The six narratives that accompany the upcoming Cornell-Union series follow.
Defense vs. Offense
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
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
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
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.
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
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.