March 9, 2007

Special Teams Play Critical Role

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In the do-or-die atmosphere of playoff hockey, being able to capitalize on even the smallest window of opportunity can prove to be the difference between moving on to the next round or seeing a season come to an end.

When Cornell faces Quinnipiac tonight in Lynah Rink for the first game of a best-of-three ECACHL quarterfinals series, the contest’s tipping point could come on special teams — an aspect of the game in which the Bobcats have excelled and the Red has encountered its share of difficulties.

“We know that they have a great power play and a great penalty kill too,” said senior forward Mark McCutcheon. “They generate a lot of scoring there. In playoff hockey, it often comes down to that.”

The Bobcats (18-13-5, 10-8-4 ECACHL) have hung with the league leaders in both categories, ranking fourth in the league with a 19.3 percent success rate on the power play while killing off 84.6 percent of its penalties, good for fifth in the league. On the other hand, the Red (14-11-4, 10-8-4) has the worst power play in the league — scoring on just 12.7 percent of its chances — and is ranked No. 10 among conference foes with an 80.1 percent penalty kill rate.

Despite what the numbers say, however, the Red has stuck by its guns and worked to reinforce its systems on special teams during its two-week layoff.

“After the first weekend, we regrouped to go over systems [and] make sure everyone knows what they’re doing out there,” said freshman defenseman Brendon Nash. “[There are] not too many changes because everything’s been working well. … We’re just crystallizing things.”

Quinnipiac boasts some of the best special teams’ performers in the league on its roster, as senior defenseman Reid Cashman leads the ECACHL in points scored on the power play. Cashman could be primed to strike this weekend after starting the playoffs with a five-point showing in two games during the Bobcats’ sweep of Union in the opening round.

Cashman is not a solo threat, however, as junior forward Jamie Bates leads all ECACHL players with eight power-play goals and freshman forward Brandon Wong paces the league in shorthanded scores.

“Their special teams are some of the best in the country, so we’ll have to watch out for that,” McCutcheon said.

While the numbers appear daunting, Cornell has adjusted to Quinnipiac’s strengths over the span of the season, becoming the first league team to shut out the Bobcats with a 2-0 win in Lynah Rink on Feb. 16, after dropping a 5-2 road contest to Quinnipiac on Nov. 18. McCutcheon attributed the different results to the Cornell players taking a more focused approach in the sides’ second meeting.

“[In the loss,] we knew what to expect but we weren’t ready for it,” McCutcheon said. “As long as we come with the right mindset, we’ll be fine.”

That has been the emphasis in practice over the last two weeks, as the Cornell coaches have repeatedly reminded their players of the success they have found when they play within their systems.

“It’s about trusting each other out there and trusting what the coaches [teach] us,” Nash said. “We have to make sure we’re always focused and prepared.”