Dartmouth, a rival it may never be, but a great test for mental toughness, it always is. The drama that was Harvard Week opened on Friday, January 22. One could tell from the second period of that game that Cornell was at a crossroads.
Act I: Aggravating Aperitif
The good news? It did not appear that the carnelian and white overlooked the wilderness yellers. If anything, Cornell's undoing appeared to be that it cared to beat Dartmouth too much; progress with pain's twinge, more on that later.
The first few Red shifts did not find sure footing. It was around the third or fourth shift when Trevor Yates took the ice that Cornell began to execute its game. It was not long-lived. There was a glimmer of hope that in the Big Red's obvious approach to slowing the game against Dartmouth down that it was avoiding burning itself out as to save effort and skill to win both contests last weekend. The first period expired with Cornell putting together a few good stretches of effort.
The unraveling came in the second period. First, physical territory was yielded. Dartmouth's Kilistoff meandered to the blue paint without a mark. Another misstep left a passing thruway. A targeted pass and a nice flick past Gillam put Cornell in a deficit. Then, psychological territory was yielded.
Cornell refused to lose to this team. Cornell roared back. Well, the hockey team wearing carnelian and white charged back. It was no longer playing like the cold and calculating machine of Cornell hockey. Sticks were not gripped. They were pulverized into splinters. The equalizer was needed, it seemed that the Red-wearing skaters thought, and it was needed now.
Not a single home skater stayed high. This lack of respect would cost the Big Red. Desperation became Cornell long before it should have. The clock still had 37:35 to toll. All Cornell players were below the Big Green's blue line. The Big Red had a net-front presence. Dartmouth had the chance of a wide-open rush the moment that the puck did not beat Charles Grant. Scrambling in undisciplined fashion, the Red could not stop the counterpunch. Dartmouth went up by two goals 37 seconds after it had scored its first. Cornell wanted to win too much.
This virtue became a vice as the Red stopped playing the team-first brand of hockey that has made all Cornell teams successful. The remainder of the game saw considerable individual efforts from Jeff Kubiak, Mitch Vanderlaan, and Reece Willcox. The team never harmonized. Inability to remain focused and collected damned the Big Red.
There it was, the weekend began in the worst way possible: a shutout-produced loss.
An endemic problem seemingly resolved has reappeared. Cornell has put more pucks on net than its opponent exactly twice since the first semester. This problem is not new. In the last four games of the first semester, opponents outshot the Big Red as well. Situationally, it is not always necessary to outshoot one's opponent. This is truer when a team plays a system like that of Cornell that puts the burden on its defense to defend late leads. So, how is Cornell doing in that regard?
Producing a greater total of shots is indicative of the tilt of the ice. Despite popular opinion, the ice need not be tilted in favor of a team at all times if that team is comfortable and disciplined in defensive execution. There are two situations in which a good team should have the ice at a disadvantageous angle for opponents: when that team is trailing or when teams are tied. As long as Cornell is producing more shots in those situations, there would be little to fear.
Well, you might not live on Elm Street, but there is plenty cause for nightmare in Cornell's situational figures. In periods in which the Red is either tied or chasing a contest, Cornell does not perform as it should. The Big Red undershoots its opponents 177 shots to 134 shots when Cornell seeks the equalizer or go-ahead goal. The statistic gets more disturbing when one considers it relative to the Red's seasonal shot-margin deficit.
Cornell has taken 24 fewer shots on net in all scenarios than has its opponents throughout the entire season. The Red totals 43 fewer shots when it chases a tie or seeks the lead. This indicates that when Cornell needs to rally to win a contest, it is being severely outplayed. The 43-shot deficit in critical situations is reduced only to the total deficit of 24 shots on the back of Cornell maintaining wide shot margins in contests when it already has a lead. Sustaining pressure is something that the Red should do. A wider chasm in periods when Cornell needs to score to earn a point or win proves that this team rarely takes its game to opponents. If this team desires a fulfilling close to the season, it will need to rectify this congenital deficiency.
Opponents have outshot Cornell in 13 games this season. All but one of Cornell's losses unsurprisingly is a subset of that group. Jason Kasdorf accounts for the other negative outcome. In the "new season," practice in playing in tied games and chasing leads has born some fruits. The Big Red has narrowed its percent deficit of shots taken when tied or trailing (a figure related to Corsi) by 3.25%. Opponents still take more than half of the shots in a contest when the Red needs to be the one finding the back of the net to salvage points from a tilt.
Three games in the "new season" witnessed a Cornell victory. Four games saw the opposite outcome. Cornell has beaten one opponent in 2016. Teams that Cornell has beaten in the "new season" are a combined 4-13-1 since second-semester play resumed. Cornell's résumé in this second season is one-ply.
