Josh Lyman: (sighs) Yeah. What happened to the good old days when...a couple of hacks with cigars chose the nominee in a smoke-filled back room?
There is a fundamental flaw in most rationales defending the pairwise rating for women's ice hockey. The arguments contend that because the system is mathematical and statistical, it is just. Foolhardiness abounds in such thoughts because truly someone has not reveled in the art of statistical manipulation if one believes statistics mine objective facts.
Averting descent into the abyss of metaphysics, consider the other point raised. That point is that somehow the pairwise rating regime is just because it is "open" and "transparent." A system does not yield better results just because it is done in open daylight. This reality is starker when it involves semi-complex statistical models that most fans find confusing.
A mathematical model is not self-legitimizing. A model is only as good as its parameters. Fans and media seem to forget this reality. Those in that camp would do themselves well to consult South Park's "Margaritaville." The episode concerns worshiping the economy as a natural phenomenon of immutable power and utility. Fans and media view the pairwise in much the same way. Both are equally comical.
This is not a call to dismantle the system. It is one to re-evaluate its results. Consider this an invitation for conversation.
Firstly, let's get one piece of rhetoric out of the way. Fairness is treating constituents in the same manner. Fairness is cold and indifferent. Justice, now, is a concept that cracks the door for subjectivity.
The selection process for the national tournament in women's ice hockey is fair. In theory, each team is subjected to the same model and the best eight teams in the nation emerge. This does not shield it from being unjust in its results.
Tradition has become the final refuge of defending the pairwise. It is how the national-tournament field has been decided for several seasons, so it must be how it will be decided evermore. The collegiate sporting landscape bears the fruit of a great thought experiment in another sport. Hockey, for many reasons, does not take its cues from football, but consider the first College Football Playoff and the advent of a four-team national playoff field.
A four-team field for the College Football Playoff generates no less controversy than the eight-team field for the NCAA tournament in women's ice hockey. Let the debates surrounding that postseason's selection guide this thought experiment.
Who did not make the final four of the College Football Playoff that many thought should have? Baylor University and Texas Christian University are the consensus answers on that point. The majority agrees that only one of those two should have made it. Why did neither make it? The Big 12 does not have a championship game.
The committee for the College Football Playoff refused to reward a conference's choice to have co-champions and avoid a deciding clash. The lesson of this expands beyond football. Playoffs matter. Conference playoffs matter on the national stage. They vet out the unhoned as undeserving of a chance to play on the national stage. If a hypothetical postseason for the Big 12, a conference founded in 1994, would have mattered to the College Football Playoff committee, then across sports, the conference tournament of ECAC Hockey, a women's ice hockey conference one decade older than the Big 12, should matter greatly.
Reader, indulge this writer and continue down the line of this thought experiment. If the College Football Playoff expanded to eight teams, which teams would be most likely to have been added next? Baylor and TCU would have their advocates. However, how would the remainder be filled? A large contingent would want runners-up Arizona, Georgia Tech, Missouri, and Wisconsin included. They would be legitimized in that belief. Otherwise, the conference playoffs do not matter.
The final College Football Playoff ranking does not include in the top eight any teams that finished below an effective third place in their conference's respective postseason. That reality is telling. The postseason matters. Winning a conference championship matters. A close second is competing for one zealously.
College football at the highest level is in its nascent stages of developing postseason play. College hockey is not. College football has at most one round of postseason play at the conference level. College hockey on the women's ice hockey side has three rounds in each conference. A larger sample size, including first-round series, ensures that aberrations do not sway which teams advance through the conference-level postseason. The playoffs in each conference siphon off the weaker teams and prove which teams are in the best postseason form in a way unequaled in college football.
Why then is it in college hockey that teams that finished below second and third places in their conference's postseason found their way into the national-tournament field? Oh, yeah, "math." Why are the parameters of the model legitimate? Oh, yeah, because that is how it has been done for years. It is a perversion that teams that could not prove they deserved to compete for being the best in their conference are afforded the opportunity to compete to prove they are the best in the nation.
Clarkson, Minnesota, and Quinnipiac did not qualify for their conference's championship game. Quinnipiac finished third. Clarkson and Minnesota finished fourth in the postseason. Runners-up Bemidji State, Cornell, and Syracuse were excluded. Did their exclusion make the coming tournament better or worse?
The purpose of the committee in crafting a national tournament is twofold: select the most deserving teams or give fans the best tournament possible. A general assumption deferring to conference tournaments accomplishes both. How can a team prove its deservingness by dropping out of its conference's first or second round of the playoffs to an opponent regarded as inferior? It cannot. It is the upsetter, not the upsettee, that proved its deservingness. The best tournament is created when conference champions and runners-up are admitted because teams that have made weeks-deep playoff runs have proven their postseason form.
Giving second life to teams that exited at the midpoint of conference tournaments achieves neither goal. Despite the points made so far, this is not an argument that the system should admit immediately conference runners-up. It is a plea for subjectivity. The same subjectivity that wafted through the smoke-filled rooms that Josh and Leo reference in the opening quote. Canvassers at caucuses did not choose candidates for running a good campaign over the long haul. Instead, they elected those who were resonating with the right chords at the right moment and a general subjective appeal to the timber of which they knew a candidate was, often without empirical evidence to support it.
