January 27, 2016

Cornell Hockey: Moving Forward by Moving Forwards

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Negativity flows easily. Any of the 4,267 fans in Lynah Rink on Saturday night could lambaste coach Mike Schafer ’86, the players or the referees in this column. All (with the possible exception of the referees) shoulder some blame for that debacle of a weekend, which contained a 3-0 loss to Dartmouth and 6-2 thumping at the hands of hated rival Harvard. Cornell was outworked by both teams and thoroughly beaten in both home games.

However, there is no time to moan about a tough weekend. The ECAC season rolls along at a frenetic pace with two games per week, and Cornell cannot afford to struggle for a few weeks. The Red needs to fix the problem, and fast. Here are three recommendations for Schafer to help get Cornell’s season back on track.

First, the way Schafer most directly affects the game is through line combinations, especially with his forwards. In the first half of the season, when Cornell was churning out victories, Schafer understandably kept using the same forwards. Injuries also played a part in him choosing the same players and lines. In particular, Anthony Angello, Jeff Kubiak and Mitch Vanderlaan have played all but one game on the same line this season. Schafer needs to infuse the lineup with some players who have played little to this point. In particular, freshman Brendan Smith has played well on defense when given opportunities, and sophomores Alex Rauter and Dwyer Tschantz have looked promising.

The best way to integrate these players is to occasionally rest some of the upperclassmen, many of whom look exhausted from playing most of the first semester. Some of these players include Teemu Tiitinen, Christian Hilbrich and Jake Weidner. At their best, they are Cornell’s top players, but fatigue has likely prevented them from reaching their highest level of performance. A game or two of rest could refresh them at just the right time of the season.

The second change involves Schafer’s power-play personnel. The power play is a pivotal part of a successful hockey team. When opponents take penalties, it is the power-play skaters’ job to move the puck well and score goals exploiting the extra skater advantage. It is especially significant for Cornell, since the Red’s strategy does not generate an incredible amount of scoring chances, as opposed to, say, Harvard’s strategy. Cornell’s power play, which was satisfactory during the successful run at the start of the season, has slowly decreased in effectiveness to the current unproductive level. Schafer needs to mix up the skaters on the power play lines to rejuvenate the scoring when Cornell has the man advantage.

At the moment, the first power play group seems to be Vanderlaan, Kubiak and Angello. While these three have had plenty of offensive success for Cornell, most of it has not come on the power play. Icing them in power play situations has only added to their second-half fatigue. I suggest that Schafer employ an all-sophomore trio of Trevor Yates, Jared Fiegl and Alex Rauter on the power play instead. Yates and Rauter have shown offensive chemistry (see Rauter’s assist for Yates’s goal versus Harvard) and Arizona Coyotes draft pick Fiegl, while more known for his penalty-killing talents, deserves a chance to show the offensive side of his game. Giving these forwards a chance on the power play could help provide a few more goals over the rest of the season.

My third recommendation, rather than a suggested change, is a recommendation of consistency. Schafer should work on standardizing roles for some players. In the first semester, Schafer often shuffled his forwards through all three positions (left wing, center and right wing.) Most college coaches rarely do this because many players are more suited to or have more experience in one forward position. Some players have clearly played better for Cornell in certain positions, yet Schafer occasionally lines them up elsewhere. Standardizing a player’s position should help them learn the nuances of the role. For example, Trevor Yates has played most games as a left wing and played well, but he was a center for the Harvard game. This seems an odd time for a position change, especially given the demands of playing center, like face-offs and defending the large, important central portion of the ice. Giving players consistent positions and roles will help Cornell pick up more wins over the second half of the season.

There is no time to waste. ECAC games keep coming thick and fast over the regular season’s final six weeks. Mixing in some lesser-used players, shuffling the power play personnel and standardizing players’ roles could provide the spark needed to reignite Cornell’s season.