November 10, 2008

Welcome Back, Coach Schafer

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Never before has Cornell hockey opened a season in such dramatic fashion. Junior goalie Ben “Mr. 0” Scrivens turned away all 68 shots he faced this weekend to shutout both No. 9 Princeton and Quinnipiac. Yet Cornell managed just one goal on the road trip and the Red rode home with three points in perhaps its most difficult test of the year.
I suppose all there is to say is welcome back Coach Schafer. After a two-year hiatus, your successful coaching style of old has made a remarkable comeback. With Scrivens flashing shades of David McKee ’06 and David LeNeveu’03, the Cornell offense once again went into hibernation, content to ride out the hot pads of the junior netminder and upset the No. 9 team in the country. Scrivens truly was spectacular, going post-to-post a couple times against Princeton and turning away a late shorthanded breakaway against Quinnipiac that almost assuredly would have been the game winner.
In front of him, however, I am still concerned about the effectiveness of the defense. Great puck-moving defensemen of the last five years like Charlie Cook ’05, Ryan O’Byrne ’06, and Douglas Murray ’03 no longer patrol the blueline for Cornell unfortunately, and Princeton’s 43 shots were not merely the result of a high-octane offense, but rather an inability of Cornell’s defense to neither consistently clear nor break out of the zone. Time and again the Red would be beaten at its own game; the physicality from the Tigers and Bobcats led to wins on the boards, Princeton clogged the neutral zone to stifle the rush, and Quinnipiac outhit Cornell. The team simply cannot count on shutting out the opposition every weekend, and while the Red was fortunate to get the defensive bounces this weekend, more time must be spent at the opposite end of the rink in future games. The Red certainly showed improvement from Friday to Saturday against the weaker opponent, but in both games the phenomenon was especially pronounced in the opening frame where Cornell mustered a lackluster eight shots between the two contests. On Friday it carried through, leading to a third period domination by Princeton, while on Saturday, Cornell turned the tables, showing more grit and endurance down the stretch in Hamden, Conn.
Nevertheless, the team’s defensive shortcomings can be excused given this was their first real contest of the young season and they had not played in two weeks. In fact, considering Princeton swept Cornell last season, they were highly touted entering this weekend, and the integral role the freshman play on Cornell’s roster already, three points is rather remarkable. I doubt Schafer has smiled as widely in recent seasons as he was on Friday while the team exited the ice.
Defense aside, when Cornell managed to take the offensive zone, especially against Quinnipiac, they did create quality scoring opportunities. Especially impressive was the play of Evan Barlow, Mike Kennedy, and Patrick Kennedy (who returned the lineup from injury) on Saturday. Mike Kennedy, who had a couple respectable scoring opportunities, proved last season that under the right line combination, he can be a 15 goal scorer. Evan Barlow, additionally, continues to play high quality hockey to start the season. Barlow found himself hauled down from behind on a breakaway midway through the second period after three nifty moves off a center-ice draw left him one-on-one with Quinnipiac freshman goaltender Nick Pisellini. Although his penalty shot was unsuccessful, Barlow’s consistent energy and hustle throughout both games sets a good example for the rest of the lineup.
Furthermore, I cannot praise the checking line of Tyler Mugford, Joe Scali, Derek Punches and Dan Nicholls enough for turning in yet another solid performance. On Friday, Mugford’s third period goal proved the difference maker, while the line shut down the likes of Princeton’s Lee Jubinville and Quinnipiac’s pesky Brandon Wong. Joe Scali saved perhaps Quinnipiac’s best scoring opportunity on a partial 2-on-0 breakaway with a diving poke check to help preserve Scrivens’ shutout streak. In addition, freshmen such as Locke Jillson and Sean Collins are already playing extremely well and will only get better as the season progresses.
Finally, an area of concern that still needs to be addressed is the power play unit. Though perfect on the penalty kill, the Red was a collective 0-for-12 with 11 shots on its own powerplay. The model of feeding the defenseman in the high slot for a one-timer has not proven effective over the last three seasons. Schafer has employed this system with Byron Bitz, Mark McCutcheon, Mike Devin, and now Brendan Nash to little avail. Far too often, a blocked shot from the high point sterilizes an otherwise efficient puck cycle.
With an inexperienced goalie like Pisellini, who was prone to surrender juicy rebounds, Cornell may have been better served by working the puck down low and then crashing the net in hopes of knocking home a loose puck. Cornell did a great job of drawing penalties against the Bobcats, especially with the clock winding down in the third period and overtime, and if they can capitalize more often on these opportunities, Cornell will win many games this season.
With the first weekend in the books, one thing is clear about the group of teams in the ECACHL. Every team is a legitimate threat to beat the other. Already, just Cornell and St. Lawrence remain as the only undefeated teams, and there were more than a handful of upsets. With such parity, Cornell must play a consistent game all season. The team has great potential, and they clearly can win without scoring many goals. If Scrivens stays solid, and the defense can keep more pucks out of our zone, look for the Red to be a legitimate threat to return to the top of the ECAC.