November 27, 2011

Strike While It’s Red Hot

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A lot has been said about the officiating by Hockey East referees at Red Hot Hockey, but it is best to focus on things the men’s hockey team can control instead of blaming others. Overall, the Red did a tremendous job recovering after a lackluster first period on Saturday, which should be greatly commended. Players proved they could bounce back on a four-day break from an embarrassing performance against Niagara, play in one of the biggest arenas in all of hockey and hold their own against experienced and talented foes. If it was not for B.U.’s stellar defense, Cornell could have easily tied the game in the second instead of halfway through the third.

Sophomore goalie Andy Iles extended his shutout streak to the second longest in program history and provided another consistent performance. For those who doubted Iles earlier in the season, including yours truly: Yes, he is the answer. The rest of the team also worked exceptionally hard, and no line looked particularly worse than any other. Without a doubt, the Faithful watched some of the best Cornell hockey in years.

However, this team has also plateaued in the past two weeks, which is more problematic than recent outcomes, PairWise rankings or any other statistic. Winning is part of the equation, but learning from experience is equally, if not more, critical — and the Red failed to do so. The bottom line is, Cornell’s stick work and puck handling skills did not improve after the Yale game, and these carrying and passing standards were not up to par against the Terriers or any other Top-10 hockey team.

Additionally, the team lacks offensive creativity and coordination, which is why fans saw a lot of “good” bouncing-puck opportunities, but rarely “great” passing opportunities that would catch the opposing goaltender out of position. The Red’s only goal at MSG, a last-effort rebound by senior forward Locke Jillson, coming off an incredible deke and shot from senior defenseman Sean Whitney, would not have went in if a B.U. player’s skate did not redirect it at the near post. With the exception of these few moments of brilliance and luck, we’re back to shoot and pray — a kind of offensive mediocrity that has plagued this program for a long time. The Red will continue to suffer these big-time losses until this problem is remedied.

At the beginning of this season, I was optimistic that things would turn around because freshman players showed promise in their innovative approach to scoring goals and winning battles in the offensive zone. While it is good that they have bought into head coach Mike Schafer’s style and improved their defense considerably, a lot of these players have also lost the skills that made them so dangerous to opponents in the first place. It might be cliche to bash “the system” here on East Hill, but I have yet to find a more convincing way to explain why these talented players were not able to convert on scoring opportunities. Against less-talented ECAC foes, it is easy to make the conservative call and just wait until the other team makes a mistake or gets an unlucky break. Unfortunately, the defense-heavy Boston squad one-upped Cornell in its own game, and the cost was a key non-conference victory.

Instead of hoping for a win every night by rolling the dice on offense, Schafer should focus on building a balanced team that has an aggressive attack, yet still able to turn on a dime and provide reasonable defense that would frustrate most opponents. Successful defensive teams don’t simply rely on its system to turn the puck over — the ability to score is a crucial part of the equation as well. This year’s players are talented and capable enough of producing such a balanced team — which I think most would agree — yet we have not seen this at this point in the season.

The loss this weekend is also a valuable learning opportunity, and Schafer should jump on this opportunity to focus on these shortcomings before the holiday season. If nothing is done about the scoring situation in the upcoming weeks, the Red will inevitably lose most of its non-conference matchups during the Winter Break, and push itself and other ECAC peers further away from an NCAA at-large bid.

Original Author: Andrew Hu