Cornell has been shut out three times in its last eight games after beginning the season being shut out only once in 11 outings. The Red relies on only 1.88 goals per game to carry it to victory. Carnelian-and-white skaters provided Mitch Gillam a buffer of 3.09 goals per game from October through December. Only seven netminders in the country could average eking a positive result out of the Big Red's current offensive production.
The solution is clear. Cornell needs to go back to the old new. Coach Schafer opened preseason interviews sounding like LMFAO in his extolling the virtue of shots and the dividends that they pay. Now, Cornell is outshot in even the most dire of circumstances. Some anecdotal statistics indicate the success that follows when Cornell trusts its shots.
The Big Red outshot Providence ten to eight after the Upstate New Yorkers tied the contest. Victory ensued. It is no coincidence that the one period in which Harvard did not earn a goal (on anything other than an empty net), Cornell blitzed the Cantabs with 11 shots, nearly outproducing the Crimson two to one. Cornell took 55% of its shots in the final third of game play. Harvard is not a team to sit back. Imagine if Cornell had taken control of The Game earlier. What may have resulted?
A shooting culture needs to return to Cornell. Coach Schafer preached it earlier. It now appears to be a lost gospel. Cornell's dip in all-important winning correlates fairly closely with this let-off. A warming to the legacies of last season's seniors in the word choices of Schafer risks acceptance of their destinies. If the Big Red does not re-adopt the shooting- and scoring-oriented forecheck that wowed Jack Parker at Red Hot Hockey V, it can expect to end its season much like last year.
Act II: Unseasoned Cuisine
By the time the night was over, Colin Blackwell dampened the sod of his program's former drought thoroughly with the tears of the Lynah Faithful. The senior scored his first career goal against the Big Red just over two minutes into the contest. The moment that he unleashed the tensile strength of his shot from the left face-off dot, it appeared preordained that the 146th episode of this centuries-old drama would belong to the Baystaters. A freshman's second-ever goal and a primal yip from Kyle Criscuolo later, the result did not need to be as it eventually was.
Cornell was thoroughly bloodied. The hue of its sweater grew irony. Seconds raced off the clock. Lynah Faithful found themselves hoping that another Crimson skater would not pierce the rarefied air of their sanctum with another ecstatic whoop before the buzzer sounded. Coach Schafer could correct this in the locker room, especially during this game, they told themselves. Supporters of the carnelian and white did not need to wait for the stick breaker to work his magic.
Ryan Bliss found his opening goal of the season at the perfect moment. The twine behind Merrick Madsen buckled as the rafters rattled with the mixed ritualistic harassment and confusion of too many fans who know not yet the rites of the Faithful. The Red's trend of scoring late goals against its rival continued with Bliss' marker leaving the clock with just 14.4 seconds. Cornell has scored five of its 14 goals in its last five games against Harvard in the last 41 seconds of a period.
The Schafer-inspired squad hesitated little in narrowing its deficit before the final seconds of the second period. Trevor Yates informed the new congregants at Lynah Rink that his skills go behind creating time in space in the tight corridors around the net when he scored nearly as quickly in the second period as Harvard had in the first.
Cornell went down 3-0. It battled back in less than three minutes of game play to a one-goal deficit. This team rectified many one-goal deficits. It never corrected a two-goal error. Was it possible for the Big Red to do that and more in the season's most important regular-season game? Could the crowd's crushing cacophony and the Crimson catalyst curate this team's character?
New fans willing to pay a nearly 70% mark-up for tickets to The Game screamed and hollered in calls that offended the ears of the Lynah Faithful in their ignorance of decades of tradition and cluttered the air of its hymnal celebration. They know not what to do. They do not know why the game is important. They do not know this team. They certainly did not have sentences undrafted and tweets unsent invoking Game 63 racing through their minds when Yates sent the puck charging toward Section G. A few, the dedicated few who were forged that day, they will learn. Like this team, they will learn.
The magic of the contest was in the precious 17 minutes of the second period when carnelian-and-white skaters seemed to have erased the storyline that Harvard scribbled in the first period. Lynah Faithful, including this typically realistic writer, thought that the comeback was coming. The assembly in Lynah Rink believed that Cornell was going to realize the rally. What the Red gave the Lynah Faithful that night was precious belief.
A belief in the bright future of the season had not been so obvious since the win over then-undefeated Providence. A late-game collapse against Union that made a tie more like a loss and nightmare-inducing play against Dartmouth made most Lynah Faithful agnostic about the trajectory of this team. Cornell was on a horrific slide. Then, down 3-0 to its nemesis, in the depths of despair, it found a way to make its loyalists believe. It taught even the most ravenous consumers of information that they have not met this team yet.
The Game plays a crucial role in the ambitions of the programs who play it. Mike Schafer's senior season suffered obliteration at the hands of the Crimson at home and a sweep in the regular season. These setbacks fueled the grit that won the 1986 Whitelaw Cup. Does anyone think that Harvard's inability to beat Cornell last season despite how good it was at points played no role in the Crimson's tear through ECAC Hockey's postseason?