The College Football Playoff reinvigorated a similar reasoned committee-based approach to collegiate sports. It would serve well college hockey, especially women's ice hockey with a field so small, to follow suit. College hockey once had the smoke-filled room. Some of the greatest programs rose and prospered during that era. Michigan would lack many of its nine national championships without the dense nicotine-laden fog of a conference hall. What would this national tournament look like if the majority of the committee did not feel imprisoned by the pairwise?
Why is Minnesota in the tournament? No, that is not rhetorical. Why are the Gophers in this tournament? Minnesota has had a fine season. It did not have a fine 2015 WCHA tournament. Minnesota, the first seed, fell to fifth-seed Bemidji State in the WCHA semifinals. Oh, yeah, it was a fluke, right? Nope. The Beavers downed Minnesota once in the regular season too.
The Gophers finished fourth in the WCHA tournament. Fourth. North Dakota, Bemidji State, and Wisconsin finished above them. Why are they in the national tournament? If it is because they are so good that they deserve it, then don't the Beavers deserve a shot at the national title for downing such a team of epic talent and undeniable potential?
Apparently not. A more just model would reward the Beavers for a game that they should not have won and punish Minnesota for a game that it should not have lost. Currently, Minnesota was unscathed (yes, the first seed overall is the definition of being unscathed) by the loss and Bemidji State gained no benefit for its victory. The WCHA tournament proved that three teams were more deserving of a national-tournament berth than was Minnesota.
Quinnipiac was another third-place finisher to make the field. A reasoned committee would not have put the Bobcats in the field. How do they make the tournament better? The answer is that they do not. Last season, yes, they would have. Quinnipiac had a phenomenal break-out season last year. It deserved more than the opportunity to begin the national tournament to see if it could seek the national championship on its home ice. The contributors of Where Angels Fear to Tread were disappointed. That narrative and their impressive play earned the Bobcats the right to seek romantic glory.
This season? The Bobcats are just another team finishing below second place that failed to win its conference championship for the second season in a row. In all honesty, their inclusion feels like a make-up choice for an egregious error last season.
Clarkson is the lone team that did not finish as a runner-up that this writer believes deserved to make the national-tournament field on the strength of its conference tournament play and other considerations. Clarkson finished fourth in the ECAC Hockey tournament. The Golden Knights and the Gophers are the lowest conference playoff finishers. Why did the former deserve the right to advance to the national tournament but the latter did not under a reasoned approach?
Clarkson is the defending national champion. The defending champion deserves an abundance of deference in its favor to attempt to defend its title. Last season's national runner-up deserves no such deference.
On the Cornell front, two ECAC Hockey teams deserved to be in the national tournament more than Cornell on a holistic, reasoned approach. Harvard, the Crimson won on the ice in the purest metric. Clarkson, the defending national champion. Were ECAC Hockey to get three teams into the national tournament, the Big Red should have been third.
A field that contains eight programs that four conferences populate with autobids is too influenced by conference postseasons to deny their role in discerning which teams are most worthy to contend for the national title. A reasoned committee would defer to the collective judgment of the results of conference tournaments. Four conferences, four tournaments, four champions and four runners-up. The means of populating the national-tournament field become self-evident.
Katey Stone, the revered coach of Harvard hockey, recently expressed a desire for the field of the national tournament to expand beyond eight teams. Her point is well-taken. Too many teams of proven playoff form are left to sit back at home. However, expanding the NCAA tournament field is not the best means to realize her goal.
An invitation to the NCAA tournament should recognize a team for its elite performance. A team that earns its way into the NCAA tournament in men's ice hockey establishes itself as roughly falling in the top quartile of all programs in the nation. The NCAA tournament for women's ice hockey, with an eight-field team and 34 eligible programs, similarly recognizes teams as being among the top quartile in the nation. Expanding the tournament to 10, 12, or 16 teams devalues the worth of the tournament and the acclaim of invitation.
To achieve Katey Stone's goal, the national tournament should subsume all conference tournaments. Every team begins the postseason in a conference tournament. Every team is immediately eligible for the national tournament. Every team that proves its timber with a decent showing, a subjective standard that a reasoned committee could discern, in the playoffs would be rewarded with an extended season to test its playoff form against the other remaining bests in the nation.
Finally, for those defending the pairwise as producing the most just and best national tournament possible until this point, consider the following. The greatest attribute of the current pairwise system is its predictability in its alleged transparency. Why then when the dust of all competition settled was Cornell tied for seventh in the pairwise until the committee "corrected" or "readjusted" the results to slide the Big Red down to a tie for ninth? Yes, a tie for seventh is no guarantee for invitation to the tournament, but if the system is transparent and not subject to the whims of the committee, why did the Red slide several rungs? Programs that are currently in the field passed Cornell from lower anticipated seeds.
Humorously, with considerations like these, tradition is now the main reason why people defend the pairwise rating system. Without the honesty to admit as much, the field was chosen under some unknown criteria that moved some programs up and others down after all games had been played. A reasoned committee would feel no need, much like the committee behind the College Football Playoff, to justify its opinions. A committee and a process that wraps itself in the emperor's clothing of fair, cold, calculated mathematical reasoning should be afforded no such comfort in the face of such inconsistencies.
The announcement of the national field was delayed 30 minutes. One can hope that the committee was doing some soul searching and realizing that its current system is failed. The committee did not give the fans the best tournament this season. How could it when one of the best playoff players in college hockey is soaking up her last few weeks on East Hill?
