In nearly four years of writing this column, this week has surprisingly proven the most difficult in terms of coming up with a topic. With regard to the big picture, so much hinges upon this coming weekend. My 7-2-1 predicted finish is very close to being fulfilled with the team going 5-2-1 since. So close, yet so far. The Big Red's vastly improved play of late has given them a chance to salvage a season that just a few short weeks ago was shaping up to be a disaster. The ship has been righted and thus the status of the 2006-07 season has been shifted back to "undecided." They have played great of late, but the improvement has only given the team an opportunity; it has not fully salvaged the season. Their fate is in their own hands, but the ultimate outcome to the season could very well be determined this weekend. If Cornell does indeed fulfill that 7-2-1 prediction and sweep this weekend, not only will I look like a genius, but they will have dug out of an enormous hole and positioned themselves to make a postseason run nobody ever envisioned a month ago.
We are no longer waiting for anybody to get going. The team is playing its best hockey of the season and just about every player who needed to produce is doing so. This explains why Cornell has managed to go 4-1-1 since their best player, Jared Seminoff, was lost to injury. It also explains why they have won all three games since their most productive player in 2007, Mitch Carefoot, was lost to injury. This is not the first time a sports team has managed to elevate its play in wake of losing an extremely valuable player to injury. In fact, this syndrome, known as the "Patrick Ewing affect," has proven quite common in sports. In none of these cases are the teams actually better overall without their key players, but something happens to the guys still playing.
Regardless of what their record is without them, Jared Seminoff and Mitch Carefoot have been Cornell's two best players this season. In their absence, others have picked up the slack, and in a big way. If Ryan O'Byrne and Sasha Pokulok did not bolt school early for the professional ranks, we would probably not be talking now about how valuable Seminoff is to the team. We would not know yet how good he could be. Evan Salmela has emerged in much the same way. In the twilight of a career that has had few bright spots, Salmela has found his ninth life and the team is benefiting greatly from it. After the Kevin McLeod experiment was abandoned last Friday in Schenectady, the only other option on the blueline was Salmela. If the opportunity did not arise for him the next night in Troy, he would have likely faded into oblivion never to be heard from again. Maybe this was the first real good opportunity for Salmela to truly flourish.
You wouldn't know it, but Salmela is probably the most gifted offensive defenseman on the team. He put up far more points in juniors than any of the other current Cornell defensemen and his ability on the powerplay cannot be questioned. Sure, it took three and three-quarter seasons for him to get a chance on the powerplay but when he finally did last Saturday, the first unit actually generated good chances for the first time in months. That unit converted goals in each game this past weekend and although Salmela did not record any points on them, his contributions were evident all the same.
Salmela's ability to run a powerplay allowed the coaching staff to finally take Byron Bitz off the point and put him a place where he can better contribute. Going beyond the powerplay, Bitz decided to go near the net rather than position himself along the perimeter as he has all season. The reward? Two goals and three assists on the weekend. It is funny how things happen. Had Seminoff not gone down, then maybe none of this would have ever happened. Regardless of the reason, the team has picked up the slack.
When Carefoot left last Friday's game, concerns were plentiful. This season's annual emergent senior was going to be tough to replace, especially after he had already reached career highs in every statistical category. He was anchoring the team's anchor line with Mike Kennedy and Tyler Mugford that led the team in shutting down the opposition's top line for a few weeks. In the games just prior to his injury, the line had been shutting them down by going on the attack themselves. Held off the scoresheet since Carefoot's injury, Kennedy and Mugford have still managed to play their best hockey of the season. After the key component of their line went down, they got it together and have not looked back in the three games since.
There has been an internal fight to replace Carefoot's contributions on the scoresheet. The top line of Colin Greening, Byron Bitz, and Raymond Sawada have led the way combining for an extraordinary nine goals and ten assists over the last three games. The line of Evan Barlow, Blake Gallagher, and Mark McCutcheon has also recently broken out, combining for six goals and nine assists over the last four games. The scary part about the recent offensive explosion for the Big Red is that the most skilled line of Justin Milo, Topher Scott, and Tony Romano, while producing of late, is still capable of a lot more. They have combined for two goals and four assists over the last three games. It is pretty safe to say that Carefoot's contributions have been replaced, and then some.
They may be wearing the same uniforms now as they were in January, but that is where the similarities end. To put things in perspective, Cornell scored eleven goals in eight games for the whole month of January. They scored eight goals in just over 37 minutes on Saturday night. The goaltending has quietly fallen into place with Ben Scrivens and Troy Davenport sitting first and third in the ECACHL in goals against average. Really, the goaltending was never as atrocious as some, including Schafer, seemed to think, but the numbers do not lie. During the seven game winless streak, they gave up 23 goals. In the seven games since, they have allowed just over half that, 12. The difference though is that the margin for error has increased dramatically. The telling statistic when comparing the last two seven-game stretches is that the Big Red scored 12 during the winless streak and 27 since. The goals for and goals against have essentially switched places in a matter of three weeks.
It was beaten to death last week, but scoring goals, not preventing them, is this team's strength. They are certainly capable of producing the grand old defensive scheme. After all, allowing 12 goals in seven games is nothing to sneeze at, even for Cornell. But the bottom line is this: the team's offense is capable of winning more games than the team's defense. Just look back up a couple paragraphs at the production of each line recently. The Big Red have produced 86 goals in 27 games which is extraordinary considering they scored just nine during a six-game stretch. Subtract those games and they have scored 77 times in 21 games, an average of almost four per game, which would place them in the top five in all of Division I. Even with that horrible stretch of futility, the Big Red are in the top third at seventeenth and third in the ECACHL. Going back to the defensive side of things, it is certainly interesting to note that while they are among the better and deeper offensive teams in college hockey, Cornell has beaten four of the top six offenses in the nation (RIT, New Hampshire, Quinnipiac, Clarkson).
