The last time that the Tigers of Princeton University squared off against the Big Red of Cornell University, it was the latter who emerged victorious. In a stirring display of Cornell's perennial playoff dominance, Cornell sank Coach Prier's and his Tigers's hopes of advancing in the 2013 ECAC Tournament. The Big Red outscored the Tigers eight goals to two goals in a two-game sweep at Hobey Baker Rink. The series was a resounding rebuke of Cornell's lackluster performances against Princeton in the regular season when the Tigers outscored the Big Red by a margin of six goals to three goals over two games.
Princeton began its season last weekend. Cornell and Princeton will be on equal footing when they square off in the Ivy League- and ECAC Hockey-opening series. However, unlike Cornell, the Tigers did not record two victories. Princeton pounced on the opportunity to win its first game at the Liberty Hockey Invitational at the Prudential Center. The Tigers defeated the Big Green 3-2 in overtime. Tucker Brockett found the game-winning goal. The subsequent evening, Yale would inflict the same margin of loss on Princeton.
Princeton is off to a rocky start in terms of controlling the number of shots that opponents lob toward netminder Sean Bonar. The Tigers have allowed opponents to challenge their netminder with 30 and 40 shots already this season. It was Bonar's effort in the contest against Dartmouth with 37 saves and a 0.950 save percentage that allows his average save percentage of 0.929 to conceal a much more modest outing against Yale.
Special teams have paced the Tigers as three of their five goals scored this season have come with a man advantage. The power play's percentage of contribution currently correlates to a conversion rate of 33%. It appears that early on, Princeton's power-play unit has been the teeth of the Tigers.
The power play alone is not the only weapon of Princeton. Andrew Ammon, Jack Berger, and Andrew Calof are all threats this season, as they were last season. Interestingly, Calof, whose skill set has created considerable buzz about postseason honors, has yet to find the back of the net. Additionally, new threats have emerged quickly. Ben Foster has stayed even with the point production of senior Princeton veterans such as Andrew Calof and Aaron Ave.
The sample size of Princeton's game has been too small to give a holistic view of the game that the Tigers will play. What has become apparent is that Princeton has many weapons, goaltending that will not lose it games, but has fissures in its foundations that can be exploited.
What to Expect:
A lot has been made about Cornell's viewing the contest on Saturday as a chance at vengeance or redemption. Most ignore the fact that Bob Prier and his Tigers may view Friday's game in a similar light.
Bob Prier is a proud alumnus of St. Lawrence. The Saints own the third-most number of Whitelaw Cups and have a long history of playoff success. One can assume he hoped to take strides toward bringing his personal traditions and experiences from St. Lawrence to Hobey Baker Rink last season, but it was Mike Schafer and Cornell who came into his building and delayed construction of that dream for at least one more season. It would be foolish to think that Prier and his squad do not harbor some desire for redemption against Cornell.
Prier's teams have established themselves already as fundamentally sound squads that make few mistakes. Any perceived lack of talent on his teams is more than compensated for in the way that his players approach the game in a nearly flawless manner.
Predicting the manner in which Friday's game will unfold is difficult with so many variables yet unknown for both squads after two games. Cornell and Princeton own the top-two power-play units in the country. The Big Red produce at a rate of 46.7% while the Tigers do the same at 33.3%.
The Tigers own the special-teams advantage with an unblemished 100% kill rate for their special teams. So, yes, for the second season in a row, Cornell will look to face a team that has not allowed a power-play goal when it confronts ECAC Hockey's feline travel partners.
I would assume that Mike Schafer has improved Cornell's penalty killing over the week. Also, Cornell has had nearly three times as much practice killing penalties during in-game experiences because Princeton's perfect record includes only five penalty kills. The Big Red have averaged killing six penalties per game and have killed 12 of 14 on the season.
Bonar has impressive numbers this season, but has only a 0.500 record at Lynah Rink. His save percentage in front of the Lynah Faithful is 0.894, a far cry from the 0.929 that his current stat sheet boasts.
Andrew Calof scored two goals against Cornell in one regular-season contest last season. In their next three meetings last season, Calof was held to one goal on a fluky bounce in the second quarterfinals contest and one assist. Cornell needs to neutralize Calof like it did in last postseason if they want to have the resounding victory that will make Lynah roar in its season opener.
The upperclassmen will need to steady the ship when the nerves of playing at one of college hockey's greatest venues may get to the freshmen early in the contest. The freshmen, as was seen last weekend, can be expected to play their roles effortlessly. Last weekend, it was very difficult for an unlearned observer to identify which players were freshmen and which were upperclassmen.
