Win streaks of three and four games constituted the decade of games that passed without a loss. The ability to win games consecutively pay dividends when the second season arrives. Four games, conveniently, is the number that Cornell must win to bring an ECAC Hockey Championship back to East Hill. Three victories are required to win a national championship.
Those winning streaks contained wins of every variety that a championship-calibre team must be expected to win. There were games that Cornell should have entered expecting to win, particularly the meeting with an improved, but still beatable, Syracuse. There were games littered with emotion like that against Clarkson in the North Country (can we just name it the Jessica N. Brown Arena of Domination already?). There were games with pesky opponents whom Cornell should best but never could take for granted, in the guise of the respectable defense of Brown and a better-than-advertised, pesky Yale squad. There was a contest against a historic foe that Cornell found not only a way to win, but dominate, in the tilt with the Terriers. In other words, the ladies in carnelian have proven that they have the capacity to realize playoff glory.
Why did the streak end? Did Cornell's fuse run out? Was Harvard simply too good? Did the programmatic and institutional catharsis after the men's hockey team bested the Crimson prove too much to manage the next day? All but the lattermost are entirely untrue. The ultimate is likely inaccurate. The real culprit is far more reasonable. Its unsettling is proportionate to its reason.
In Cornell's run of ten games without a loss, four of the contests have been played without Doug Derraugh's preferred numbers. The season opened with the Big Red dressing 19 players against Boston College. Last weekend against Dartmouth and Harvard, the Lady Rouge dressed 13 and 14 skaters, respectively. The Red's numbers are depleted.
The 11 games that have passed since the Minnesota-Duluth series witnessed only ten skaters dress for all of the contests. The reasoning behind rotations in and out of college-hockey line-ups can be indiscernible, but the Lady Rouge have lost as many as 18 player-games due to injury during this 11-game span. The figure is likely lower, but serves as a model for envisioning with how short of a bench that Cornell has been playing.
Jill Saulnier has made her game more versatile. She has lost little on her offensive game from last season despite the return of Brianne Jenner, rise of production from underclassmen, and arrival of offensively skilled freshmen. The Nova Scotian is now a defensive marvel with her shot-blocking and puck-pressuring. Others may lead the team in goals or points, but few on this squad would have as high of a Corsi number for tilting the ice in Cornell's favor as she.
The loss of Jill Saulnier to injury should have proven fatal to this team. The senior, even when she is not scoring, relieves pressure on the Big Red's oft-tested backside. So, when she went down during the second game against the Elis, Cornell should have been doomed. It was not.
The team missed her sorely, but it found a way to win. One goal and a superb defensive effort in front of a jaw-dropping 41-save effort from Paula masked what would have been in most cases a season-altering storyline. Make no mistake, Jill is missed and will be missed until she returns, but impressively Cornell found a way to win two out of three games after she suffered an injury. The injury woes did not end there.
Hanna Bunton did not appear in either game last weekend. The reported cause was injury. Within two games' span, the Lady Rouge lost ice-tilting extraordinaire Saulnier and the forward with the second-greatest rate of shot blocking. Cornell toppled a Dartmouth team that was a week removed from defeating Harvard. These absences are just the most ostentatious absences of late. This team has rallied around defense and exploited opportunity.
Unlike some of the juggernaut squads of other seasons like the 2010-11 team, this team has needed to prove that it can play defense with discipline and confidence. It does so often. It generates pressure, but Cornell can no longer walk over most of its opponents like it could just seasons ago. The rise of parity in women's hockey increases the need to win on strength of character. This trend is to Cornell's favor. This team has real character.
Players have stepped up to increase their offensive production. Four of the top five scorers for Cornell have remained the same before the unbeaten run. So, how can one believe that players have stepped up to put together such an impressive run? The answer is obvious. The top point producing players on the team averaged increases in their point production by 120% from the first nine games of the season and the 11-game run. 120%.
Let that settle. The leader of this group of six points-per-game producers during that run was Jess Brown. The Cat Lady was surely on the prowl during the last 11 games. She produced points at a rate of 395% more than she had in the first nine games of the regular season.
The calls of vite vite pay dividends. Poudrier follows Brown closely with a positive production differential of 232%. Captain Brianne Jenner averages nearly two points per game now. She increased her output by over 90%, an astounding figure that the increases of other players dwarf still.
If Cornell is such a great team and so many trajectory lines indicate that the Big Red is improving at an impressive rate, why did it lose so deflatingly to its archrival? The answer is simple. No amount of spin from Katey Stone can mask how the Crimson beat Cornell. Sorry, Coach Stone, your team is neither the Minnesota Gophers nor the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. It was not speed and finesse that defeated Cornell, it was the Red's depleted numbers.
Harvard player Miye D'Oench boasted after the win, "Cornell has a really short bench, so we really wore them down with relentless forechecking and backchecking. By the end of the game, they really didn’t have that much left in the tank, so we were able to bury them." It was not quickness or creativity. No terms that Stone uses to distinguish Cornellian and Canadian hockey from their Harvardian and American counterparts to disparage the former and exalt the latter can change that.
Harvard played aggressive, hard hockey that wore down a team with an anemic roster. The Crimson did what any great team would do. It did what Cornell would have done if the tables were turned. Harvard is not a better team. Harvard was a healthier team, which made it the better team for those 60 minutes. One needs to recall only how the regular season and postseason of last season went to avoid panicking about a loss to the Cantabs. Cornell will have at least one more chance.
The focus is now on the next run. This writer is never one who demands winning out the regular season to get to the playoffs so long as the Lady Rouge wins in series of four and three games to occupy space above hallowed ice. Cornell has the personnel to carry itself on such a run.
Kaitlin Doering and sometimes-forward-sometimes-defenseman Taylor Woods have put together impressive seasons. They look to continue to do so. Erin O'Connor, the Harvard rejector, glimmers of the possibility of being a blueliner unlike any that Cornell hockey has known during the NCAA era. Her comfort and speed in the offensive zone render her a continuous, rather than momentary, scoring threat whenever she is on the ice. O'Connor's defensive play has refined over recent weeks.
Any article about this team would be remiss without discussing Big Paula (we're all cool on that name, right?). The Shanty Bay native has become one of the most dominant goaltenders in the nation. Her save percentage places her among the nation's élite. Impressively, her performance trailed that of three-season starter and honorable adversary Emerance Maschmeyer, a goaltender whose talents are renowned, by merely two-tenths of one percent over Cornell's last 11 games.
Paula's potential is now known. She is a game-changing goaltender. She was the difference early against Boston University. The sophomore made Marie-Philip Poulin look unthreatening for most of that contest. The Yale contest would have gone differently if Voorheis was not there to weather the storm. Paula's save percentage of 0.950 and defensive play in front of her produced one of the nation's ten lowest goals-against average since the Minnesota-Duluth series.
Cornell has its eyes locked on another streak. It will be rejuvenated as the playoffs approach. The returns of players like Bunton and Saulnier are unclear. The debut of Sydnee Saracco is expected around the playoffs. She will provide yet another spark. When former 30-goal scorer Doug Derraugh describes her as an offensive threat with a natural scoring ability, one cannot help but look ahead to her first time in the Cornell sweater. Cornell will have the boosts to continue to improve over the course of the season as it did over the last run of 11 games. Health will return. There is one thing key not to forget.
Battling injuries, Cornell went on a 7-3-1 run. What is the amazing part about this? Cornell continued to win.
Where will the next run take us?