First, let's reflect upon the playoffs. They are the best of times. They are the worst of times. Much like anything that brings exhilaration in life, they are fleeting and seemingly dangerous, in relative terms, nature is what creates their associated excitement. The fact that a few shifts or even one shift can end the season is why this time is the most exciting time of year. It is the time of proving character. It is the most Cornellian time of season. Let's descend into our Dickensian melodrama.
Trust us, there will be the best of times, there will be the worst of times. Both align in perfect harmony. A championship season manages to have the former in proper balance with the latter. The uplifting news about this team is that it has learned the joys of keeping its game in balance and the sorrow of becoming unbalanced. The trials of the season and the resolve of this team to learn from them will be bared in the playoffs.
This writer takes no satisfaction in being right when it means that Cornell suffers consequences. I was right last weekend. The post that went up before last weekend highlighted how Cornell had been surrendering fewer shots but of a higher quality to opponents in the second half than it had in the first. The argument continued that Cornell was becoming too complacent in its own end and was not generating enough pressure in front of the opposing netminder.
The weekend began with the Bears of Brown running roughshod over Cornell like one would expect a roving grizzly upon finding raw meat, a blowing breeze, and a fan. Three goals were surrendered in the first period. Then, miraculously, Cornell awoke. Brown did not see the puck for most of the contest but for a few breakaways that Hayden Stewart directed away with ease. With the Bears cooking under the pressure, Cornell mounted a three-goal rally. That story has been discussed before, but what it proved was how this Cornell team functions most efficiently.
Paradoxically, when pressing for a lead and leaving Hayden Stewart on what seemed like an island at times, Cornell's play when it was challenged on break-out plays in its own end was more disciplined and focused. Cornell proved that the best means of keeping the puck out of the net is to keep it on that of the other team. The Big Red forgot that fact at some point in the last month. Last weekend should have been a pointed lecture in that reality.
The Yale game was a sickening affair. A few misplays gave Yale a 1-0 lead far too early. Cornell responded with sustained pressure. The Big Red looked after early lapses to have found its offensive-zone dominance from the previous night. Keith Allain looked happy (well, as happy as he ever does) that his team escaped to the locker room with a slim lead.
The second period began much the same way. Nine minutes into the period, Cornell was buzzing, it was breaking out of its own zone for another wave of pressure in the Elis's end. The puck found its way through the slimmest of cracks between Mitch Gillam's skate and the post. Trent Ruffolo was credited with the goal. A red glove grasped the last stick that it touched.
It is unclear whether a state of shock overcame the team when a veteran mishandled the puck in such a manner or if a two-goal deficit against Yale seemed too great, but the fervor of Cornell was lost. The game went with it. This writer doubts that a similar mishandling will occur in the postseason. However, bad things will happen and disappointing moments will emerge. Alarmingly, the team lacked resilience in the face of such an error. Such a deficiency will damn its season if it cannot overcome it.
This team has been the embodiment of resiliency with its comeback efforts and grit. This is no time for its members to lose the edge that makes them distinct and threatening. This writer, sadly, doubted the ability of this team to mount a three-goal comeback. I pledged after that no matter the deficit, no matter the situation, no matter the odds, no matter the opponent, I will not doubt this team again. This week it should have whetted that edge and be ready for Cornell's most important time of season.
Character and grit are the hallmarks of this team. John McCarron says that he wants to bring the blue-collar mentality back to Cornell hockey. Well, the regular season showed glimmers of that. Nothing is more blue collar than doing the hard things because they are necessary and taking no shortcuts. Adherence to those tenets is the strongest aspect of this team.
It principal deficiency? Well, we all know that, right? This team cannot score goals in bunches. That is what we have been told repeatedly. The team and fans have been harangued with that reality. This writer is here now to tell you that the scoring drought this season is an advantage wrapped in the vestiges of a detriment.
Last season, few worried about scoring when the ECAC Hockey tournament arrived. Cornell was the fourth seed. All was good in the world. You know, the if-it's-not-broke-don't-fix-it mentality. This writer noticed that the Big Red's offense was anything but red hot headed into the playoffs last season. I was crazy, right?
In the playoffs, the time of year that coaches and players of this program tell us matters most, Cornell averaged just 1.50 goals per game. The figure unto itself is not horrendous. A defensive team should score all the goals that it needs, not put up gaudy numbers for the purpose of self-indulgence. The way in which Cornell's playoff run ended is why the Big Red's cooling offense became important. The Big Red found itself in a scoring duel with Union. Cornell responded to bring the margin to 2-1 and 3-2, but after the Dutchmen made it 4-2, the damage was done. The hole was too deep. The team did not have it in it.
The 2013-14 team had scored more than two goals in regulation just once in the month of February. The same cannot be said about the 2014-15 edition. Delving further, the offense of last season was cooling off head into the playoffs. Last season's Cornell team averaged scoring 2.54 goals per game over the season. The month-long build-up to the postseason in February did not treat that team well. Cornell's offensive production was at a level equivalent to 74.4% of its seasonal average. The trend continued into the playoffs where it flatlined at 59.1% of its seasonal average on the ice of Herb Brooks Arena.
How does the 2014-15 team compare? Predictably, the seasonal average for this season's team is below that of last season's team. How did the team fare on its month-long run to the postseason? It improved! It became more offensively productive. Yes, this team, the one that has raised alarm for its described scoring ineptitude, produced 105% more offense per contest than its seasonal average would predict. This edition is coming into the playoffs hotter than did its analog last season.