We live in an era when human reason is trusted more than mathematical models. Perhaps more than ever, the limitations of analytic measures are becoming obvious. Predictions of elections endure but one mere cycle and the value of players on professional rosters can be miscalculated grossly. The College Football Playoff with its committee of reasonable members manifests this trend toward favoring human judgment and justice over algorithms and fairness. It is time that the NCAA selection committee aligns with this era, especially on the side of women's ice hockey.
As someone who employs, creates, and deciphers analytics and mathematical models, it pains me on some level to argue against the pairwise rating system. It becomes easier when in the last several seasons, the committee, behind the false veil of objectivity, has "corrected" or "modified" the final rankings in women's ice hockey to justify their choices ex post.
Expose this already present subjectivity to the light of day and allow a reasoned committee to select the eight best teams in the nation based upon their overall performances with extreme prejudice in favor of deep runs into conference playoffs. Anyone who thinks this inappropriately punishes teams that had great regular seasons needs to consider about what this is. This is about the playoffs. It is about teams earning their way into the tournament on the merit of their postseason performances.
Heck, if you want to reward regular-season performances, why not create the Director's Trophy? Mark Emmert can present the trophy to the winner in a center-ice ceremony after the winner has completed the best regular season. It would become college hockey's equivalent of the Presidents' Trophy.
The hockey postseason is meant to be earned and contested on the ice. Worth is proven through competition. Rewarding third and fourth place teams with second life is antithetical to the values incumbent in the sport, no matter how great of a regular season teams may enjoy. The process should not overvalue what playoff successes a team should have had. It should reward the successes that teams did have.
So, yes, Leo and Josh are right. The "smoke-filled back room" did well. It would serve women's college hockey fans well if national-tournament contenders were selected in such a manner. Committees would make the conference postseasons increasingly meaningful and give fans the best tournament possible with the most deserving teams. So, yes, let's bring back the smoke-filled room. Wait, on second thought, smoking is unhealthy. Maybe put a fog machine in there.
There is only one team that can defeat this team. It is a common foe. One with which this Cornell team has tangled already.
First, let's reflect upon the playoffs. They are the best of times. They are the worst of times. Much like anything that brings exhilaration in life, they are fleeting and seemingly dangerous, in relative terms, nature is what creates their associated excitement. The fact that a few shifts or even one shift can end the season is why this time is the most exciting time of year. It is the time of proving character. It is the most Cornellian time of season. Let's descend into our Dickensian melodrama.
Trust us, there will be the best of times, there will be the worst of times. Both align in perfect harmony. A championship season manages to have the former in proper balance with the latter. The uplifting news about this team is that it has learned the joys of keeping its game in balance and the sorrow of becoming unbalanced. The trials of the season and the resolve of this team to learn from them will be bared in the playoffs.
This writer takes no satisfaction in being right when it means that Cornell suffers consequences. I was right last weekend. The post that went up before last weekend highlighted how Cornell had been surrendering fewer shots but of a higher quality to opponents in the second half than it had in the first. The argument continued that Cornell was becoming too complacent in its own end and was not generating enough pressure in front of the opposing netminder.
The weekend began with the Bears of Brown running roughshod over Cornell like one would expect a roving grizzly upon finding raw meat, a blowing breeze, and a fan. Three goals were surrendered in the first period. Then, miraculously, Cornell awoke. Brown did not see the puck for most of the contest but for a few breakaways that Hayden Stewart directed away with ease. With the Bears cooking under the pressure, Cornell mounted a three-goal rally. That story has been discussed before, but what it proved was how this Cornell team functions most efficiently.
Paradoxically, when pressing for a lead and leaving Hayden Stewart on what seemed like an island at times, Cornell's play when it was challenged on break-out plays in its own end was more disciplined and focused. Cornell proved that the best means of keeping the puck out of the net is to keep it on that of the other team. The Big Red forgot that fact at some point in the last month. Last weekend should have been a pointed lecture in that reality.
The Yale game was a sickening affair. A few misplays gave Yale a 1-0 lead far too early. Cornell responded with sustained pressure. The Big Red looked after early lapses to have found its offensive-zone dominance from the previous night. Keith Allain looked happy (well, as happy as he ever does) that his team escaped to the locker room with a slim lead.
The second period began much the same way. Nine minutes into the period, Cornell was buzzing, it was breaking out of its own zone for another wave of pressure in the Elis's end. The puck found its way through the slimmest of cracks between Mitch Gillam's skate and the post. Trent Ruffolo was credited with the goal. A red glove grasped the last stick that it touched.
It is unclear whether a state of shock overcame the team when a veteran mishandled the puck in such a manner or if a two-goal deficit against Yale seemed too great, but the fervor of Cornell was lost. The game went with it. This writer doubts that a similar mishandling will occur in the postseason. However, bad things will happen and disappointing moments will emerge. Alarmingly, the team lacked resilience in the face of such an error. Such a deficiency will damn its season if it cannot overcome it.
This team has been the embodiment of resiliency with its comeback efforts and grit. This is no time for its members to lose the edge that makes them distinct and threatening. This writer, sadly, doubted the ability of this team to mount a three-goal comeback. I pledged after that no matter the deficit, no matter the situation, no matter the odds, no matter the opponent, I will not doubt this team again. This week it should have whetted that edge and be ready for Cornell's most important time of season.