They sure looked bad there for a while, but the Big Red are turning it up at the right time. A lot is going in their favor. Expectations should be high because this team is capable of playing at the highest level. Still, they have not fully cleaned up the mess they made for themselves in January. If Cornell cannot clinch a top four spot for the ECACHL playoffs, they will make things awfully hard on themselves and severely dampen their chances at success. As fate would have it, they can erase the month of misery with a win in the place they almost never get one, Dartmouth. With almost everything else turned upside down of late (or right side up depending on how you look at things), it only makes sense that they change their fortune in the Live Free or Die state.
1. Troy Davenport
He shutout the number one offense in the ECACHL, stopping all 27 shots directed his way and then stopped 37 more the next night against Princeton. Davenport was spectacular at times, and had to be against Quinnipiac, or the outcome of that game could have very well been different. If he continues to play like he did this weekend, Cornell will have an opportunity to win every game they play, particularly with the way the offense is producing right now.
2. Byron Bitz
After turning in a relatively standard performance Friday night, Bitz broke out Saturday and played his best game of the season. Against Princeton, he put up two goals and two assists and subsequently moved into a first place tie with Topher Scott for the team lead in scoring. Where has that Bitz been all season? He played with a lot of emotion all weekend, but more importantly seemed to realize he was bigger than everyone on the ice and actually used it to his advantage. If Bitz plays like that every night from here on out, Cornell could truly become a force to be reckoned with. Against Dartmouth, the most physical team in the conference, he will need to play just like he did against Princeton. Bitz is not a finesse, setup guy who can make plays. Rather, he is the type who should always be around the net. If he uses his size effectively and uses his great reach and underrated shot, the offense will continue to come.
3. Mark McCutcheon
In honor of Senior Night, McCutcheon turned in arguably his best weekend of the season and definitely his best since the first road weekend of the ECACHL season. It is no coincidence that those are the only two four-point weekends of the season to date. McCutcheon seemed to have the puck a lot more and did a better job holding on to it and making better decisions. His confidence had clearly returned. Against Princeton, McCutcheon scored two powerplay goals just 56 seconds apart and also had an assist as well. McCutcheon has also been a streaky scorer and appears to be heating up at the right time.
What is the first powerplay unit now doing differently?
As was outlined a bit above, Evan Salmela has dramatically altered the first unit. He sees the ice extremely well and is decisive with the puck. Maybe more importantly, this allows Byron Bitz to toil down low around the net. The combination of these two forces opens up a whole lot of ice that has not been available. All of a sudden, there are a plethora of options available to Salmela who has the hockey sense and the vision to execute them.
Where will Mitch Carefoot play when he returns?
Should Carefoot make his return this weekend, there is no question where he will play: with Mike Kennedy and Tyler Mugford. For the first time this season, there is some continuity and stability among the lines and even though Chris Fontas has played very well, Carefoot will take his spot whenever he returns to the lineup.
Is it right for Cornell to retire Joe Nieuwendyk's number?
Maybe the better question is what warrants the retiring of a number. Regardless, the obvious response is that if Nieuwendyk's number 25 is being raised to the rafters, it only makes sense that Ken Dryden's number 1 be up beside it. After all, Dryden won a national championship at Cornell, something Nieuwendyk did not do. Even considering how successful Nieuwendyk's professional career was, Dryden's was unmatched. The difference, however, is that Nieuwendyk has endeared himself to Cornell in a way that Dryden has not. Even though Dryden had more success, Nieuwendyk has spent a lot more time in Ithaca and contributed a lot more to the program than Dryden has. Really, it can be argued back and forth, but when all is said and done, it is just a number in the rafters. What matters more, and Nieuwendyk would agree, is how many championship banners are beside it.
The showdown Friday night in Hanover is unquestionably the most important game of both teams' seasons. The winner will most likely end up in the top four and buy themselves a weekend off to prepare for the playoffs. Also at stake will be a valuable TUC win in the Pairwise Rankings. Interestingly, this could potentially vault Cornell into the top 14. Add all this to the fact that after Clarkson and St. Lawrence, these are the two hottest teams in the ECACHL. Both are capable of scoring a lot of goals and both like to play a physical game. Quick starts have been the recipe for Cornell during its recent surge as they have scored the first goal in the first period in each of their last six games. Look at each team's results and you'll see that they are very close to one another with very similar performances against common opponents.
Cornell 4 - Dartmouth 3
Along with Colgate, Harvard has been the most underachieving team in the ECACHL this season. They have struggled to a 10-15-2 record and have won just three times in their last ten games. The hated Crimson still have the capacity to play at a very high level, as was evident by their 4-0 win over Boston College earlier in the season. They were also the decidedly better team at Lynah in November when they lost in heartbreaking fashion. The team's strength is supposedly in keeping pucks out of their own net, but they haven't done that lately, giving up 11 goals in their last two games. Regardless of what happens on Friday night, Cornell needs to make a statement in Cambridge that they will beat down weaker opponents just as they did in Troy two weeks ago.
Cornell 5 - Harvard 3