Ah, I can sense the disbelief now. The astute reader is wondering what form of statistical chicanery I have employed to fool you. This writer will lay the numbers out plainly. The month before the playoffs last season, Cornell averaged 1.89 goals per game. The month before the playoffs this season, Cornell averaged 2.00 goals per game. Yes, even in absolute terms, this Cornell hockey team is outperforming last season's team in scoring offense over the same associated span (by a factor of 105%, if one is curious).
Cornell's offense is entering the postseason hotter. Why is the drought a benefit? The drought is a benefit because since the opening weekend this team has heard how that if it does not bury its chances, it will lose every contest. Coaches, players, and the media have harped on this fact. It is not glossed over like it was last season. The fear of the goose egg is alive and well in this team. It will not take for granted that scoring will come like Cornell might have last season in game two against Clarkson or the semifinal contest against Union.
The players of this team feel compelled to convert when an opportunity is present because the fear of not having another such chance is very real to this team in ways that it was not last season. Nary a scoring chance should be squandered. An increased rate of converting on breakaways would do wonders to decrease the stress of converting on all other opportunities.
Schafer is a man of little modulation. His stated system wins games. His favored formula wins championships. That is why it is interesting that this season an element of his formula changed. The formula usually mandates that Cornell earns a home-ice bye. Interestingly, beginning over a month ago, Schafer stated consistently that his only goal was to earn "home ice" and begin the ECAC Hockey tournament at Lynah Rink. Why the change? This writer cannot be certain.
Coca-Cola rarely tinkers with its own forumla. Mike Schafer is usually very similar. Each alteration is for effect. Let's just hope this deviation results in us all guzzling a cold one of Coke Zero in late March rather than spitting out New Coke. However, until proven ineffective, I will prove the psychosociology of The Joker correct, and go along with the plan, even if it is horrifying.
Experience may prove the genius of Schafer's choice not to place too great an emphasis on obtaining a bye. What may have started as Schafer's way of trying to accommodate for a team that needed to break in a young defensive corps over a long season, will serve an additional purpose for this team. Experience proved this trend.
The team does not take well to breaks. The scoring blight came back after the mid-season break. Is there cause to trust that a week off after Cornell's offense warmed for a month would not plunge this team's offensive production into the abyss? This writer finds no such reason. Gambling the end of the season and a possible championship run on it would be unwise, to put it kindly. Furthermore, the week off would do nothing to avoid a scoring lapse and might have sacrificed this team's tirelessness, one of this team's greatest assets.
Indefatigability is one of the traits of this team that began to strike this writer several weeks ago. Whether it is charging to win a race to the puck in the offensive zone, backchecking to create the next lethal transition play, or laying physical hits to wear down its opponents, the duration of the game and season has no effect on this team. It is shocking. This team does not want to stop playing. So, why should it have?
The style of play by which this team wins has been called "adaptive desperation" and "anticipation" on Where Angels Fear to Tread this season. Any and all playoff victories will come from those approaches. Cornell needs to be calm. It is when opponents have gotten this team scrambling that the Big Red crumbles. Lying in wait, anticipating the mistake or misplay that will come, pouncing into play, and reaping the reward is how this team plays dominantly. Over the last month, the Big Red has proven behind the leadership of its junior and senior classes to be able to play desperately in a responsible manner and adapt to nearly any situations that its few errors have presented. The tirelessness of this team feeds its ability to simultaneously know its own limits and refuse to surrender.
This is the postseason. This is Lynah Rink. Cornell will need to take the ice ready to land the first major hit and exert its will. The building is fearsome unto itself, but it is the Lynah Faithful and this team that will need to make it the place that opponents dread (thought I was going somewhere else, didn't you?).
The leaders of this team will need to take the reigns. Cole Bardreau and John McCarron can provide a jolt. However, a typical ingredient to most successful postseason pushes in Cornell hockey history involves the stellar two-way play of a blueliner. Expect Joakim Ryan to loom large from the point and in the paint. Jacob MacDonald will need to continue an impressive load of minutes with even more impressive play. Need a cure for Cornell's breakaway ills? Few players in college hockey can split defensemen and beat goaltenders as fluidly as can Madison Dias.
The greatest overarching attribute of this team is its unity. The team is neither one of all starts nor individual efforts. Two anecdotes from last weekend's Brown game prove this.
Cole Bardreau was due a goal for his tremendous efforts and several near misses of Brown's net. Bardreau was killing the penalty that Cornell incurred with two minutes remaining when a lane to Ernst opened. The senior forward who had done everything and more to earn the goal chose not to risk the odd-man rush that could result from an attempted breakaway. He carried the puck into the Red's end while Brown went for a change. The penalty was killed.
The other moving moment was watching the zeal with which Hayden Stewart and Mitch Gillam support one another on the bench. In a situation that would raise tension on the benches of ordinary programs, Hayden Stewart entered the Brown contest in relief of Mitch Gillam. With each of Hayden Stewart's dazzling saves and redirections of the puck that Hayden Stewart, Mitch Gillam applauded and encouraged all the louder.
Gillam, like Bardreau, and like all other members of this team, knows that this is about Cornell hockey and Cornell University. Individuals may be praised and complimented, but it is the program and the University that unites us.
The character of this team is staggering. No team can feel confident when this Cornell team lines up on the opposite blue line. This team has only one adversary that can defeat it.
Its greatest enemy is itself. Its own errors defeat it. Each setback has been a product of its own internal stumbles, not an externally imposed state. This team will make the choice of how successful it wants to be in the postseason.
Trust & Live. The playoffs are here.