I got enemies, got a lotta enemies
Got a lotta people tryna drain me of my energy
The first half of the season is prologue. This season will be made or broken in the next several weeks. The non-conference schedule is fine and good, but the greatest of Cornell’s seasons are writ or erased in the closing of conference play.
Some readers or new congregants of the Lynah Faithful may find themselves questioning that contention. Is it not true that out-of-conference contests sow the seeds that may blossom into games played in late March or even April? Are not glorious at-large bids that have given the world Minnesota-Duluth, Yale, and Providence as national champions the product of admirable performances outside of conference play? Does it not matter where the Red ranks now in the premature pairwise of early January?
The last inquiry has caused considerable debate and underhanded sniping on social media between various commentators of college hockey. The answer to that question as posed above is an emphatic “no.” It does not matter where Cornell ranks in the Pairwise Ranking now. The volatility of its ranking makes projections from this moment all but meaningless. There is a caveat to this outright dismissal as there are to all great truisms.
Cornell’s ranking in the Pairwise does not matter now. However, the rankings of all programs are not irrelevant. Consider Cornell relative to current Pairwise-Ranking leader Penn State. As of December 15, the arbitrary date that most have used in this debate, the Red had played 11 games while the Nittany Lions had played 15 games. The Pairwise fluctuates with each win, loss, or tie. A larger sample size of results necessarily reinforces a more durable ranking by its parameters.
Quantifying this phenomenon is quite easy. Penn State arrived at December 15 having played nearly 45% of its regular-season schedule. Cornell approached the same date having completed 6.2% less of its own slate. Framed another way, the Central Pennsylvanians finished a 16.4% larger share of their completed schedule than had the Ithacans by the middle of December.
Each regular-season game that Cornell plays necessarily represents a larger percentage of its schedule than do the games that non-Ivies play as a product of the limitations of Ivy-League scheduling. Additionally, Cornell’s having played barely more than one-third of its games while other programs like Penn State have played nearly half of theirs by December 15 functions as a weighted average that allows violent variation in the former and considerable predictability in the latter. The former is easier to change for better or worse. The latter is more stagnant.
So, yes, for some programs, the Pairwise Ranking of December 15 is a worthy predictor of the likelihood of receiving an invitation to the Frozen Four First Round. It is not for Cornell. The 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons provide a ripe anecdote of why. In both of those seasons, Cornell was “in” the national-tournament field as of December 15. Did Cornell play any games in the last weekend of March those seasons?
This writer so readily dismisses the value of a sound performance in out-of-conference play because over the last half-decade, Cornell has accumulated a 20-10-4 record in out-of-conference contests. Only once in that time did the Red not produce a winning non-conference record. Cornell made the national tournament in none of those four completed seasons.
The Red’s 5-2-0 non-conference record this season is promising. It remains but a very short line in the resume any or this Cornell team will need to draft to hear Buccigross call its name on March 19. The formula for earning entry into the national tournament is the template of the last season in which Cornell earned entry to the Frozen-Four tournament.
Which victory catapulted Coach Schafer and his 17th team into the national tournament? It was an instant-classic victory over Union in late February. Oh, yeah, Cornell did not have a winning non-conference record that season.
Cornell’s next berth in the national tournament will be like its last one: forged in the build-up to the chase for the Whitelaw Cup. The newest members of the Lynah Faithful should be more worried about playing in the penultimate weekend of March before focusing only on getting to that month’s concluding games. The formula for competing for and hopefully (it has been fartoo long) winning a Whitelaw Cup has not changed in Coach Schafer’s 22 years.
Coach Schafer took the reins of the Clydesdale that is Cornell hockey with four stated benchmarks for a good season: sweep Harvard, earn a bye in the playoffs, compete for the Whitelaw Cup, and make a run at a national title. Cornell has not accomplished the second of those benchmarks in two seasons. The means of achieving that goal were simplified in a way that only a great coach of the game could.
Teams that want to enjoy real home ice, the type that comes with a bye, must at least sweep at home and split on the road. This is the Schafer Formula. The Red has earned a bye every time that Cornell has earned conference points at a rate equivalent to that mandate. Only once have the carnelian and white won at that rate and not won the Whitelaw Cup.
