The quarterfinal round of the 2014 ECAC Hockey Championships concluded late Sunday evening. Colgate, Quinnipiac, and Union dispatched with their respective challengers in two games. Clarkson was the lone competitor from the first round of the playoffs to take its host to three games. The Golden Knights did more than that. It took just over 12 minutes of overtime for Cornell to defeat the green and goldenrod.
Quarterfinal rounds around the Conference resembled one another. With few exceptions, one goal effectively decided those games that the host seed won. Fortune assisted inflation of Union's winning margins over Dartmouth. The Dutchmen punched in only one goal in game one that did not come from a penalty shot or an empty-net tally. The second contest in Schenectady included an empty-net goal. The four teams that remain advanced with 75% of the contests in the playoffs being decided by one goal. Quinnipiac is the lone exception. The Bobcats never allowed that series to be in question. Otherwise, parity and poise were the hallmarks of all contests in the quarterfinal installments of this postseason to date.
The semifinals are set. The brackets in Lake Placid represent 15 of the 52 Whitelaw Cups that have been won in the history of ECAC Hockey. Cornell accounts for 12 of that total. Intuition makes one inclined to believe that at least one of the contests in Lake Placid will not be as closely contested as the majority of the contests in the quarterfinal round. Will Colgate find its oppressive and smothering scoring? Can Quinnipiac continue its postseason dominance? Can Union bear the weight of history and media expectations about its chance to begin an attempt to tie a historic record? Can Cornell's offensively skilled players step up to deliver what their program demands at this time of season?
The second chapter in the new season begins. Cornell was the team tasked with defeating the best opponent in the quaterfinal round. The Big Red accomplished that feat. Games one and three of the series were the epitome of dominance and control. Neither game, even when headed into overtime, seemed out of Cornell's dictation. Game three showed a slight collapse. Suffice it to say that it is good to have gotten that out of Cornell's system before games where a loss has more drastic consequences.
Union has the second-most prolific offense in terms of goals per game in the playoffs. The Bobcats dwarf the Dutchmen's output by two goals per game. Any guesses who is third on the list? Not Colgate. RPI takes the honors of third place. The Engineers hit the links a week ago despite what appear to be intimidating offensive numbers in the playoffs.
Union is the best defensive team remaining. Cornell is the second best standing. The opponent that Cornell defeated, Clarkson, is second to Union. Cornell's preparation for last series will resemble those for its coming contest. The style of the quarterfinal series and the semifinal match-up between Cornell and Union will be similar. Despite somewhat inflated scores from last weekend, Union averaged two goals per game when normalized for empty-net goals and penalty shots.
Special teams may have been the actual and expected story of last weekend. It is hard to say if they will be in the coming semifinal game. Oddly, Cornell and Union are the third- and second-worst power-play units that have taken the ice in any round of the playoffs. Union is marginally better than Cornell on the penalty kill. The Big Red and Dutchmen have both allowed two power-play goals in the postseason. Cornell earned that mark against the best power-play unit from the first round while Union achieved its similar rate against the third-worst power-play unit from the first round.
Cornell's power-play unit needs to improve. This may amount to belaboring the point, but if Cornell wants its run to continue, pucks will need to find themselves in the back of opponent's nets while Cornell enjoys a man advantage. In 2012, Cornell's play on special teams was suspect and frustrating. It clicked at the right time against Michigan. Coach Schafer needs to have fine tuned special teams this week to render Cornell a more efficient machine in the deconstruction of opponents.
Union did not dominate against Dartmouth the way that many have indicated they have. The game was fairly evenly contested, despite the scores. The opposite can be said of games one and three of Cornell's series. Despite the close score, Cornell controlled the pace and flow of the game. Assuming somewhat dubiously that shots-on-goal differentials represent territorial advantage, Cornell is second in terms of territorial advantage. Union is at the median of the Conference and last of all teams still playing.