Character and grit are the hallmarks of this team. John McCarron says that he wants to bring the blue-collar mentality back to Cornell hockey. Well, the regular season showed glimmers of that. Nothing is more blue collar than doing the hard things because they are necessary and taking no shortcuts. Adherence to those tenets is the strongest aspect of this team.
It principal deficiency? Well, we all know that, right? This team cannot score goals in bunches. That is what we have been told repeatedly. The team and fans have been harangued with that reality. This writer is here now to tell you that the scoring drought this season is an advantage wrapped in the vestiges of a detriment.
Last season, few worried about scoring when the ECAC Hockey tournament arrived. Cornell was the fourth seed. All was good in the world. You know, the if-it's-not-broke-don't-fix-it mentality. This writer noticed that the Big Red's offense was anything but red hot headed into the playoffs last season. I was crazy, right?
In the playoffs, the time of year that coaches and players of this program tell us matters most, Cornell averaged just 1.50 goals per game. The figure unto itself is not horrendous. A defensive team should score all the goals that it needs, not put up gaudy numbers for the purpose of self-indulgence. The way in which Cornell's playoff run ended is why the Big Red's cooling offense became important. The Big Red found itself in a scoring duel with Union. Cornell responded to bring the margin to 2-1 and 3-2, but after the Dutchmen made it 4-2, the damage was done. The hole was too deep. The team did not have it in it.
The 2013-14 team had scored more than two goals in regulation just once in the month of February. The same cannot be said about the 2014-15 edition. Delving further, the offense of last season was cooling off head into the playoffs. Last season's Cornell team averaged scoring 2.54 goals per game over the season. The month-long build-up to the postseason in February did not treat that team well. Cornell's offensive production was at a level equivalent to 74.4% of its seasonal average. The trend continued into the playoffs where it flatlined at 59.1% of its seasonal average on the ice of Herb Brooks Arena.
How does the 2014-15 team compare? Predictably, the seasonal average for this season's team is below that of last season's team. How did the team fare on its month-long run to the postseason? It improved! It became more offensively productive. Yes, this team, the one that has raised alarm for its described scoring ineptitude, produced 105% more offense per contest than its seasonal average would predict. This edition is coming into the playoffs hotter than did its analog last season.
Ah, I can sense the disbelief now. The astute reader is wondering what form of statistical chicanery I have employed to fool you. This writer will lay the numbers out plainly. The month before the playoffs last season, Cornell averaged 1.89 goals per game. The month before the playoffs this season, Cornell averaged 2.00 goals per game. Yes, even in absolute terms, this Cornell hockey team is outperforming last season's team in scoring offense over the same associated span (by a factor of 105%, if one is curious).
Cornell's offense is entering the postseason hotter. Why is the drought a benefit? The drought is a benefit because since the opening weekend this team has heard how that if it does not bury its chances, it will lose every contest. Coaches, players, and the media have harped on this fact. It is not glossed over like it was last season. The fear of the goose egg is alive and well in this team. It will not take for granted that scoring will come like Cornell might have last season in game two against Clarkson or the semifinal contest against Union.
The players of this team feel compelled to convert when an opportunity is present because the fear of not having another such chance is very real to this team in ways that it was not last season. Nary a scoring chance should be squandered. An increased rate of converting on breakaways would do wonders to decrease the stress of converting on all other opportunities.
Schafer is a man of little modulation. His stated system wins games. His favored formula wins championships. That is why it is interesting that this season an element of his formula changed. The formula usually mandates that Cornell earns a home-ice bye. Interestingly, beginning over a month ago, Schafer stated consistently that his only goal was to earn "home ice" and begin the ECAC Hockey tournament at Lynah Rink. Why the change? This writer cannot be certain.
Coca-Cola rarely tinkers with its own forumla. Mike Schafer is usually very similar. Each alteration is for effect. Let's just hope this deviation results in us all guzzling a cold one of Coke Zero in late March rather than spitting out New Coke. However, until proven ineffective, I will prove the psychosociology of The Joker correct, and go along with the plan, even if it is horrifying.
Experience may prove the genius of Schafer's choice not to place too great an emphasis on obtaining a bye. What may have started as Schafer's way of trying to accommodate for a team that needed to break in a young defensive corps over a long season, will serve an additional purpose for this team. Experience proved this trend.
The team does not take well to breaks. The scoring blight came back after the mid-season break. Is there cause to trust that a week off after Cornell's offense warmed for a month would not plunge this team's offensive production into the abyss? This writer finds no such reason. Gambling the end of the season and a possible championship run on it would be unwise, to put it kindly. Furthermore, the week off would do nothing to avoid a scoring lapse and might have sacrificed this team's tirelessness, one of this team's greatest assets.
Indefatigability is one of the traits of this team that began to strike this writer several weeks ago. Whether it is charging to win a race to the puck in the offensive zone, backchecking to create the next lethal transition play, or laying physical hits to wear down its opponents, the duration of the game and season has no effect on this team. It is shocking. This team does not want to stop playing. So, why should it have?
The style of play by which this team wins has been called "adaptive desperation" and "anticipation" on Where Angels Fear to Tread this season. Any and all playoff victories will come from those approaches. Cornell needs to be calm. It is when opponents have gotten this team scrambling that the Big Red crumbles. Lying in wait, anticipating the mistake or misplay that will come, pouncing into play, and reaping the reward is how this team plays dominantly. Over the last month, the Big Red has proven behind the leadership of its junior and senior classes to be able to play desperately in a responsible manner and adapt to nearly any situations that its few errors have presented. The tirelessness of this team feeds its ability to simultaneously know its own limits and refuse to surrender.
