March 9, 2007

Sharpening Their Claws

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After enjoying a week of rest and watching the first round of the ECACHL playoffs to see who its next opponent would be, the men’s hockey team begins its own playoff quest tonight. Cornell hosts Quinnipiac in a best-of-three series that runs tonight through Sunday, with the winner moving on to the semifinals in Albany.

The Bobcats (18-13-5, 10-8-4 ECACHL) arrive in Ithaca having swept Union in the first round, 3-1 and 5-4. Quinnipiac, which led the ECACHL for much of the regular season, dropped three of its last four games to fall into fifth place and lose a first-round bye to Cornell on a tie-breaker. But Cornell does not intend to focus in its opponent’s recent poor form.

“You look down the board and you see a lot of guys who have put up a lot of points. They have very skilled forwards, so we’ll have to watch that,” said senior Mark McCutcheon. “But they also work hard and always have guys back on defense.”

Cornell (14-11-4, 10-8-4) and the Bobcats split the season series, with the home team picking up the win on both occasions. Back on Nov. 18, Quinnipiac took advantage of two power-play goals as it rolled to a 5-2 win. The Red would extract a measure of revenge with a 2-0 home win on Feb. 16, as sophomore Troy Davenport made 27 saves for the shutout.

“I think up there we didn’t play with enough focus. We knew what to expect but weren’t ready for it,” McCutcheon said. “At home, we came ready and had the right mindset, which you need against a team like that.”

The series will be held in the Red-friendly confines of Lynah Rink, and given Cornell’s historical home-ice performances, the term “home-ice advantage” may be an understatement. Cornell is 40-5 at Lynah Rink during the playoffs, with a 17-2 record during head coach Mike Schafer’s ’86 tenure.

Quinnipiac is familiar with the history of Lynah Rink, and knows winning in this historic building will be a challenge, but it is a challenge the Bobcats relish.

“We’re excited to play in a facility with the character of Lynah. We’ve played there before, and it’s always a great experience,” said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold. “I truly believe that Lynah is one of the best places to play college hockey, so we are looking forward to it. It’s a tough task — Cornell is great at home — but it’s our own fault that we’re on the road.”

Senior captain and defenseman Reid Cashman is the Bobcats’ undisputed leader. Currently ranked first in the NCAA in points by a defenseman with 38 — 35 of which are assists — Cashman has developed into a shut-down defenseman and a legitimate offensive threat. The All-American was at it again against Union last round, tallying one goal and four assists to earn ECACHL Player of the Week.

“He’s a great player for us, and one of the better ones in the ECAC. He is really our heart and soul, and has been phenomenal on the power play for all four years,” Pecknold said. “But I think that this year he has really begun to contribute on the penalty kill, and has really rounded out his defensive game and blossomed into a complete player. We will probably go as far as he takes us.”

On offense, the Bobcats have relied on freshman sensation Brandon Wong, who has amassed 24 goals and 42 points, both tops on the team. Red freshman Brendon Nash is familiar with Wong from their days in the British Columbia Hockey League and knows that Wong is a special player.

“We’ve seen him a couple of times, and I played against him back in [British Columbia]. He is a very good skater and is very good at creating new offense,” Nash said. “He always draws a lot of attention, but is very good at creating chances.”

Wong, however, is not the only Bobcat who can put up points. Quinnipiac has a deep rotation of forwards, including sophomore Bryan Leitch (27 points), and juniors Ben Nelson (28) and Jamie Bates (32). The Red defense will likely be tested early and often by the skilled Bobcat forwards, and thankfully for the Red, its wounded defensive unit has had an extra week to heal. Sophomore Taylor Davenport and senior Kevin McLeod are both expected to play this weekend after missing time.

In net, Quinnipiac will turn to reliable sophomore Bud Fisher, who has a 2.67 goals against average and a .898 save percentage. For the Red, the situation between the pipes is not as clear; Troy Davenport and freshman Ben Scrivens have been splitting time. While Scrivens has slightly better numbers on the year, Davenport has seen the majority of the playing time, including both games against Quinnipiac, and the sophomore was named All-Ivy Honorable Mention. Pecknold and the Bobcats, however, are not anxious about who starts for the Red.

“We’re not too concerned with which goaltender will play,” Pecknold said, “We can’t control that, and we may talk about it a bit right before the game, but there are enough things we need to worry about already.”

On offense, Cornell is led by junior assistant captain Topher Scott and senior captain Byron Bitz. Scott leads the team with 25 points and Bitz is right behind him at 24. The captain has been leading by example as of late, registering eight points over the last six games.

“We’ve had our ups and downs all season, but they have done a great job at leading and keeping us on an even keel,” McCutcheon said. “They don’t let us get too up when we’re playing well and help us get back when we’re down. Any time you’re dealing with two leaders like that, it’s a good thing.”

With two evenly matched teams — the No.5 and No.4 seeds — facing each other, the series may come down to two staples of playoff hockey — goaltending and special teams. Special teams has been a weak spot for the Red all season, while the Bobcats have excelled, scoring on 20.6 percent of their power plays and killing off 85.8% of its penalties.