The Big Red has trekked through about nine percent of its conference slate (that's what one weekend does). Cornell has allowed two goals or more in every contest but one. Over last weekend, the home-standing Red yielded four goals against per game. To put these figures into perspective, Cornell ranks 11th in the nation in scoring offense. Cornell's production of 3.75 goals per game is tied with the production rate of Boston University and outpaces the rates of scoring-insistent programs like Denver, Colgate, and North Dakota. Cornell's defense? It clocks in at 20th in the nation in terms of goals allowed per game.
The situation seems bleaker if one removes the shutout of still winless Niagara. The carnelian-and-white rear guard crumbles to 45th in the nation for scoring defense when Cornell's home opener is excluded. Arizona State checks in at 36th.
It is no secret that this writer loves defensive hockey. As a student member of the Lynah Faithful, I gained an appreciation for teams with scoring dominance that still exercised restraint in playing sound defense to ice a win. Sound defense and goaltending are to what this contributor is accustomed. The aim of this piece could be to bemoan a deviation from this style of play. It is not.
Cause for alarm is found in the way Cornell has won and lost. During the Princeton and Quinnipiac weekend, the Big Red surrendered leads of two and three goals. The Tigers were down by two goals beyond the midpoint of the contest. Schafer-coached teams should be able to nurse a two-goal lead for 30 minutes. Cornell of yesteryears (read late 1990s through early 2010s) would have caged the beast, put the burden on the other team to penetrate the impenetrable, and saved energy for the next night's contest. A win is a win. Instead, Cornell allowed Princeton to claw back into the game even erasing the Red's lead. If it were not for Jeff Kubiak's already stellar junior season, Cornell might have gotten one point or less from the tilt.
The Quinnipiac game was a disaster. The result was an embarrassment. Yes, an embarrassment. This contributor chose that word to describe the game in the minutes after the game. Days have passed since then. That opinion remains equally valid.
The Bobcats were on the ropes less than 11 minutes into the game. Willcox. Weidner. Buckles. Game over? Think again.
The visitors from Mount Carmel got one back on East Hill. Vanderlaan answered. Embarrassment ensued.
Why that word? It happened at home. Cornell was very clearly outworked through the last two periods of regulation. Readers, if you disagree with that, you cannot disagree that the Big Red was beaten at least mentally. Cornell benefited from two different triplet-goal advantages. The second of which came with only 28:56 remaining in regulation.
The result was embarrassing not as a sign of disrespect to a very methodical Quinnipiac team. Rand Pecknold's teams know his vision for his teams. They enact it splendidly. Had Cornell lost by one goal in a different way, the game would have been merely disappointing, possibly with a twinge of moral victoriousness.
The embarrassment came wrapped in a bow of opportunity. Against a popularly touted opponent, the carnelian and white positioned themselves for an all-but-guaranteed victory. Then, on their ice at Lynah Rink, they became the architects of their own demise. Disappointment comes when Cornell could have won. Embarrassment comes when Cornell should have won.
Saturday was decidedly of the latter camp. In the market for a rhetorical flourish? Cornell had as many three-goal leads in Saturday's contest as it had three-goal leads with significant time remaining throughout the entirety of last season. Schafer's Red did this against a program that finished two of the last three seasons among the nation's top two defensive teams. A program that in the last half decade never has finished a season outside of the nation's top third in defense.
Despite perceptions, this piece is not to lament the loss of two-, three-, or even four-goal leads. The lamentation is that Cornell lost. During the offseason, Where Angels Fear to Tread issued a challenge to Schafer. The metric of success was clear: win. There is no intention in a hypocritical change of measuring stick mid-season.
Each team is different. If this requires doublets, triplets, tens, or dozens of goals to win, then the coaching staff will need to determine that. It does not seem probable that such will be the case considering the defensive personnel who return from last season (it is worth noting that Dan Wedman played neither game last weekend due to injury). If for some reason this team unlike classes of Schafer-coached teams before it cannot play shut-down defense, then the coaches and it will have to figure out how to generate the offense to cover up those holes. Winning is paramount.
Christian Hilbrich says it best in his post-game remarks after Saturday's game, "we should run them out of the building."
Perfect, no gifts.
This needs to be the mindset for Cornell hockey into the foreseeable future of this season. Run opponents out of buildings. Or, as Hinault said, give them no gifts.
Rand Pecknold and his entourage must have felt like the second period of Saturday's contest, the one in which Cornell allowed the Bobcats to tie the game, was all eight nights of Hanukkah, Christmas morning, Purim, and Easter all rolled up into one. The Red gave the Connecticuters a monumental gift in failing to shut the Bobcats's offense down or, in the alternative, showing mercy in slowing the carnelian-and-white offensive onslaught. Let the mistake not be made again.
Goals should be scored when they can be, no matter how gaudy a total may run this season, because as atypical as it is, the Big Red's defense has proven undependable this season. Opponents should not leave a contest with Cornell wondering if they should send thank-you cards.