Formula may be too mild a word on second thought. Perhaps, it is more aptly the Schafer Theory if not the First Law of Schafer. It works no matter the nomenclature. Oh, for those so inclined, each time that Schafer-coached teams earned conference points at an equivalent rate, Cornell advanced to the national tournament.
This Cornell team endured the longest roadtrip in the modern era of Cornell hockey to begin the 2016-17 season. The Red’s conference schedule reflects the frequency of games away from friendlier Lynah Rink. Cornell has played five games in ECAC Hockey on the road. It has played conference opponents twice at home. Cornell would have nine conference points if it produced results at the rate that the Law requires. Cornell owns exactly nine points.
Cornell was precisely on schedule with its in-conference results in the first half of the season. Check the tense of the verb in that sentence. The second season begins on Friday. Cornell positioned itself well for a big second half in ECAC Hockey. The skaters of East Hill sit at an effective fourth place in conference standings.
Only Union, Harvard, and St. Lawrence have made more of their in-conference opportunities than have the members of this Cornell hockey team. Cornell is currently earning 24.0% fewer points per game than is St. Lawrence. Union and Harvard are several steps ahead earning 0.41 and 0.38 more points per game than the Red is right now.
The Red has ground that it needs to make up over the next several weeks. A bye would award Cornell were the playoffs to begin before Friday. The playoffs do not begin for nearly two months. Those two months are a double-edged sword.
The weekends of those months provide ample opportunity for Cornell to plummet to the lower rungs of the conference like it did last season after challenging Quinnipiac for the league’s first seed. Coach Schafer will lead his squad in five games against the three teams currently outperforming it. This will provide this team with the rope to ascend the sheer cliff to a bye or to hang itself with the need to play in the first round for a third consecutive season.
The Law anticipates that a good season for wearers of the carnelian and white amounts to earning 1.50 conference point per game. However, Cornell has earned berths to the Frozen Four First Round and byes with rates not quite as lofty. The Red rolls at an average winning rate of 1.34 points per game when it earns a post-season bye.
This team gained credit toward seeding at a rate of 1.29 conference points per game in the first half. It was off pace by the 22-year average of rest-earning Cornell teams. The Red needs to improve to secure that elusive and all but necessary bye. The good news is the road ahead of this team.
The road to Lake Placid can be paved with fallen opponents whom Cornell enjoys felling. The latest regular-season installments of the contemporary rivalry with Union and historic clash with nemesis Harvard at Lynah Rink will provide ample motivation beyond mere getting points for three key clashes. The motivations for the remainder should be simple.
As one keen observer of ECAC Hockey reminds this writer from time to time, in the opinions of the 11 other members of ECAC Hockey, Cornell is often regarded as the most loathsome opponent in the conference. It is the big game. The travelling, obnoxious, and resurgent Lynah Faithful only will add to the stakes of each of the six remaining road games. This weekend sends the Red on the road.
Senior defenseman and alternate captain Patrick McCarron who has answered the call of Where Angels Fear to Tread and this contributor to be a mainstay point producer for Cornell (he is tied currently for the most points on the team) will lead his team against Princeton and Quinnipiac this weekend. Princeton may be winless since its attention-getting win streak broke on December 17. The Tigers nonetheless performed admirably against stout competition last weekend. Princeton traded offensive blows with Harvard during the Tigers’s last outing. It was not until a series of fortuitous power plays, a trend that is emerging in Cambridge, allowed the Crimson to pull away for good.
Quinnipiac is Quinnipiac. The Bobcats have put the Ithacans in the red too many times in recent memories. So, a 4-6-1 record since Cornell last fell to Quinnipiac should not give Cornell any undeserved confidence in approaching Saturday’s match-up.
Cornell needs to heed Drake’s ever-appropriate admonition for all the other contests. The Red has enemies. They have designs on draining the Red of any inertia it can muster to win a Whitelaw Cup.
Any effort less than this team’s best should be anticipated to be met with defeat.