Expect some of the freshmen to join the scoring on Friday. No freshman has scored a goal yet this season. That will end. Expect it from Patrick McCarron or Jake Weidner. But don't be surprised if Matt Buckles, Eric Freschi, or Clint Lewis beats them both to the punch.
The narrative of the game is truly something has to give. Will Cornell's power-play unit that carried them to success in Nebraska dominate Princeton? Will Princeton continue killing penalties at a gaudy rate? Can the Lynah Faithful intimidate Bonar to allow his form to stumble? Will Cornell dominate Calof?
Cornell's season ended. In so many ways, that phrase in itself captures the narrative of the last meeting between the two programs. Quinnipiac ended the season no playoff championships richer than it had begun it, but Cornell still remembers the sting of losing a deciding game three at the Bobcats's corporately sponsored arena. Cornell was 64 seconds away from eliminating the top-seeded and top-ranked Bobcats in their own building. Yes, questionable calls were made and Cornell had a rousing series including three goals from Brian Ferlin and a 60-save effort from Andy Iles that unraveled the best of the Bobcats, but the lingering pain of the loss in itself captures how the last meeting of the ECAC's other Connecticut-hosted school and the Ivy of Upstate New York ended.
Quinnipiac lost a majority of its influential players at the end of last season. However, to their credit, the Bobcats have found a way to still keep their win totals in the black. The team is not overly talented and it has found ways to win despite being without the contributions of seniors from last season. The means by which Quinnipiac has maintained its ends of winning are distinct from last season.
Last season, Eric Hartzell kept Quinnipiac in many regular-season contests that the Bobcats could not have won without his solid goalkeeping. Hartzell may not have been a great netminder, but during the regular season, when Quinnipiac was on its winning streak, he made the difference several times en route to the top seed in the 2013 ECAC and NCAA Tournaments. Michael Garteig now tends the pipes. Garteig's performances have been solid, but not good. At best, one can describe Garteig as a goaltender who has done enough, but never more, than his team needs him to do.
Quinnipiac has played in seven contests. Garteig has gotten the start in all of them. In three of those contests, the sophomore netminder saved 85% or fewer of the shots that he faced. Garteig's overall save percentage is a respectable 0.910, but it distorts his very inconsistent nature between the pipes. He has not faced 25 or more shots in a game this season.
Quinnipiac has continued to limit scoring chances through battling rather than elaborate systemics, but this has kept them in the winning column. There will be no decisive or thought-provoking regimes from Rand Pecknold, but his players have battled and blocked shots to keep the scoring chances of their opponents low. This in conjunction with Garteig's less-than-stellar save percentage indicates that Quinnipiac is relying upon an arguably untested and likely unsure netminder when it braves Lynah Rink.
The most vaunted team that Quinnipiac has encountered is that of UMass-Lowell. The Bobcats managed an impressive home-and-home sweep. Nonetheless, despite Rand Pecknold's boosting of the River Hawks and a preseason top ranking in the national polls, it has taken them three weeks to even climb to a 0.500 record. This includes suspicious losses to UMass and Sacred Heart.
The Bobcats have won through wearing down opponents and limiting offensive opportunities. They seem to lack most of the break-out talent or opportunity-creating skills of last season. This is an odd reality because the roster of the Bobcats still includes Connor Jones, Kellen Jones, Matthew Peca, Jordan Samuels-Thomas, and Travis St. Denis.
The stifling penalty kill of last season that was the last in the nation to surrender a power-play goal is a far cry from the special teams of this Quinnipiac squad. The Bobcats have surrendered three power-play goals to date. They still maintain a penalty-kill rate of above 90%, but with questionable levels of competition, the value that can be attributed to that number remains unknown.
What to Expect:
A lot of Quinnipiac fans expected last season to be the season of defense and this season to be the season of offense. Quinnipiac is averaging a respectable, but not intimidating, 3.29 goals per game. Cornell has piled on their opponents 1.21 more goals per game than the Bobcats. The past is largely irrelevant in this contest because psychology is a major factor.
Quinnipiac ended Cornell's season in March 2013. It was at least two weeks before most Cornell fans have grown to expect the Big Red's season to have ended. It is clear that Cornell has an ax to grind against the Bobcats. However, Quinnipiac feels much the same.