The competitiveness of this team is disparate. The Big Red's defense played poorly last weekend, not just statistically, but qualitatively. Newcomers who played like veterans last season found themselves greening behind the blue line in ways that they had not previously. Princeton and Quinnipiac exploited these missteps from moderately seasoned blue liners who are expected to play like very seasoned veterans. If these skaters do not play defense the way that Cornell has expected for two decades, they may find themselves deservingly out of the line-up or the team will need to retool to mask these mistakes.
Blue liners have been contributing offensively. One-third of all points awarded this season have gone to defensemen. This is great. Last weekend showed that some key defensemen have taken liberties with generating offense and forgotten that their chief responsibilities lie at the other end of the ice. The principal task of the defensemen is to give Mitch Gillam, or Hayden Stewart who is rumored to be out of the line-up due to illness, the best chance to make a save on every shot.
The entire team has been derelict in that duty. Hockey is a team sport. At Cornell, defense is a team sport. So, while defensemen need to help Gillam and Stewart most, it is the responsibility of all skaters to take ownership of assisting their netminder. This assistance nauseatingly has been absent. Rebound control has been a problem. Opponents converted on several opportunities that resulted from ill-advised rebounds that landed in the slot.
Almost in a daze, Cornell seemed inept at times as what to do to clear rebounds when they bounced to a high-opportunity position. As painful as that was for the Lynah Faithful and this writer to watch, one can be certain that it was more painful for Ben Syer. Syer should be able to improve these shortcomings. It may take time. Time quickly becomes points.
The other end of the ice is a different story. True resiliency and grit has returned to the Red's offense. This team does not quit on opportunities. No puck in the crease is safe. Unlike last season when loose pucks in the paint too often would find themselves embedded in a deep corner, this team finds the back of the net. It does not matter if Anthony Angello, Eric Freschi, Christian Hilbrich, Jeff Kubiak, Beau Starrett, Mitch Vanderlaan, or Reece Willcox is the player to spot the rubber disc. He will pounce. Opponents have paid. They will continue to pay. This has been a glorious trend to watch unfold over four games.
Another positive from last weekend is that Coach Schafer and Topher Scott have still got it in the tape room. Assistant Coach Scott masterminded the dissection of Michigan in the 2012 NCAA Midwest Regional Semifinal. However, since then, some doubt as to his ability to repeat such a calculated deconstruction began to arise. Well, doubters, Schafer and he answered Saturday. Quinnipiac had allowed no power-play goals in 25 opportunities over seven games. It took Cornell just 27 seconds of power-play times to blemish that record. After the Big Red was done with its three power-play goals, the Bobcats found themselves barely clinging to a top-ten penalty kill rate after leading the nation before the weekend.
This weekend Colgate and Cornell do their annual do-si-do. The Courage Classic to benefit Camp Good Days will take place at Lynah Rink on Friday, November 13. This is one aspect of the Central New York series that is a great and welcome development. It adds emotion and, more importantly, meaning to one game each season between Colgate and Cornell that will serve to benefit Camp Good Days. This trend should continue. It makes the Colgate-Cornell series special for all parties. Needless to say, from the ceremonial puck-drop through the emotions of the entire contest, the Courage Classic makes Friday's game at Lynah Rink a must-see event that brings a modicum of comfort and escape to children who endure so much.
The game on Saturday at Starr Rink likely will be the last time that Cornell plays at Colgate's first indoor home. Something will be lost with the closing of Starr Rink. Colgate desires requitement in its series with Cornell. One of the key elements that could have inspired reciprocity between the two hockey programs was their shared history in opening Starr Rink. Cornell owned distinction and primacy in the annals of Colgate hockey history because it helped the Raiders open their home. Better yet for inspiring passion, the Raiders defeated the Red in that contest. A new rink provided a new opportunity. Strategic scheduling might have allowed Cornell both to close Starr Rink and open Riggs Rink, or, at the very least, open Riggs Rink.
However, the Raiders showed no such interest or investment. Cornell will respond in kind as the passage of time erases any distinction of the Colgate-Cornell series from the other long-standing series. Be there nonetheless to see the finale to what marked one of the few ways in which hockey at Colgate and Cornell Universities were intertwined.
Cornell needs to figure out how to win. Last weekend indicated that into the near future the Red cannot assume that it can protect a lead of any size. This contributor is not a fan of humbling or embarrassing opponents with gaudy goal totals. Cornell proved weak when holding off. Heeding Hinault's and Hilbrich's prescription is the best medicine.
Hopefully defense will return and Cornell can worry about decorum in preserving leads. Until then, the Big Red needs to convert on every opportunity that it cannot. If defense does not or cannot return this season, well, then it has been awhile since the Lynah Faithful were endured legitimate fire-wagon hockey.
The Faithful will oblige in their support if a blazing Conestoga is what best carries our hockey program back to playoff glory.