This is the postseason. This is Lynah Rink. Cornell will need to take the ice ready to land the first major hit and exert its will. The building is fearsome unto itself, but it is the Lynah Faithful and this team that will need to make it the place that opponents dread (thought I was going somewhere else, didn't you?).
The leaders of this team will need to take the reigns. Cole Bardreau and John McCarron can provide a jolt. However, a typical ingredient to most successful postseason pushes in Cornell hockey history involves the stellar two-way play of a blueliner. Expect Joakim Ryan to loom large from the point and in the paint. Jacob MacDonald will need to continue an impressive load of minutes with even more impressive play. Need a cure for Cornell's breakaway ills? Few players in college hockey can split defensemen and beat goaltenders as fluidly as can Madison Dias.
The greatest overarching attribute of this team is its unity. The team is neither one of all starts nor individual efforts. Two anecdotes from last weekend's Brown game prove this.
Cole Bardreau was due a goal for his tremendous efforts and several near misses of Brown's net. Bardreau was killing the penalty that Cornell incurred with two minutes remaining when a lane to Ernst opened. The senior forward who had done everything and more to earn the goal chose not to risk the odd-man rush that could result from an attempted breakaway. He carried the puck into the Red's end while Brown went for a change. The penalty was killed.
The other moving moment was watching the zeal with which Hayden Stewart and Mitch Gillam support one another on the bench. In a situation that would raise tension on the benches of ordinary programs, Hayden Stewart entered the Brown contest in relief of Mitch Gillam. With each of Hayden Stewart's dazzling saves and redirections of the puck that Hayden Stewart, Mitch Gillam applauded and encouraged all the louder.
Gillam, like Bardreau, and like all other members of this team, knows that this is about Cornell hockey and Cornell University. Individuals may be praised and complimented, but it is the program and the University that unites us.
The character of this team is staggering. No team can feel confident when this Cornell team lines up on the opposite blue line. This team has only one adversary that can defeat it.
Its greatest enemy is itself. Its own errors defeat it. Each setback has been a product of its own internal stumbles, not an externally imposed state. This team will make the choice of how successful it wants to be in the postseason.
Trust & Live. The playoffs are here.
Players, coaches, fanbases, and writers try to put each series that lays before them in proper context. The giving of context allows us to understand what will happen or what is happening. If given the proper lens, one can better understand one's observations or temper one's expectations. This is occurring or has occurred regarding all upcoming series in the ECAC Hockey tournament. Here, Where Angels Fear to Tread will try to give a summary of each narrative that more than one source concurs is the dominant theme of the Cornell-Union series in the first round and one additional narrative that this writer believes will predominate the way that this series is viewed in some corners and will be historically.
The six narratives that accompany the upcoming Cornell-Union series follow.
Defense vs. Offense
Ah, the easy narrative. The tried-and-true narrative. In one corner, a team that has experienced at least two nationally acknowledged scoring droughts. So, what becomes of the other corner? Apparently, this vacuum of creativity renders its occupant the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. The difference may not be this stark, but as statistics go, the argument follows.
The team that is viewed to have the anemic offense is not the one that went on a recent 11-period shutout skid. Nope, it is not Union. Cornell is the team with poor offense according to this narrative. No one is denying that the offense of the Dutchmen is a potent force with which to be reckoned. They did not earn a season average 3.06 goals per game by luck or lack of talent. The offensive production of the Dutchmen increases to 3.35 goals per game on the season if one overlooks the team's psychological doldrums that precipitated three complete games without scoring a goal. One figure would lead all of ECAC Hockey. The other is currently second.
Yeah, Union's offense is very good. No one is denying that. Daniel Ciampini and Mike Vecchione earned their spots as two of the ten most prolific scorers in ECAC Hockey's regular season. The former is shrouded in conference player-of-the-year buzz. The two combined for two points against Cornell in the first two meetings. Max Novak and Spencer Foo are also offensive weapons that must be respected. The former has taken a particularly public leadership role in preparing his team for the rigors of the playoffs at Lynah Rink.
Cornell's defense and goaltending is know nationally on an annual basis. This season it is even better than usual. The Big Red allows 1.97 goals per game. Its rate of penalty killing has inched above 90%. The play of senior leaders like forward Cole Bardreau and defenseman Joakim Ryan does not afford its opponents many opportunities on the power play.
The yoke of GoalieU has been carried high throughout the regular season. Mitch Gillam, the more common starter, owns a 0.935 save percentage. Hayden Stewart, who was called on in relief during the Brown game, pitched a clean sheet for over 50 minutes while his team mounted a rally from a three-goal deficit. Cornell does defense well in all situations.
Defense vs. Defense
The less common but equally appropriate conclusion about this series is that it will not be a contest of Union's trying to score against Cornell's passive attempts to keep the Dutchmen off the scoreboard, but rather both teams will generate considerable offense as they have over the last few weeks and the burden of winning the series will fall to each team's goaltending and defense. Union under Nate Leaman and Rick Bennett has been a protégé of a Cornell-like system. Defense is supreme.