What is this team? The Game revealed some character. The team was half-formed at best. It instilled belief as it played Cornell hockey in a rally, but as soon as Harvard's lead was narrowed to one goal, selfish and asynchronous play returned which allowed the Crimson to reclaim control of the game. The Game is always a great teacher. Did this team attend class?
Coach Schafer offers a scathing critique of where the team is after a week of disappointingly equivocal and accommodating rhetoric. The failures that he identifies are not unlike those that this contributor notes. The head coach condemns his team's recent "refus[al] to shoot pucks" and "want[ing] to make one extra pass as opposed to putting it on net." These problems distill down to one of character in the mind of the championship-winning coach. "It goes back to work ethic and playing with a chip on your shoulder like you have something to prove."
A chip the size of the Whitelaw Cup that Colin Blackwell lifted in Lake Placid last season is planted firmly on the shoulders of this team. This team has no excuse as to why it cannot feel it there. A winless weekend at home should a vendetta make.
This writer promised quietly when the season began that he would not commit the cardinal sin of the Lynah Faithful: looking too far ahead to the playoffs, when real glory is earned, and not enjoy the ride of the regular season in the process. Well, the Adirondacks are calling and their serenade cuts all the more quickly to East Hill through the chill of the Red's recent performance in conference. This team may be on the brink of depriving another senior class at Cornell University of what Coach Schafer dubbed last season, "real senior night." The playoff picture develops without carnelian right now.
Cornell ended the first semester tied for most conference wins. The Big Red was closer to surpassing the winning rate of Quinnipiac than it was slipping into third place with Harvard. Cornell was 0.12 points per game off the paces of the Bobcats. The Upstate New Yorkers led Harvard by 0.25 points per game. Cornell was equally within the all-important top four.
The second semester sees Cornell earning 0.25 points per game. Yes, you read that right. Cornell's winning rate in the conference that it used to dominate and seemed positioned to dominate again this season fell by 84.7%. Nine teams slip above the Big Red in seeding consideration from the first semester. Ah, yes, the points from the first semester may seem like they are erased, but they remain. So, do they save the Red's hopes of a first-round bye?
Cornell averages 1.17 points per game. Dartmouth clawed its way up from a first-semester seventh place to a tie with the Big Red. The combatants from last Friday's contest tie at fifth. If the playoffs were held today, Cornell would have the benefit of home ice, but not real home ice. The Ithacans would leave on the table the ability to gain much-needed rest with a bye.
The first seed may be out of reach. The Bobcats earn more than one-half of a point per game more out of each contest. Arctic frost would need to befall Hamden to give coveters of participation trophies a chance. Good news can be found in two facts. Cornell still has more in-conference wins than does second-place RPI. Cornell is off the pace of prospective seeds two through four by 0.16 and 0.08 points per game, respectively. No program in those slots wins at Cornell's first-semester rate.
Ten conference games remain for the Big Red. Cornell has one game shy of an entire half of its in-conference slate available to prove that it deserves real home ice. It equally gives Cornell time to prove unequivocally right naysayers who expected a bottom-quarter finish. The grace of first-semester points is all that prevents the Red from slumping that low already.
This team fancied itself historic. Observers could tell. People rarely spoke it, but entering the break, some fans prematurely thought of them as a reborn 2002-03 team. Both teams had only one loss in the first semester. However, by this point in that historic season, Cornell had 17 wins. This team still is tied with last season's 11 wins. A chance at history lies before it.
Cornell has not swept in the North Country in more than a decade. The Big Red completed its last road sweep of the North Country at 9:13 pm on February 26, 2005. Winners of NCAA tournament games and a Whitelaw Cup have come and gone. They have not completed the feat. There it is, right before this team: Make history, sweep the North Country.
A sweep would begin Cornell's needed climb to a top-four finish. Victories in Potsdam and Canton would combine to equate to at least the emotional equivalent of beating Harvard at Lynah Rink. Can the chip left from The Game propel this team to break one of Cornell's most widely known droughts in Eastern hockey?
If Cornell returns to a shooting mentality and takes controls of games as it could during the first semester when it was tied or trailed, this team may be able to break a nearly 11-year streak for the Golden Knights and Saints. Coach Schafer knows what will happen if the Big Red does not return to that style of play, "if we play any other way, we are very pedestrian."
Clarkson opens the weekend. The Golden Knights have played only one contest without earning a point in the new semester after going winless in conference in the first semester. The Saints, much like Cornell, despite falling on bad times, are not to be underestimated. This reversal of the quality of the teams from when the Big Red played them at Lynah Rink presents a psychological test. Can Cornell respect its opponents to know the efforts required to deliver victory even if these teams may be playing the reverse from what they were in December? Neither program can be disrespected if history is sought.
The daunting gauntlet of the North Country is thrown this weekend.