The rhythm of this team is not one of a high-tempo, driving beat, but rather a subtle, building, and seething angst. If this team at this moment were reduced to musical form, it would be a hard-rock band. Detroit is "rock city" and it is fitting that on senior weekend it took a Michigander to stoke the anthem of this team. John McCarron became a restless soul possessed by a chip, or anger, call it what you will, but he willed his team to its first point of the weekend from a two-goal deficit.
So, like all great frontmen, McCarron managed to cover for a less-than-stellar display. Cornell hockey fandom found the display on last Friday evening a little garish and hapless. The Red dominated the first period and did not convert on opportunities that may have put the Engineers down by just one or two goals but would have done a great deal to wound the psyche of Seth Appert's team. Hockey is a game of psychology and the Big Red did all it could to help RPI find balance at Lynah Rink. Louie Nanne did Louie-Nanne things (converting in less than two seconds on Cornell's lost puck battle along the boards) and another defensive zone misplay gave RPI control of the game.
Cornell's physicality disappeared in the second frame. Miscommunication and disorganization plagued the team's defensive-zone play like few other times this season. Perhaps it was all for a gratuitous display of bravado. Cornell spotted an opponent a two-goal lead, much like the week before, just to see if it could erase it again.
Well, it did erase it. It was fun. The image of John McCarron, in his Pink-the-Rink jersey, flailing his arms toward the rafters to goad the already boisterous student section to get louder is one that will remain with me.
As exciting as it was, it was much like that interlude or guitar riff in at least one song from all great hard-rock bands that seems like it may go a little too far. Not because it is not enjoyable or exciting, but because it is either too mainstream or untrue to the group's roots.
Friday's game was disloyal to this team's roots. So, against Dartmouth and RPI, Cornell proved that it can erase an opponent's two-goal lead. Let's not get fancy and do it often. This writer was surely not alone when thinking after the RPI game, "well, that was fun. Shall we not do it again?"
It is reassuring to know that this team can mount tremendous comebacks. Proving so does not need to become a habit. This team should bury that reality deep in its subconscious. It should be called upon only if it is needed in the playoffs. Defense is the cornerstone of this team as it is of this program. College hockey fans know that Schafer is a defensive mastermind. Ben Syer deserves tremendous credit for his contributions to the corps of defensemen and penalty killing unit.
If Schafer is the president, Ben Syer is the secretary of state. Just listening to Coach Syer for a moment and one becomes keenly aware that he is a perfectionist. This writer is convinced that Syer is not satisfied if Mitch Gillam or Hayden Stewart face even one Grade-A chance during the normal course of a contest. Such precision and attention to detail is to be lauded. One can see why Schafer trusts Syer to assist in managing what is the bread and butter of Cornell hockey.
Heck, at times, one who listens to Ben Syer's press conferences may conclude that he does not even want the Big Red to surrender any opposing shots in its defensive end. That goal may be unattainable, but it shows the lofty goals that Cornell's associate head coach sets from the crease outward for the Red. When events arise like Saturday when Schafer could not manage the bench, everyone knows that Cornell hockey is in able hands with Ben Syer and Topher Scott.
Perfection is the goal for and mantra of the carnelian-and-white defense. How has performance compared relative to aspiration? Cornell averaged allowing its opposition 29.62 shots per game in the first half of this season. That figure has dipped by a factor of 10.8% to an average of 26.43 shots allowed per game in the second half. That seems like it should be a favorable omen. A look deeper into the statistical performance of the team may bear ill omens.
A greater-than-10% decrease in number of shots that opponents have unleashed has not corresponded to a decrease in the number of goals allowed. In fact, opponents have been appreciably more proficient (27.8% more) at finding the back of the Red net than they were in the first half of the season. The Big Red allowed opponents to convert on an average of only 5.47% of shots in the first half. Challengers in the second half have averaged converting 7.83% of their shots into tallies on the scoreboard. This is alarming, especially for a team that lives and dies by patient defense.
One could conclude from this downturn that Cornell's defense has taken a step backward. The revolving door that injuries have pushed on the blue line could be to blame. However, championship season is approaching quickly, and finding a way to win is paramount. If the err lies in Cornell's more frequent surrendering of high-probability chances (a conclusion that finds little support in the observations of this writer), Schafer and Syer will remedy it. The likely culprit lies at the other end of the ice.
Cornell has done too much waiting and not enough pouncing in the second half. The Red has taken the game to its opponents less in the second half than it did during its run of success in the first. Illustratively, Cornell's average shots on goal for dropped between the halves.
To paraphrase a Schaferian cliché, the best defense is keeping the puck 180 feet away from your team's net. The Red has failed to do that as effectively in the second half. Cornell, as a team, needs to harness the driving tempo and reigned-in rage that fueled John McCarron's push for two goals to tie RPI and motivate his home crowd. If it does so, it can again take its game to its opponents.
Cornell's winning streak in the first half started with a series against Brown and Yale. Fittingly, Brown and Yale are the opponents that will close out the Red's regular season when Cornell looks to go on another run. The Bears and Bulldogs will not be willing catalysts. Brown has been the hottest team in ECAC Hockey since a week before Valentine's Day. The Bears own a 0.900 winning percentage since then and have not lost in five outings. The league's best defense over that run has been the backbone of the Bears's recent success.
Yale's game has not changed since earlier in the season. Its name may have changed from seasons past, but this squad of Keith Allain forges its success with solid defensive play. Far gone seems the era when Allain's team would be praised for its Tarasovian-like creativity and speed. Its disciplined, slower-paced, and defense-first antithesis is the new normal. The Elis are always a grand test for Cornell. One narrative emerges in this series. When your enemy becomes you, who has really won? Now, Cornell needs to make concrete results of that truism.
Last weekend, Jeff Kubiak proved very worthy of the high praise that this writer gave him. Kubiak nearly finished with an overtime goal the task that John McCarron began in the third period. A tight-angle pass from Buckles was rifled on net by Kubiak. The shot cleanly beat Kasdorf. It struck the far post squarely and took an Engineers's bounce. The sophomore's game continues to deliver the little things that Cornell needs. With moments like those, bigger things may be expected of him.
Jeff Kubiak was not the lone standout. The gritty and relentless play of Dwyer Tschantz has become equally common and disruptive for challengers. Tschantz tucked away Cornell's first goal against the Dutchmen by outmuscling Stevens in the crease. One would be hard pressed to find a goal more archetypically Cornellian than that one.
Finally, remember not converting on breakaways? John Knisley certainly did his best against Union to give the Lynah Faithful shared amnesia about the time when Cornell could not. If other sequences had not transpired, it may have been the antidote.
The RPI contest at Lynah Rink would have gone very differently had Cornell converted on a shorthanded breakaway in which Kasdorf gifted the Red skaters a succulent rebound. The psychological effect of that goal would have more than surpassed its statistical value. Knisley can try as he may (and, this writer hopes he does much more) to make us forget, but failure to convert on bountiful transition plays will mount to hurt the Big Red to an even greater degree in the playoffs.
The Red needs to take its game to its opponents. It should refuse to sit back like it has at times in the second half. This team should grow neither restless nor complacent in a close battle. Those are Cornell's games to win. A team that relies so much on passion while playing calmly needs to explode like a back draft filling a void when opportunities are given.