However, last season during its national-tournament run, the Dutchmen began surrendering 2.75 goals per game. The same Union squad surrendered only 2.15 goals per game during the regular season. This season, as the drilling and discipline of Nate Leaman washes away further, Union has one of the four worst goals-against averages in ECAC Hockey. Its national-tournament defensive-zone play has become the new normal as the Dutchmen allow a nearly identical 2.74 goals per game.
One who watches the Dutchmen realizes that the mentality of Union is still very much one of believing that it is a tremendous defensive team that should wait to capitalize on transitional plays. Union's game in transition remains great. However, its defense is nowhere near the level of its three previous championship teams.
This would lead most to conclude that the game will become once again Union's push for offense against Cornell's stout defense. How could it be anything else if Union's defense is not like it once was? Despite evidence to the contrary, Union thinks that it can play in close defensive battles. Rick Bennett is among the proponents that this series will become a battle of wills between defenses.
If Cornell does what it is expected to do behind its blue line, the Dutchmen will be left with few opportunities. However, the same can be said of Union. Union is a team that expects in the ECAC Hockey tournament that it will be able to prevent its opponents from scoring. Over their recent Eastern postseason run, the Dutchmen have allowed its opponents 1.42 goals per game. Colin Stevens is a capable goaltender, and even though two-way threats like Mat Bodie and Shayne Gostisbehere are departed, the team may adopt some responsible defensive tactics in this postseason as some Pavlovian response to the postseason puck-drop. Doubting a team that has a proven record to win recently is as foolish as doubting a program that has a generations's long history of winning.
Cornell's defense will need to give Daniel Ciampini little time and space to maneuver around the Big Red's net. His most dangerous chances during the regular-season series were of the pesky variety. Ciampini was thrashing about after the regular season's game at Lynah Rink claiming that Gillam robbed him of a hat trick. He will want to collect. The efforts of Anderson, Bliss, MacDonald, McCarron, Ryan, and Wedman will be needed to contain Union's threats.
The same can be said of Union. Union's defense is expected to lack sophomore Jeff Taylor during this series. The grittiness and peskiness that Cornell must fear in Ciampini and his line is the threat that every line from Cornell has been poising against its opponents lately. The chief pest? Probably, Cole Bardreau. Teams have learned that allowing him to dance around the perimeter and encroach on the blue paint is a perilous strategy that has his point production rate registering among the best in ECAC Hockey in the second half. Cornell's offense is a potent edge to its defensive game.
Collision of Comebacks
Cornell and Union discovered independently an atypical way for defensively minded teams to earn points. Last weekend, the Dutchmen hosted the Saints of St. Lawrence and the Golden Knights of Clarkson in Union's last weekend at Messa Rink. Union plummeted into a two-goal deficit against both teams. Union seemed undeterred and mounted the comeback at both ends of the ice to surrender no goals, go ahead by a 3-2 margin, and win. Max Novak was key to both rallies. The senior forward tallied four points on the six come-from-behind goals.
The Big Red has made an anxiety-inducing habit of mounting comebacks. The most exhilarating of which was last Friday. It took less than 15 minutes for Cornell to give Brown a three-goal lead. A three-goal lead! Cornell hockey comeback? Ha! This writer even mocked the possibility on twitter. The juggernaut teams of Cornell could not mount key comebacks, especially ones of such a great magnitude. This team did better. Matt Buckles, John McCarron, Christian Hilbrich, and Cole Bardreau gathered for four unanswered goals. Review suspiciously erased the last tally. The Red skaters still achieved the once-unthinkable with erasing a three-goal deficit to garner a point from the contest.
Cornell has found victory in 45% of its winning efforts after allowing the first goal. In the last six contests of the regular season, Cornell found a way to erase leads of two goals or greater three times. Yes, half of its last six games have witnessed multiple-goal rallies from the Big Red. Cornell left with no points in only one of those contests. Two of them saw the Big Red absolutely dominate the resulting overtime frame. In the same run of six games, Cornell twice gave Harvard a one-goal lead, just to take it back. Whether it is a benefit or a detriment at this point, Cornell does not fear having to mount a rally.
One thing is true about these teams at the close of the regular season. Neither is willing to accept an effort as lost until the final whistle blasts. Both will battle to the end and, considering recent history, neither is afraid of a deficit.
The Obligatory Upset
It is March Madness, right? We know the formula for filling out your bracket. No, not the choose-which-mascot-would-win-in-a-fight approach. You know, the one that maintains that in a given round, there must be an upset of a higher seed. Yeah, that one. Well, plenty in the media and around ECAC Hockey have relied on little else to point to this series as their obligatory upset for their predictions. Well, that's okay, ask Michigan how this senior class feels about busting brackets.
When pressed, most media types, who as a group often rely on statistics, become very subjective and favoring of conjecture to defend why this series is the upset series. The most reasoned argument articulated follows.
One cannot see a "very, very bad" Princeton team upsetting a hot Dartmouth team. RPI plays at Clarkson, and well, *nudge* *nudge* Seth Appert in the playoffs. Yeah, that one has to go to the Golden Knights (no one tell them that the last playoff series Appert won was at Cheel). Brown against Harvard? Are you kidding me? Harvard is wicked talented. So, with what is the media left? Cornell against Union. Well, gimme that one as the upset.
