powerplay unit. Still, on a team that rolled four lines regularly, Hynes managed 11 goals and nine assists for 20 points in 32 games making for very impressive freshman totals. His coming-out party really came in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Mankato State. Hynes was the best player on the ice in this game where he scored two goals, the first standing up as the game-tying goal and second as the game-winning goal. It was this game where many eyebrows raised: "This guy could be an absolute force in two or three years." Scouts certainly took notice. In the June entry draft, Anaheim made Hynes the 86th overall pick. Hynes was selected ahead of other very highly regarded college players (or incoming college players) such as Clarkson's Matt Nickerson (102), Cornell's Byron Bitz (143), Maine's Greg Moore (143), Dartmouth's Lee Stempniak (148), and North Dakota's Brady Murray (152).

Hynes showed glimpses of the imposing power forward earlier in the season, but injuries really stalled his production and contribution in January. Playing the constant physical, skating style that Hynes plays requires a healthy body, hence his drop off for a five to six game stretch in January. Slowly, Hynes has gotten healthy (although he certainly is not 100&pct; yet) and eased back into his groove. Last weekend, the Calgary native simply dominated. Although he scored an impressive two goals and three assists in the two games, Hynes stood out more for his control in the offensive zone. He was winning races to pucks, winning physical battles in the corners and driving hard to the net regularly. Hynes wears down opposition defensemen with his constant physical pressure. This makes a big difference late in games and late in the season. He is the kind of player that every coach wants come playoff time when most goals are ugly.

Hynes will almost definitely eclipse his offensive totals from last year as he currently has nine goals and eight assists for 17 points in 23 games (fourth on the team in points but tied for second in goals). In the tight checking, closely contested games that will take place of the next few weeks, Hynes's importance will only increase. Hynes has not yet made a "Doug Murray impact on the offense," but he is certainly on the right track if he can stay healthy. If he continues to progress as he has, there is little question that Hynes will in fact become one of the most dominating forwards in the NCAA. Hell, he could be one of the most dominating forwards in the NCAA this year if he keeps playing like he did last weekend.

Lineup Notes

As has been the case for the past couple of months, most are unsure as to what the Big Red lineup will look like going into the game. This has come as a result of the much talked about number of injuries. The latest casualties were Dan Glover at Dartmouth and Chris Abbot against Princeton. Glover has missed the last three games and Abbot missed Saturday's game against Yale.

It was certainly interesting to see Ryan Vesce centering Paul Varteressian and Mark McCutcheon on Friday and even more interesting to see him centering Cam Abbot and Greg Hornby on Saturday. Vesce and Cam Abbot are likely Cornell's most dangerous offensive threats as well as most exciting players to watch. More importantly, it gives Cornell two very dangerous looking lines with the recently formed line of Matt Moulson, Byron Bitz, and Shane Hynes. Still, Bitz is not a natural center and should be a winger with his size and ability in the corners. If Daniel Pegoraro could find his way out of the long slump he has endured and recapture his form from last season, the situation would likely be rectified. Pegoraro has the skill capacity to step in between Hynes and Moulson, possibly allowing Bitz to move to Vesce and Cam Abbot's line.

Mike Iggulden has quietly been one of Cornell's most consistently effective players this year. He is a very solid third line center with his hard working, consistent, two-way play.

It would be nice to get the rock-solid Dan Glover back as soon as possible, although Ben Wallace and Jeremy Downs have been extremely reliable on the backend. In fact, Wallace and Downs are the team's unsung heroes this year. They don't get much credit or recognition as they are not the most flashy players. More than anyone on the team, they consistently get the job done. It should be noted that not having Glover in the lineup allows the offensively gifted Evan Salmela to step in. Salmela adds another element to the Big Red powerplay and if Glover drew back into the lineup, Salmela would come out.

The only position that we know about for sure is goaltending, where we know that Dave McKee will continue to get the nod and hopefully continue his spectacular play.