Special teams may give a slight edge to Union with its more shut-down penalty kill. Cornell's consistent dominance over a better opponent than that Union faced indicates that on even strength, the ice may tilt in Cornell's favor. Oh, the ice, apparently it is bigger. Who knew? Does that present an advantage to either team? Anecdotally, it favors the faster team. However, that does not yield an answer. There is only one team that Cornell has confronted that was appreciably faster. It was not Union.
Goaltending could become quickly the story of the semifinal battle. The match-up pits the two best remaining goaltenders against one another. Iles saluted his adoring hometown crowd with his best performance of his career at Lynah Rink. Stevens pitched a no-goal game at Messa Rink for Union's game-one victory. A 0.970 save percentage belongs to Stevens while Iles owns a 0.939 save percentage. That may be the whole story.
It probably is not. Goaltenders, even their save percentages, are products of their team defense to a great extent. Union's defense has been lagging behind that of Cornell. Stevens saw more rubber in 120 minutes of play than did Iles in 192:32. Iles's depreciated save percentage is a product of the fact that the Big Red has allowed a mere 22 shots per game. Last series, Iles outdueled Perry, a goaltender with a slightly higher save percentage. The real metric of a goaltender this time of season is whether he does what is necessary. Three years of Iles between the pipes in the postseason indicate he has the ability to go to another level to give his team a chance to win.
Unsurprisingly, Carr seems Union's go-to scorer in his last playoff run. He has scored three goals. One was off of a penalty shot. The other was into an untended net. Otherwise, Union resembles Cornell. There is no distinct reliance on any given line or player. Each generates well. Every other goal Union scored was scored by a different goal scorer. Cornell's four goals over the weekend were from different players.
There is one glaring absence from Union's scoring list. Gostisbehere, the program's vaunted defenseman, was silent in the first series of the playoffs. He scored no goals. He tallied no assists. Ryan, Cornell's offensive blueliner, recorded an assist on the overtime winner and scored the game-winning goal in the playoff's initial series. The blue line propelled Cornell last series.
At both ends of the ice, Cornell's blueliners frustrated Clarkson. Last weekend may have been the emergence of Clint Lewis as a responsible and reliable presence in Cornell's end. His smoothness and lack of hesitation proved vital in defusing many of Clarkson's most dangerous challenges on the fringe of the blue paint. MacDonald and Gotovets were as durable as ever with senior defenseman Gotovets deciding to try his hand at the other end of the ice opening Cornell's playoff scoring.
Patrick McCarron? What can I say? He found a way to score when no other skater in red could. His skating is smooth and his shots well placed. It would not be surprising if he found the way to be the difference again this postseason. Bullishness about freshmen emerged over the weekend. Some of Cornell's best chances came from Buckles, Kubiak, and Weidner.
The freshmen are cordially invited to any scoring that may come in the playoffs. The Red upperclassmen need to finish the chances they develop. Cornell has generated innumerable high quality and high probability chances, but finished a mere four of them in the postseason. Necessity is the mandate of scoring, not some self-important desire for puffing. The purpose is not to light as many bulbs in the scoreboard as possible, but to put the game away when Cornell has earned the privilege of doing so. Bardreau, Ferlin, Hilbrich, Lowry, and J. McCarron have generated a majority of chances. This weekend, Cornell will need to lean on them to convert when others may be unable to find a way.
Much has been made of the fact that Cornell scored a mere four goals in the quarterfinal series while Clarkson scored five. Cornell, its forwards, defensemen, and goaltender, did what was necessary to win a series against a hard-hitting and sound opponent. Would it have been nice to put a few more pucks into Perry's net? Perhaps, from a self-aggrandizing standpoint, it may have been. Was it necessary? Evidently not.
A well circulated quote from the world's most consequential single-elimination tournament in hockey captures the true irrelevance of gaudy offensive numbers. Harangued by reporters about his team's lack of offensive production during its run to a gold medal, Mike Babcock remarked "does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care? Does anyone know who won the gold medal? See you, guys." The quote embodies the ethos of modern Cornell hockey: score when needed, defend always, and win. People remember champions and hardware, not statistical categories. Cornell needs to prove that it can do what is needed to be champions like generations of wearers of the carnelian and white.