Potential is undetermined and undifferentiated. It is not known if it will become potency or pass unnoticed as impotence. These seniors and this team have undeniable potential, but what remains to be determined is whether potential will mature into actual results or vintage as sad counterfactuals that plague teammates, fans, and alumni when March and April arrive.
The Red found itself clawing back from a 2-1 deficit late in the contest. Its Western opponent had retrenched into a defensive shell. Reliance on a neutral-zone trap and dump-and-change monotony typified their late-game tactics. The advances from the Ithacans slowly, but at times haphazardly, fought to gain sure footing in the attacking zone. It was not until the closing minutes of the period that the Big Red muscled its way into the offensive zone through prowess and physicality.
The seconds passed. Cornell generated an intimidating net-front presence, but a goaltender who was having a stellar game stood tall to these late salvos. He solved with inversely proportional ease the increasingly dangerous lobs of the puck that he faced. The game would end. The Red fell by a one-goal margin in a 2-1 affair.
Was this game Saturday's outing? It certainly was not Friday's contest because that ended in a draw. However, it was not last weekend's second game against Nebraska-Omaha either. The players for Cornell were many of the same. The names of Cole Bardreau, Joel Lowry, John McCarron, and Joakim Ryan dotted the roster. The opponents were not. The opponents were Kyle Bonis, Jordie Johnston, Taylor Nelson, and Garrett Thompson. The Bulldogs of Ferris State were the victors.
Yes, the game of which I write is neither of the contests from this weekend, but instead the 2012 NCAA Midwest Regional Final. By all objective and historical measures, that game and its immediate predecessor remain the high-water mark for the collective career of the Class of 2015. In many noticeable ways, that game encapsulates the shortcomings, unfulfilled hope, and deficiencies of the squads to which this class has contributed. They have been playing that game for two seasons hence.
It is true that major events and wins have come since that disappointing evening in March 2012. The defeat of Michigan in the Frozen Apple 2012, the sweep of Princeton and the three-game series at Quinnipiac in the 2013 ECAC Hockey Tournament, and the return to the 2014 ECAC Hockey Championship weekend are those moments. However, the Class of 2015 has not re-elevated the program of Cornell hockey as it was advertised to do before its arrival and as it seemed to foreshadow in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. That is why it appears as though this senior class lingers still in Green Bay.
This writer opened this season appropriately and deservingly with reference to some of the greatest classes in Cornell hockey history. The Class of 2015 will be on that list. Nevertheless, it has not lived up to its potential. Since The Core, the seniors of the Class of 2015, arrived on campus, offensive production for the Big Red has decreased steadily. It is a sad reality that as one of the classes possessing of the greatest talent in the history of Cornell hockey has matured, scoring has waned.
There needs to be an end to this slow acceptance of poor offensive production. Cornell scored nearly 20% more goals per game when the Class of 2015 was in its freshman year than Cornell did when that class was in its junior season. After a weekend in which Cornell scored fewer goals in two games than Nebraska-Omaha had been surrendering per contest (2.25 goals per game) before the weekend, fears of this downward trend continuing have little reason to abate.
Last season, Cornell's sluggish rate of scoring required that its combined defense and goaltending be among the nation's 14 best just for the team to have a chance at winning an average contest. During the junior season of The Core, the poor offensive production of Cornell was underperformed by only 12 teams.
Few people enjoy a close-checking, hard-fought, and tightly contested hockey contest more than this writer. In the great defense-first vs. fire-wagon hockey debate, this writer falls decidedly in the former camp. Allowing offensive numbers to wither to the point where Cornell must have a goaltender perform better than 70% of his cohort just to have a chance at winning a game is reckless.
This is not a systemic issue either. This has very, very little, if anything, to do with Schaferian strategy. The last two seasons of Cornell hockey have seen the lowest offensive production in ten seasons. Over that span, Cornell has received an invitation to the national tournament five times. The five teams that went to the NCAA Tournament rank among the most offensively productive. Only the offensive production from the 2006-07 season interrupts the ranks of the NCAA-Tournament teams as the most offensively productive.
