February 19, 2012

Hu | A Year of Rebuilding May Finally Be Paying Off

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Being one of only three away teams to earn three points or more in the North Country this year, the Cornell men’s hockey team proved it could win the Whitelaw Trophy at Atlantic City in 2012. Before this weekend, the Red earned three points or more on the trip only five times in the last 20 years.

Driving up to Canton and Potsdam for hockey is akin to a trip to frozen hell. Although Cornell came incredibly close to losing both games against Clarkson and St. Lawrence, the players rebounded after opponent goals and fought off changes in momentum — a key skill that is necessary during the postseason.

On Friday, the team held off Clarkson by controlling the puck for most of the game. Although shots on goal were relatively even, the Red had more quality chances and executed “The System” better than the Golden Knights. It was not surprising that Clarkson head coach Casey Jones, a former assistant coach and player at Cornell, employed a similar system to the one Cornell fans are accustomed. “The System” becomes even more effective when paired with a quality goaltender like Paul Karpowich, who is tied for third in the nation with Cornell’s Andy Iles and Union’s Troy Grosenick with five shutouts this season.

Thus, watching the Golden Knights play was very much a déjà vu experience, and it illustrated what the Red could do better next time. For one, there needs to be better puck awareness in front of the net because a lot of great chances were missed throughout the game that could have earned Cornell a win. Clarkson’s defense is arguably one of the best in the league, so it was difficult to open up shooting lanes directly to the net.

Many of the Red’s greatest chances were rebounds in front of the goal crease, but players often missed the rebounds or drove them back into Karpowich’s pads. While it is good that the team is creating these chances and eventually one of these chances will turn into a goal, it is also necessary to increase the rate at which the Red is capitalizing on these opportunities. Although Cornell played better and should have won the game, luck is not always on the team’s side, and a tie is nothing to be ashamed of.

Saturday night’s game against St. Lawrence was a different story as the Saints played an aggressive 1-2-2 defense, often sending two or three men deep to disrupt Cornell’s breakout. Compared to recent years when the Red could barely dump a puck in the opposing end, the team was relatively successful at bringing the puck out and recovering possession when it was lost in its own end. However, St. Lawrence was able to score on defensive breakdowns by individual Cornell players, which is something the team needs to address before next weekend. A few Red skaters were not quick enough when reacting to opponent passes or shots, which allowed some easily defendable goals to be scored in the second period.

On the flip side, Cornell’s goals on the night were mostly results of great team efforts by players like sophomore forward Dustin Mowrey, who slipped between two defensemen and caught a line-to-line pass from junior defenseman Braden Birch that gave him a breakaway chance and a score. Birch also assisted an earlier goal in the first period with a pass through the neutral zone to sophomore defenseman Krill Gotovets — who dropped the puck to junior Greg Miller — allowing Miller to throw the puck over the Saints’ unexpecting goalie Matt Weninger.

Senior  forward Locke Jillson helped the Red regain its lead in the second period by avoiding two Saints defensemen and bringing up the puck from the corner and back up to the slot for a quick shot past the blocked goalie Weninger. The game-winning goal by senior alternate captain Sean Collins was also well coordinated, as the forward poked in a rebound from a shot by freshman John McCarron from the point, where the forward skated back to gain a better angle during a 3-on-2. This level of offensive awareness on the ice shows that this is not the Cornell team of old, which solely depended on shots from the blue line and lucky rebounds to put points on the scoreboard.

Looking ahead, the Red has a chance next weekend to lock in the Cleary Cup — awarded to regular season ECAC champions — if it is able to sweep Union and RPI at Lynah Rink. Beating the Dutchmen and the Engineers will also catapult Cornell in the PairWise rankings and create a larger cushion for an at-large NCAA bid. For a rebuilding year when expectations were somewhat limited in October, this team has surprised us all with its level of competitiveness and recovery after losses to Colgate. Although winning in Atlantic City is the only sure way of reaching the NCAA tournament, making a final-stretch sprint next weekend will do wonders for the Red’s aspirations in March.

Original Author: Andrew Hu