Sound logic. This is not to say at all that Cornell is guaranteed to defeat Union. There are plenty of metrics to defend why Union may defeat Cornell. However, claiming so to fill in some bracket or prediction pool is foolish. Union is a great team that is more than capable of taking two wins out of Lynah Rink in the playoffs if Cornell delivers a middling effort. However, the Dutchmen would do so because of the talent on its team and its vestigial memory of past playoff glory, not to sate some karmic need for a first-round upset.
Oh, yeah, remember last March? Cornell and Union played a contest in Lake Placid in ECAC Hockey's semifinal. Andy Iles' skate caught a rough patch of the ice at Herb Brooks Arena. He staggered and Union's Cole Ikkala buried the puck. Cornell would be forced to chase the contest. Unlike this edition of Cornell hockey, last season's team was unable to mount such a large comeback. The team tried nonetheless. Kevin Sullivan converted on the power play for the Dutchmen.
Cornell never evened the game. The game in the second period took upon the feel of a slug fest between heavyweight contenders. Christian Hilbrich answered on a never-say-die beautiful breakaway goal. Max Novak took nearly 12 minutes to give the Dutchmen another buffer. It was for naught. Joakim Ryan responded with a blast from the point 58 seconds later. Cornell was still in the game. One period remained. Cornell faced now only a 3-2 deficit. It was manageable.
Oh, yeah, the second period still had time remaining. That detail would come back to haunt the Big Red. Anyone who thought Ryan's resounding response was impressive would have been wowed by the one that Union mustered. Mike Vecchione put the Dutchmen up two goals just 14 seconds later. Coaches and media disagree about which goal killed Cornell's chances at a victory on that Friday in the Adirondacks. It is the opinion of this writer that it was the fourth goal that killed Cornell.
Cornell battled still and Union did just enough to contain the Big Red. It was the fourth goal that put a Cornell team that had ignored scoring deficiencies headed into the championship weekend down by too great of a margin. Cornell learned a lot from the game. Perhaps, the Big Red's penchants for comebacks and resolve to come back this season was born on the ice of Herb Brooks Arena.
Union credited the game for its eventual national-title run. It is unclear whether the history of Cornell or the attitude of its team gave Union the confidence that it needed to defeat anyone in the NCAA tournament. Rick Bennett and his players remarked after that Cornell was the only team against whom they got a lead and remained worried until the end of the contest that the opponent would come back.
Union's victory over Cornell sealed the march of the Dutchmen toward its third consecutive Whitelaw Cup. The only current member of ECAC Hockey to have won three or more consecutive championships is Cornell. The Dutchmen entered an intermediary state of equaling one of Cornell's most revered statuses. Cornell suffered an even more disappointing fate. Only 25% of Cornell hockey's classes since the late 1960s have not won an ECAC Hockey championship. The loss to Union guaranteed that the Class of 2014 would not win a Whitelaw Cup.
Legacy vs. Recency
Statistics are forgotten to all but the annals of history. Moments and runs are that which is remembered. When the penalties and points of this series are erased from living memory, what will remain is knowing whether the tradition of Cornell or Union hockey endured. Make no mistake about that. The stakes are this grand.
This is a clash of traditions like few others in recent memory in ECAC Hockey. The era of Union hockey dawned during the 2011-12 season. Has the reign of the Dutchmen ended? That question is unanswered.
This remains ECAC Hockey, Cornell's conference. No program has the sustained and continued level of dominance over this conference as does Cornell. Cornell's nearest competitors for all-time titles has one-third fewer titles than does Cornell. The hardware gap between Cornell and its nearest rival for all-time tournament dominance is still one title greater than Union's all-time total. However, Union's recent run is of a manner that has threatened Cornell's perch like few others.
Cornell is the only current program in ECAC Hockey to have won four consecutive ECAC Hockey championships. Ned Harkness accomplished that feat with victories at Boston Garden in 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1970. Union with its victories in 2012, 2013, and 2014 is only the third ECAC Hockey program to have won three sequential championships. No program has won three consecutive ECAC Hockey championships without winning a fourth. Cornell stands in the way of Union's fourth.
The fates of Cornell and Union have been interwoven poetically. Union had never won a playoff series until the season after Cornell and Union met for the first time in the postseason. The Big Red swept the Dutchmen at Messa Rink in 2008.
The last season in which Union hockey did not win some semblance of a league honor was the 2009-10 season. The Dutchmen ended their season on the ice of the Times Union Center in a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the "dream-crushing, soul-devouring juggernaut" of Cornell. Rick Bennett, who was an assistant coach during the 2009-10 season, recalled the 2010 ECAC Hockey Championship final on Tuesday, "[Union] could have had Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and it would have made no difference in the result."
Union learned well its lesson from Cornell about dominance. The Dutchmen won the regular-season title the next season. They have won the league championship every season after the 2010-11 season.
The Big Red was given the opportunity to prevent Union's third consecutive title. The Central New Yorkers failed. Cornell has been afforded the opportunity to halt the Dutchmen's march toward a fourth consecutive title. Such a run would challenge further Cornell's primacy within the conference.
One may be tempted to think that this does not matter to either team. Some contend that such trivia is fodder for fans, historians, or bloggers, not the players on the ice. John McCarron disagrees. His players reiterate that he reminds them regularly of the honor and obligation that accompanies donning carnelian and white. Topher Scott has remarked often how this recent group of players knows and cares more about the history of Cornell hockey than any recent predecessors. They feel impelled to preserve that legacy.