Much like the mindset of Union, a program that has climbed from relative obscurity in ECAC Hockey to the elite ranks of the Conference, a few seasons ago, Quinnipiac feels that it needs to continue to validate itself. The only tournament championship that belongs to the Bobcats was won when they were not a member of ECAC Hockey. Furthermore, the Bobcats did not win more contests in a longer schedule than did Cornell's championship team of 2003. All of these factors grate on Rand Pecknold and members of his team. A Frozen-Four appearance is great, but Quinnipiac has been invited to two big dinners, but left with no silverware. The Bobcats feel they need to prove their worth and there is nary a team more suited to prove it against than ECAC Hockey's perennial in-conference and national power.
Peter Quenneville, a former teammate of Eric Freschi, is expected to be a star player for the Bobcats even in his freshman season. Reports indicate that he will be unavailable for Saturday's contest. Additionally, one of the most talented and threatening of Quinnipiac's weapons, Matthew Peca, has not found the back of the net yet this season. This limits the arsenal that the Bobcats can even attempt to unleash on Cornell.
Contrastingly, Sam Anas (I'm sure the Faithful can have fun with that) has emerged as an unexpected scoring threat that cannot be overlooked. He has scored six goals on the season already. He leads even Jordan Samuels-Thomas and Matthew Peca (obviously). Half of Anas's goals have been of the game-winning variety.
The primary defense that the Bobcats have against Cornell's early-season style of winning is their penalty kill. The Bobcats have killed off 90.6% of opponents's power-play opportunities. Cornell may be able to take advantage of its decidedly more talented power-play unit, but it will likely not be able to slay the Bobcats with reliance on special teams alone.
As stated above, the Bobcats keep scoring chances and shot totals low. This is how they protect themselves from falling prey to the lapses of an unseasoned goaltender. Cornell's best will be able better Michael Garteig if every player on Cornell's bench dedicates themselves to the grit and opportunism that almost allowed Cornell to claim a sweep in the Bobcats's den last season.
Watching tape of Quinnipiac indicates that they are very unlike last season. They play the same style. Do not expect Pecknold to try to revolutionize the game, but Quinnipiac's offense lacks the dynamism it had last season at times. Holy Cross held them at bay for half of game two in their series last weekend. The Crusaders fortified their end and limited chances with surprising ease. Mental and perhaps conditioning lapses were why Holy Cross could not hold off Quinnipiac. An absence of challenges from the Crusaders allowed Quinnipiac to wear down their opponents. Cornell must not become complacent to sit in its own end, whether on even strength or the penalty kill. This tactic failed the Big Red last season and will fail them Saturday if they attempt it against the Bobcats.
Flatly, Cornell's defensive play will need to be better than it was last weekend. The team played well. It did not play well enough for ECAC Hockey.
Quinnipiac can be contained and controlled, but victory will rest upon Cornell's talented corp of upperclassmen to best the Bobcats's defenses. The contest will not be easy, but the talent of Cornell's forwards and offensive defensemen will provide a more than sufficient test against Quinnipiac with an inexperienced goaltender who has not played at Lynah Rink.
This game is a psychological game of culture as well. Cornell's freshman class was watching as Quinnipiac scrambled through the 2013 NCAA Tournament. They may see Quinnipiac as an intimidating national runner-up, but what Cornell's upperclassmen need to establish early in the contest is that Cornell is the dominant force in ECAC Hockey, tried and tested by generations of success, not the Bobcats who merely happen to be one season removed from a third-place and second-place finish in two postseason tournaments. This contest in many ways may establish how the freshman players on East Hill view Cornell's niche in ECAC Hockey.
Mike Schafer has coached only four teams that have fallen in the ECAC Hockey Quarterfinals. Few doubt the passion of Schafer as a player or coach. It seems with such zeal, vengeance must create quite a psychological and biochemical cocktail for some tremendous results. Since Schafer took the reins of Cornell hockey in the 1995-96, Cornell has produced a 5-1-0 record in the regular season against teams that eliminated in the preceding playoff's quarterfinal round. Cornell outscored its opponents over those six regular-season contests 22 goals to 15 goals allowed. A 0.833 winning percentage in the regular season against teams that eliminate Cornell in the preseason is respectable, but what about Schafer's favorite time of year, the playoffs? Cornell has a 1.00 winning percentage against teams that defeated it in the preceding quarterfinals if they again meet in the quarterfinals. He has not lost. In those contests, Cornell outscores its opponents four to one. Without the necessary statistical analysis to conclude so, I think it is safe to assume that for Mike Schafer vengeance, or redemption, is a statistically significant motivating factor.