The two most offensively productive were the two ECAC Hockey championship teams. Last season, Cornell's rate of scoring was 30.7% less than that of the 2010 ECAC Hockey Championship team and 32.9% less than that of the 2005 ECAC Hockey Championship team. This correlation between offensive production, and NCAA-Tournament relevance and championship attainment is not accidental. The national behemoth that was the 2003 ECAC Hockey championship and Frozen Four team was 53.1% more productive than was Cornell last season. That team scored 3.69 goals per game.
The system is not a crutch in this argument. When the pejoratives of "bigger and slower" were more true than they are now and Schafer's system less accepting of creativity, Cornell was vastly more productive than it was last season when the fast and skilled Core led the team as juniors. The blame must fall somewhere other than Cornell's theory of the game.
Schafer tends to agree with this analysis. In his post-game press conference after season-opening disappointment, he placed blame for the team's lackluster performance firmly on the shoulders of the team's leadership. The five-time ECAC Hockey championship coach said "we have a group of guys who say that they want to take the next step to become a much better hockey team, but come out tonight and play by the seat of their pants." "I am tired of this group talking the talk, but not walking the walk," he continued. "Stop talking and start playing Cornell hockey" was his directed dictate.
"The group," indubitably, is the senior class. Schafer refused to say so much, but the implication was apparent. In his mind, as in the mind of this writer, it as a group remains still in Green Bay. The Class of 2015 leads this team now. Its members have no more seasons left. This is the last. They must be the leaders. This is not 2012. There is no next season and pleasantries in reference to their overall impressive talent do little to change the fact that Cornell has found itself in too many games needing to rely on them to break them open, but most of its members have delivered far too rarely.
The reality that in three seasons on East Hill, a member of the vaunted Class of 2015 has led the Big Red only once in point production is staggering. The potential of The Core has inched only ever so marginally beyond its spectacular display in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, but potential it remains. Cornell has not become dread-inducingly potent since the 2011-12 season.
One knows what the alternate end state is. This senior class has the ability to avert that fate, but several missed breakaway opportunities and unnecessary stylistic flourishes on the ice last weekend make the outlook bleak. Missed passes and awry chemistry between linemates in a sophomore season are expected and excusable. They are not when the puck drops on a highly ambitious senior campaign.
This writer began the season with comparisons between the Class of 2015 and the great Classes of 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1991. The tale was cautionary. Even graduating years that counted some of the most gifted players in the history of the program as their members were unable to bring a championship to East Hill. Only one of those classes played in the NCAA Tournament. After last weekend's performance, a corollary must be added to that argument. If the Class of 2015 fails to perform and does not seize the reins of leadership, its impact upon the program, once anticipated to be immensely beneficial, will not even be found in statistical ledgers.
It is an oxymoronic hockey maxim that veterans and star players will carry a team to the Elysian Fields of the playoffs, but once there, contributions must come from all and, if anything, disproportionately the newcomers. The newcomers and underclassmen proved that they were willing to contribute. Of the six points that Cornell players tallied last weekend, five went to someone outside the senior class. Ryan Bliss filled the void when an injured Joakim Ryan left the lineup early in the series and did not return. There has been no indication when Ryan will return.
Bliss' performance was one of the many spectacles from the freshman class. Jared Fiegl did not find the back of the net, but his line with Dias and Tiitinen was the most efficient and aggressive checking line. It created the most opportunities with hastened yet disciplined execution. Trevor Yates resembled at times another wearer of his number when he skated with the skill of a much older power forward in creating an opportunity and a goal out of essentially nothing in his first time in the carnelian-and-white sweater. The younger classes are ready to perform if the senior class can set the stage.
One point. Yes, one point was all that the senior class registered. It is only one game. It may be overstatement. But, it appears like the Class of 2015 is waiting still after two and a half years to play Cornell hockey with the distinct flavor of this class and refuse to lose. This class is talented enough that it should refuse to lose a contest, especially a 2-1 contest against an offensively minded team, and be able to rip open the game more often than not. Potential, not potency, is all that this senior class will have or be remembered for having if it cannot return teeth to the cogs of the Big Red hockey machine.