Classes just commenced on East Hill, but a curve befitting Cornellian banter and lore is racing toward our preferred hockey team with a certain foreboding. Union will be the best team that the Red has faced all season. If you are in search of empirical support, the still-too-early Pairwise Ranking may be your guide. The Dutchmen would be seeded sixth overall and be a very strong second seed were the Frozen-Four tournament to begin today.
The only team that would make the NCAA tournament’s field that Cornell has played this season is Harvard. And, well, I assume if you are reading here, you know how those two games played out for the Red. Trust this contributor, a fate far darker and much worse than even last Friday might befall our beloved Ithacans in Schenectady (and Troy, for that matter).
Crimson doubled up the Red over two games. Garnet can do much, much worse.
Quick. Which team in ECAC Hockey has two forwards who rank in the top 15 of all players in college hockey in goals-per-game production? It is not Harvard. It is those resurgent and swashbuckling Dutchmen whom the Schafemen will face this Friday. Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo are those two players.
Vecchione and Foo (does that not sound like an interesting fusion dish?) respectively rank first and third nationally in absolute number of points tallied this season. Sebastian Vidmar is the third head of these hounds of Hell. His contributions and he are not to be underestimated. Numbers 21 and 15 may get most of the attention, but number 27 is a well-rounded threat.
Vidmar contributed to two go-ahead goals against Boston University at Agganis Arena. He put the first in the net on his own. He was the helper on the second. The latter would have stood as the winner over the currently projected third-ranked team in the Pairwise Ranking before the usual creativity of officiating in Hockey-East venues flipped the result. Taking down programs with silver and gold seems to be something for which our crab-named foe has developed a knack. His assist helped put Union over Michigan. At Yost. Again.
Speaking of Pairwise Rankings, Union, Michigan, and Yost, one thing sprints to the forefront of this writer’s mind. He finds it foolishly early to consider Pairwise Rankings at this point. They matter once: the moment before John Buccigross reads a team’s name on Selection Sunday. That’s the only time. However, the players on this team whether they admit it publicly or not are keeping an eye on the Pairwise Rankings after narrowly missing the Frozen-Four fields of 2014 and 2016.
How has Cornell fared lately? Well, after dropping two at home, the Red tumbled from a projected third seed in the NCAA tournament to the fourth team out of the projected tournament today. Losses to Harvard and Dartmouth bearishly plunged Cornell’s stock from an estimated 11th to 17th in Pairwise Ranking. How does this relate to Union, Michigan, and Yost?
The last time that Cornell made the national tournament was 2012. It was on the kamikaze of taking three points out of Union that the Big Red was lofted to a destined encounter with the Wolverines in the 2012 Frozen Four First Round in Green Bay. Why was tying Union at Messa Rink and defeating Union at Lynah Rink worth so much in the 2012 Pairwise Ranking? The Dutchmen were perched highly in anticipated Pairwise Rankings because they had taken a victory from the skaters with winged helmets at Yost in October. The situation is nearly identical this season.
So, for any members of this 100th hockey team to represent Cornell University who have their focus on engineering a Providence- or Yale-like hacking of the NCAA-tournament field en route to the Red’s elusive third modern national title, the time is this weekend. Union is quite the sexy piñata of Pairwise goodies sitting at sixth in the currently meaningless Ranking. This team has two whacks at it. If it wants to all but guarantee a trip to the 16-team jamboree at the end of March, one-up the 2011-12 team and take four, not three, points out of the Dutchmen.
There is another game that is arguably more crucial this weekend for the same considerations.
Where Angels Fear to Tread tweeted and referred to the Engineers as a “bear trap” last weekend. This is not to imply that RPI is a trap game in the tradition sense. It is more to highlight the fact that Seth Appert, for all the things that he may be faulted as a bench boss in Troy, has ensnared Harkness’ glorious rebound consistently as of late. Cornell has not defeated the Engineers in its last six tries. No player on this current roster has ever defeated them.
This plight becomes more grave when one considers the tournament-hacking ambitions of this current team. RPI is currently 57th (yes, 5-7) of the 60 teams ranked in the Pairwise. It does not matter what Cornell does to Union if it surrenders a point to RPI. This contributor much rather would prefer the purer way of earning a berth to the national tournament, winning something (i.e. the Whitelaw Cup), but if the skaters on this team want to make the tournament at all costs to test their mettle, surrendering even a point to the Engineers is a dangerous proposition.
The most alarming part about RPI is that it carries that Pairwise albatross while having flush potential. Lou Nanne, one of the most entertaining skaters to watch in ECAC Hockey, Evan Tironese, and Riley Bourbonnais, a clutch player from Western New York who is quietly on a goal-scoring streak over his last three games, still are institutionalized. RPI defeated Clarkson and Harvard; things that Cornell could not do. Coach Schafer tabbed the Engineers as beginning to come on lately. The concern is that Appert may flip the cherry switch and further derail this carnelian freight train to the rabid cries of the fans at Houston Field House.
Derailment is truly the concern nowadays, is it not, reader? Disappointment, heck, even despair, began to set in last weekend during the second third-period debacle. Yes, this writer knows fully well that the unraveling against Dartmouth was not on this team but a horrible series of calls from officials. However, slumps around this time of year damned the talent of the 2014-15 team and the trajectory of the 2015-16 team. The fear is real.
The excuse of bad bounces and bad breaks is neither good nor legitimate. Sometimes, when one sits down for a prelim, a professor will ask something that he promised expressly he would not ask. One never chooses the terms of examination. Their revelations of character remain true. This team wants to seek a fourth national title for Cornell. It is all but a fixation.
Ask Jack Eichel how one bad bounce prevented him from carrying his team to a national title. Last weekend was a shame, but great teams are defined by winning when the odds, including the arc of poor officiating, are against them. Excuses graduated with the Class of 2013, the last team to hoist a Whitelaw Cup.
One loss became two losses. It cannot be allowed to become three or four losses. The Lynah Faithful hold their breath as Cornell plays its last novel set of travel partners this weekend in its greatest tests to date.
Cornell has the talent to achieve its goals, but will an unraveling occur?
Alex Rauter is a hero of near-Paolinian proportions. He delivered a stellar goal against Harvard that was memorable. He is becoming a leader in offensive generation in ways that likely were not expected to fall to him. He does all of the little things at each end of the ice on seemingly every shift. However, Sam Paolini won. If this team seeks a favorable legacy, it needs to find a way to win and vault itself into a more secure spot in ECAC Hockey’s standings.
Reader, this writer has to be honest. The trends of the last two years with slumps in January and February have him concerned about the tasks that lie before this team on Friday and Saturday. Union is alarmingly good. The Dutchmen are playing at a level and with a consistency that makes them more fearsome than their 2013-14 edition that won the Frozen Four. Cornell has not found its upside. Union has found its form.
This coming weekend is certainly unsettling. This contributor is hopefully concerned.
This writer is unabashed in admitting that, right now, Cornell-Union is the best non-Harvard series in which Cornell plays. It is great hockey. It brings great history. Even better, it brings recent and relevant playoff history. It has great fans.