Preservation can begin this weekend defensively. A series victory over Union insulates the legacy of Cornell hockey as the only current ECAC Hockey program to have won four consecutive championships. Surely, moving forward, the focus would become offensive as Cornell would aim to expand its dominance over the conference with another tournament title. The task at hand here is to ward off a worthy adversary. One who poses challenges not just on the ice of these competitions but in the pages of the history of this great league. This is 12 championships against three.
Union's players are aware of this reality as well. They know the history of Lynah Rink in the playoffs. They know the nature of the postseason run on which their program is. Do not allow certain elements of defeatism that have crept into their speech and talking points fool you. Union will be ready to compete and try to do what no current ECAC Hockey program has done in 45 years. The real question that waits to be answered is whether incomparable legacy or undeniable recency prevails.
Hope you grabbed your glass of water. This may be a bitter pill to swallow.
The regular season is behind this 99th edition of Cornell hockey. The postseason awaits. The real season begins now.
The dust has settled. In the next few days, the battles of a 29-game regular season will settle over the horizon and a new season will rise. The decision to be made over that time is whether the Big Red will dance in the basking glory of daylight or wither in a new day's dawn. However, proper reflection on the past is needed.
Some, even those within the sphere of Ithaca, have taken to referring to this regular season as "mediocre." Ah, yes, mediocrity, a term that Cornellians despise like few others. The associated ire grows greater when it is unrepresentative of the described. Before they are erased by more important and telling results, let's gander through the record of this team.
This team earned six proverbial points in seven out-of-conference match-ups. Only one of the opponents that Cornell faced in non-conference play sits outside the top four teams in its own conference's standings. Only one opponent, Miami, managed to tangle with this Cornell team and avoid surrendering unto the Red any "points." The RedHawks are jockeying to win the Penrose Cup from North Dakota in the NCHC's final weekend of regular-season play.
Are those results mediocre?
The first seeded team of the ECAC Hockey tournament, Quinnipiac, a team that amassed an in-conference record that few conference teams bettered since ECAC Hockey adopted its current postseason structure in the 2002-03 season (Cornell 2002-03 and Cornell 2004-05 are among those teams), barely escaped the clutches of this Cornell team on the road and at home with any points. The Bobcats narrowly avoided increasing its conference loss total by a factor of 66.7% against Cornell, the same team that many have labeled as "mediocre." The Big Red held Quinnipiac to below its average in-conference margin of victory and nearly one-third of its average conference offensive output in two contests.
Are those results mediocre?
The cosmos need to play a hand too to further this argument of mediocrity. Cornell played eight games between the end of January and the coming commencement of the postseason. The Big Red's game-winning marker was disallowed in three of those eight contests. Game winners against Colgate, Quinnipiac, and Brown were all retrieved from the net and erased from the scoreboard. Colgate and Brown settled for ties. Quinnipiac went on to win the contest in overtime. A swing of four points went against Cornell, not because of the effort on the ice, but because of controversial waivers of goals
Had Cornell received those four points that it earned, it would have finished the regular season tied for fourth in the ECAC Hockey standings, just one and a half games behind Greg Carvel's dominant St. Lawrence team. Oh, yeah, counterfactually, the Big Red would have been tied with Yale going into the final regular-season contest and would have had more than an opponent on the line as motive to play. Known futility, as inexcusable as it may be, might have affected Cornell's effort on Saturday.
This Cornell team earned three wins in conference play whose benefits it did not reap. The Big Red actually went 6-2-2 over and since its home-and-home series with Colgate. Yes, this "mediocre" team compiled a 0.700 record over the last month of the regular season. Want to put that in its proper perspective? Only one team in ECAC Hockey outperformed that rate of winning.
It was not much-lauded Quinnipiac. The Cantabs could not keep pace. Neither could the Elis nor Raiders. It was Bobby's squad in Hanover that did slightly better than did Mike Schafer's squad over that run. This Cornell team won a 0.700 record even if it was not what officials insisted be recorded. A 0.700, month-long run into the playoffs seems representative of generally good form.
Are those results mediocre?
No one likes boxscore fandom. Consider the games. This team outperformed its statistical hallmarks. Yeah, a 3-3-4 record looks much worse than the earned 6-2-2. Anyone who watched the games knows which is the measure of this team's potential.
Yes, I say potential. Potential is all the regular season proves. Cornell did deserve a top-four placement in the standings (this writer will not waste either his or your time following this counterfactual to determine seeding) and a 0.700 playoff warm-up run. However, Saturday proved that this team can deliver putrid, horrific, and sometimes frightening efforts. Yale played a good game. Cornell did what it could to give the Elis a very comfortable senior night including defensive errors that damned the Red in the second. Yale won as much from its talent and execution as it did from Big-Red lapses in the first and second periods.
The curve is steeper now. The work of a season now will be judged by this team's lowest point. And, trust me, Saturday was very, very low. This will be this writer's last extended word on the regular season. Move on. The playoffs are here. This is the stage on which Cornell yearns to be judged. Critiques needed to be rectified and criticisms placed in their proper context. One thing is clear from this analysis: This team may be inconsistent and may not be dominant, yet, but it is far from "mediocre."
Where Angels Fear to Tread is a blog dedicated to covering Cornell Big Red men's and women's ice hockey, two of the most storied programs in college hockey. WAFT endeavors to connect student-athletes, students, fans, and alumni to Cornell hockey and its proud traditions.