February 2, 2006

'Gate Weekend Vital for Red's 2005-06 Season

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Don Vaughan sat uncomfortably in his seat during the wee hours of the evening last November, as his Colgate men’s hockey team’s bus stopped moving on the Massachusetts Turnpike because of a major accident up ahead. Any sane individual would just want to get home at this point, especially in Vaughan’s case on that particular evening – his team was returning after a 6-4 loss at Harvard that night.

Suddenly, he heard a knock on the door and saw a familiar face – Cornell head coach and friend, Mike Schafer ’86. Schafer and his team were making the ride back from Hanover, N.H., stinging from a 6-1 loss at the hands of Dartmouth and the Cornell bus was coincidentally stuck right behind Colgate’s. As they waited, the two coaches chatted on the side of the road for about a half-an-hour, talking about their respective games, the officiating and other matters concerning their teams.

“It was kind of a nice experience,” Vaughan said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “[What were] the odds of that happening?”

For Schafer and Vaughan, as well as their squads, that random evening in Middle of Nowhere, Massachusetts almost three months ago would symbolize what would become of the ECACHL standings coming into the regular season’s home stretch. Like its bus that evening, Colgate is in front its arch rival, Cornell, by three points heading into this weekend’s home-and-home series between the two sides. And while hosting our archrival Harvard at Lynah Rink is (and probably always will be) the most captivating encounter, the Colgate series is undoubtedly Cornell’s most important weekend of the season.

By the time the final whistle blows on Saturday night, in the most extreme scenarios, Cornell could be up by a point on its local rival or trail by seven – effectively ending any probable shot of earning the regular season crown.

For many who take an overview of central New York collegiate hockey, Colgate is, in many cases, considered Cornell’s proverbial maroon-haired stepchild – forgotten about, disrespected or underrated because of its neighbor’s looming presence in college hockey. But, the Raiders have given the Red plenty of trouble recently, as Cornell has gone 2-3-1 in its last six games against Colgate. In the cyclical nature of sports and the ECACHL, Cornell and Colgate happen to be the top dogs in the conference – bringing a ferocity to a series which is only overshadowed by the Red’s rivalry with Harvard.

“My feeling is that Cornell is a little bit better defensively than Colgate and that Colgate may have a little advantage in terms of balanced scoring on lines,” said Yale head coach Tim Taylor, after his Bulldogs faced both teams this past weekend.

According to Taylor, as it does in most cases, the series, which he predicts will be low-scoring, will undoubtedly come down to special teams. Colgate currently boasts the ninth-best power play in the nation (20.8 percent) whereas Cornell possesses the eighth-best penalty kill (86.1 percent). In relation to this, Schafer points out that the refereeing could play a big role determining the flow of the games.

“The biggest thing going into the game, is getting a real feel for the official,” Schafer said. “Over the last two weekends, we’ve seen two totally different styles from [the] St. Lawrence and Clarkson [series] to this past weekend with Brown and Yale. That’s even the bigger aspect of it is to make sure we’re disciplined with whichever way the referee calls the game.”

Vaughan readily admits that his team is younger and not as deep as Cornell, and the Raiders’ inexperience factor could come into play at Lynah tomorrow evening. According to Vaughan, staying focused and ignoring distractions against a seasoned Cornell team will be key.

“When you finally get over [to Lynah], in a way as a freshman, you’re kind of amazed by it,” said Colgate captain Jon Smyth. “But then, you really have to get past it. If you’re not ready at that rink, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Cornell will undoubtedly try to capitalize on Colgate’s relatively mediocre penalty kill as well. The Raiders have killed off 81.5 percent of opponent’s power plays, good for only ninth in the ECACHL. In addition, Raiders goaltender Mark Dekanich is a solid, but it is severely debatable whether he has ascended to the lofty echelon that graduated predecessor Steve Silverthorn reached.

“Special teams is going to play a huge role this weekend for us; we have to stay out of the box,” said Colgate leading scorer Tyler Burton. “We don’t want to get into a power play war [with Cornell].”

One point of concern for the Red this season is that more so than other teams in the ECACHL, Cornell relies heavily on its power play to generate its goals. Thus far, 41.54 percent of Cornell’s tallies have come on the man-advantage – a mark which is third in the league behind bottom-feeders Princeton and Brown. Meanwhile, Colgate ranks 11th (34.09 percent) in that category. Even with the statistically-best power play in the nation last year, 38.39-percent of Cornell’s goals came off the man advantage.

While Cornell coaches and players downplay it, scoring even-strength goals has been a little bit of a hit-or-miss proposition for this year’s team. If one asked the question, “Which Cornell player has the most even-strength goals?” the answer would not be senior Matt Moulson, junior Byron Bitz or sophomore Raymond Sawada. Rather, the answer is senior Chris Abbott, who has five. Bitz has two and Moulson, who leads the ECACHL in power play goals with 11, and Sawada, each have one.

“I don’t think it matters,” Moulson said. “We want to do whatever we can to get the win and obviously, we want to get 5-on-5 goals, but in the end, all that matters is the score on the scoreboard.”

In some regards, he’s right. Because on paper, there is nothing which truly separates the two teams. There is so much intensity – especially on the Raiders’ side – and intangibles which go into a series like this that as Vaughan, a former Cornell assistant coach, said, the statistics go out the window and the “games take on a different meaning.” And for the Colgate community, Cornell is their Harvard.

“There’s definitely a sense of excitement and buildup on campus. Since my freshman and sophomore year, it’s really grown on campus every year,” Smyth said. “It [could be] a big turning point in the season.”

Both venues for this weekend are virtually sold out, and both sets of fans are heavily rallying behind their teams – with Colgate making an attempt to wear white to “white out the Big Red” at Starr Rink and Cornell fans responding by creating a “sea of Red” at Lynah Rink.

While members of both sides of this series state that they will only be satisfied with four points, I am positive that either team would definitely take a win and a tie. As traveling partners, the Red and the Raiders have the same, challenging set of six games (four of them on the road) before the conference playoffs.

It can certainly be argued that this series does not mean that much since Colgate or Cornell could potentially trip up against any of the teams which both squads have to face in the remainder of the season (eg: Harvard, Dartmouth, St. Lawrence). But, counting on another team to lose is always a dangerous game to play. The victor of this series would gain crucial momentum in this stretch run and would undoubtedly boost its postseason credentials. Additionally, as seen in recent times against the Crimson in which the Red has won eight out of its last nine against its Ivy rival, beating a team in the regular season could be a mental factor in the ECACHL postseason as well if the teams do meet.

And most importantly, it will be one of the only times this season in which Cornell gets to control its own fate.

“I think that’s all you can ask for