October 20, 2008

Red Looks Crisp in Early Exhibition Test

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For the second consecutive year, the hockey team has opened its season with an exhibition tie. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that it’s going to be a tale of two seasons.
Cornell opened last year against Trois-Rivieres, University of Ottawa, and RIT, three teams arguably far weaker than the U.S. Under-18 Development Team. Disappointingly, however, Cornell finished an unimpressive 1-1-1 in those three games, registering just one goal in two of those contests.
This year, though, with only one coach’s practice under its belt heading into Saturday’s contest, Cornell looked far sharper and somewhat more disciplined than it did for good chunks of last season.
To begin, the U-18 Team is chock full of speedy, talented rising stars heading to schools such as Boston College, Michigan, Denver and North Dakota. It’s kind of like having a bunch of future Riley Nash’s on your roster. They move the puck well, block shots better than most college teams I’ve seen, and have the ability to explode past the defense en route to creating scoring opportunities.
Yet, our sieves between the pipes proved why Cornell will be a formidable opponent this year. For the time he was in net, Ben Scrivens reminded Lynah Rink why he will be the No. 1 goalie again this season. Scrivens made some very difficult saves look easy by staying on top of his crease, challenging shooters, and cutting down on available angles. I thought the extra work he put into the off-season between his freshman and sophomore years paid off in huge dividends last season, as he led the ECAC with a 2.02 GAA.
This season, Scrivens seems to be making some minor adjustments that will help establish him as a premiere D-I goaltender. He’s going to have to stay on his game too, because lurking on the bench will be freshman netminder Mike Garman, who debuted in a red and white sweater for the second half of the game. His first ice time may be overshadowed by the fact that he posted just three saves on five shots, but make no mistake: this kid is for real.
What goalies do not do is frequently overlooked, and Garman did not wander out of his crease unnecessarily, give up big rebounds, or misplay the puck. All of these errors plagued Scrivens during his freshman year. Garman, however, seemed comfortable and relaxed. The adjustment to the collegiate level will take some time, and barring a meltdown, I do not expect Garman to steal the starting job from Scrivens.
However, Scrivens played in 35 of 36 games last year and started in the last 34, a huge load to carry. With Garman ready to start games against weaker opponents, expect Scrivens to be even stronger this season. It’s a phenomenon that’s strikingly similar to Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, who posted a 2.64 GAA while playing in 76 games last year. This season Miller has Patrick Lalime as back up and has only played in three of the Sabres first five games. With the extra rest, Miller has a 3-0 record, a GAA of 1.30 and a .945 save percentage.
On the blueline, things looked good but not great. Cornell still lacks a core of defensemen who can either consistently make tape-to-tape passes or skate the puck through the neutral zone. Our breakout plays unquestionably have to be better this year. I was disappointed to see a number of errant cross-ice passes and neutral zone giveaways. Blunders like that will not win you championships.
Nonetheless, I was thoroughly impressed with the way Justin Krueger finally shook off the European style defense. On the way to the game, I said that Krueger had to be more physical and throw his size around. He did just that from whistle to whistle. Brendon Nash, conversely, showed once again how much maturing he has left to do. Regardless of his motivations, Nash’s hitting after the whistle is nothing more than an effective way of guaranteeing yourself an extra two — or five — minutes in the box. He also doesn’t always pull up on hits from behind. Checking from behind is a serious offense in hockey due to the likelihood of injury. Ryan Hollweg of the NHL has been suspended twice (for a total of five games) already this season for hits from behind.
On the other hand, Nash is an effective puck mover on the powerplay, and his presence for hopefully the entire season is a welcome difference from last year, when he missed a significant amount of time due to a knee injury.
Otherwise, Jordan Berk still needs some work on putting quality shots on goal, but it was great to see 6-4 Sean Whitney, who brought back memories of the large Cornell defense of old, like Douglas Murray ‘03 and Ryan O’Byrne ‘06.
Offensively, two lines will decide every single game for Cornell this season. The checking core four of Tyler Mugford, Joe Scali, Derek Punches and Dan Nicholls makes an immediate impact every shift. These guys are the most fun to watch because they sacrifice their bodies by laying huge hits and blocking shots. Scali won my award for most improved player last season, and Punches, who transferred from the now-defunct Wayne State, adds another element of grit to this line.
I remember at the hockey line someone asking Mugford and Punches if they were the guys who scored. They chuckled to themselves and politely responded, “No.” These guys won’t put up big numbers, but similar to last season, the checking line will be responsible for neutralizing the top guns of our opponents. They work tirelessly to kill penalties, and finally cashed in for their first shorthanded goal in over a year.
Schafer mixed and matched the rest of the lines throughout Saturday evening, but one thing is certain: Colin Greening and Riley Nash are better than you. These guys clearly see the game differently than everyone else on the ice and magically find room to create. I think Schafer is going to struggle again to find a winger who can keep up with these guys. Locke Jillson impressed me early on the top line, but I would consider giving Evan Barlow another shot there. Barlow has flashes of brilliance every season, but seems to lose steam midway through. If he can perform at high level the entire year, that line will prove to be one of the deadliest in the NCAA.
Overall, it’s difficult to not feel impressed by this game, especially the ease with which the freshmen transitioned to the roster. The U-18 Team is a strong club, with wins over some ECAC Hockey teams already this young season. Perhaps because expectations have been so high the last couple years due to a history of success, fans have been overly disappointed with Cornell’s play of late. Yet this season, Cornell seems on track to be very competitive in ECAC Hockey. It certainly will be a fun season of hockey.