By KEVIN LINSEY
Over the years, Cornell men’s hockey has become one of the best college programs in the country, with two national championships to its name. Most successful teams rely on strong offenses led by stellar skill players, but as I contended in last week’s piece about the power play, this has never been the case for Cornell. The Red has always employed a defense-first strategy, never focusing on racking up goals. Therefore, while other legendary college hockey programs like North Dakota churn out goal-scoring forwards like Jonathan Toews, Cornell produces NHL-caliber defensive forwards. Colin Greening and Matt Moulson are two recent examples of the typical Cornell contribution to the NHL.
So what does this mean for 2015? In one sentence, it means that Cornell needs to develop a productive offense; they cannot simply rely on an offense-by-committee approach like the one that struggled last season. The Red need to establish a reliable line that scores often, a second line that scores occasionally, and two supplementary power forward lines. This is an approach that head coach Mike Schafer used to great effect last weekend in two games against Niagara.
This past weekend, junior center Jeff Kubiak and his freshman wingers Mitch Vanderlaan and Anthony Angello combined for four goals and four assists. This scoring line is not made up of proven scorers for Cornell. Kubiak only scored two goals for the Red in his past two seasons on East Hill, before he netted two tallies on Saturday night. Angello picked up his first career goal on Friday, blasting in a one-timer. Vanderlaan lit the lamp on Saturday, jamming home a loose puck from point-blank range. These three displayed strong chemistry this weekend and were rewarded by Schafer with plenty of ice time.
The other lines played with the work ethic Schafer demands of his players. In particular, the line of Trevor Yates centering Jared Fiegl and Alex Rauter impressed on the forecheck. Their desire to win the puck back was relentless and unwavering, even when Cornell possessed a big lead. These three sophomores only combined for two goals last year, but all three can step into larger roles this year.
The line of Christian Hilbrich, Jake Weidner and Teemu Tiitinen emphasizes Schafer’s hard-nosed style of hockey. Senior wingers Hilbrich and Tiitinen know Schafer’s system; Weidner, a junior, has the best playmaking ability on the team. Schafer is likely placing the team’s best chance-creator with two seniors that know his style, hoping Weidner can pass to the two wingers in scoring situations. Tiitinen, in particular, will be one to watch this year. He struggled with injuries last year and did not score any goals. He is capable of playing a central role in his senior season if he stays healthy and earns more ice time.
Another line combination on Saturday was clearly intended to produce secondary scoring. Left wing Beau Starrett, center Eric Freschi and right wing Matt Buckles all are capable of scoring goals. Starrett is a highly heralded freshman, a third-round draft pick by the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. Freschi, a junior, doesn’t score too often, but scored two of the biggest tallies of last season: the overtime winner against Clarkson at home and the game-winner versus Harvard at home. Buckles, a junior, is the team’s best shooter and scored eight times last year. This line will be invaluable when it comes to producing secondary scoring.
The most significant line, in my opinion, is Starrett-Freschi-Buckles. Freschi was the only one to notch a goal over the weekend. This line plays the extremely important role of secondary scoring. The talented scoring forwards cannot carry the entire load for a team; one does not see Harvard or Yale relying on only one line for offense. To match those teams in offensive efficiency, Cornell needs a second line with offensive potential.
Secondary scoring has proven to be important, time and time again, in both the NHL and college hockey. If your top players have an off night, these players need to step up. Expect coach Schafer to mix and match players on this line the most; sophomore Dwyer Tschantz and senior John Knisley, both currently injured, may play on this line when healthy.
Obviously, Schafer can and will change the composition of his forward lines. After all, the lines are one of the most influential ways a coach can change the game. Yet, we can infer from his line choices early in the season what characteristics he wants in each group. Kubiak, Angello and Vanderlaan have been reliable offensively, and the two other lines provide Schafer’s trademark defensive focus.
In the end, though, will the second, third and fourth lines score the goals needed to win games? Early signs, albeit against inferior opponents than the Red will face in its ECAC schedule, indicate that there will be a more balanced scoring approach from Cornell this season. When the puck drops against Princeton on Friday, the onus is on Cornell’s lower lines to provide secondary scoring.