Courtesy of Cornell Athletics

October 28, 2015

New Power Play Line Key to Cornell Men’s Hockey Success

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The first few notes of the “Dragnet” theme, to a Cornell hockey fan, mean a power play. Since a power play presents an opportunity with an extra skater on the ice, it should be a major goalscoring weapon; the best teams score a goal around 20 percent of the time. This year, three men will begin the season as the primary power play forwards — juniors Matt Buckles and Jeff Kubiak and senior Christian Hilbrich. They will be responsible for that crucial part of any successful hockey offense: a dangerous power play.

It is no secret that Cornell needs to emphasize goals as they approach this season. Last year, the Red tallied 57 goals, only Princeton had fewer out of the 59 Division 1 programs. Cornell typically employs a defensive strategy, but they do need to score goals to win games, and power plays are a solid opportunity for defensive-oriented teams to put points on the board. Last year, power play success tapered off near the end of the season, as Cornell struggled to score. More offensively talented teams in the ECAC, like Harvard and Yale, will score more at even strength, and do not need to rely so significantly on the power play. For Cornell, though, the power play has a pivotal role as a source of goals.

A penalty on the opposition and a two-minute period with an extra player can cause a huge momentum shift in a game. Head coach Mike Schafer’s system relies on quality chances created close to the net, and power plays naturally lend themselves to such situations. Schafer has been rotating his forward lines and defensive pairings to find the best fit during the exhibition games. His first power play unit, though, has stuck out because he has consistently iced the same players.

Buckles, Kubiak and Hilbrich will be tasked with creating close chances and scoring. All three have had offensive success in preseason; Buckles scored twice against Ryerson and Kubiak tallied a goal and three assists in the same contest. Hilbrich had a goal and an assist against Ryerson and set up another versus Laurentian. While Hilbrich and Buckles, two Ontario natives, were first and second on the team in goal-scoring last season, respectively, Kubiak only lit the lamp once in the last campaign and contributed more on the defensive end.

Each will play a different role on the power play, as well. Hilbrich, skating at 6-foot-7, will be expected to use his height and size to create chances. Kubiak’s slick passing skills will help the Red cycle the puck in the offensive zone. Buckles is the most talented shooter of the bunch; he will be given the green light to shoot at will. The Florida Panthers draft pick took ten shots against Ryerson. This was twice as many as any other player and more than Cornell’s opponent the next day, Laurentian, managed in the entire game.

Yet, the power play responsibility extends to the defensemen, as well. Unlike last year, when defenseman Joakim Ryan ’15 stood out as the Red’s top blueliner, no player stands out as the best of the bunch. Senior defenseman Reece Willcox needs to stay healthy, because he boasts a hard, accurate slap shot. Junior defenseman Patrick McCarron is a reliable defenseman who can cycle the puck well, which is a strong asset with the man advantage. Sophomore defenseman Ryan Bliss has a chance to impress after a solid freshman campaign, and junior defenseman Holden Anderson is poised to make a larger impact in his junior season. These defensemen will have an important role in the power play as well.

Therefore, there is a second unit, which will often play the second portion of a man advantage situation. They also excelled during preseason, particularly against Laurentian, when freshman forward Anthony Angello scored three power play goals. This Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick added another even strength tally, scoring four goals on the night. His performance was so dominating, all of Lynah chanted “Angello” during the Lynah salute. His presence will be key to the success of the second unit on the power play.

If Cornell is going to make any offensive improvement from last season, the power play has to be more successful. Buckles, Hilbrich and Kubiak will inherit the lion’s share of the offensive responsibility. Schafer has deliberately played these three forwards together during preseason in order to create more chemistry. When the games start to count on Friday night at Niagara, the trio’s success on the power play will be crucial to the game’s result.