Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

Junior Alec McCrea will play an important role both offensively and on the back end this weekend, says Kevin Linsey.

March 8, 2018

LINSEY | Defense-First Mentality Will Lead to Playoff Success

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Cornell men’s hockey has been a defensive powerhouse this year — a 1-0 home win over Quinnipiac in January was one of nine shutouts on the year for the Red.

As the team prepares to take on Bobcats again, this time in the playoffs, Cornell should focus on a strong defensive effort to secure a series victory. Up front, the defensemen will also be important in Cornell’s offensive game plan. These two factors prove the pre-series focus should be on the defensemen.

A defense-first mentality is nothing new for the Red. Successful Cornell teams throughout head coach Mike Schafer’s ’86 tenure have often been geared around a commitment to defense from every skater. Yet, for this series, the defensemen will be key in both defense and attack.

Cornell will benefit from its defensive corps’ return to full health, allowing Schafer a number of options to counter the Quinnipiac offense. Alec McCrea and Brendan Smith returned last weekend, arguably the top two defensemen on the team. This will ease the pressure on Yanni Kaldis, who played every game this season and logged significant minutes with McCrea and Smith out. Freshmen Matt Cairns and Cody Haiskanen scored their first collegiate goals last weekend and will be eyeing the chance to contribute again this weekend. He will definitely deploy his top four defensemen in Alec McCrea, Brendan Smith, Yanni Kaldis and Matt Nuttle, while freshmen Alex Green and Cody Haiskanen should be the two to join them in the starting lineup.

The marquee matchup this weekend is Quinnipiac’s offense against Cornell’s defensemen and goaltender. Freshman Bobcat forward Odeen Tufto has 32 assists on the season, good for fourth in the nation. Tufto will be the Quinnipiac skater to watch up front, and Cornell’s defensemen may be able to stop the Bobcats if they can stop Tufto.

Cornell’s blueliners will also be significant in the Red’s offensive efforts. Cornell’s defensemen have already scored a total of 19 goals this season, surpassing last season’s total of 13. Alec McCrea and Yanni Kaldis in particular have been key contributors to the offense. Watch for them to be involved this weekend as Cornell tries to get defensemen jumping up into the rush and overloading the offensive zone.

This focus intertwines well with another key area for Cornell: improving the power play. The man-advantage situation has not been as productive for Cornell as it typically is, and the Red will need to be successful on the power play in the playoffs.

One of the reasons the power play has struggled is because Cornell has not gotten pucks to the net. The Red scores goals when it creates chances on rebounds and tips in and around the cage, and when they just pass the puck around the perimeter and then turn it over, they don’t create these high-percentage chances. Cornell’s defensemen should fire off shots on the power play and try to get the puck down low in the zone so their forwards can take advantage.

Others might suggest that shots from the point on the power play are less likely to score goals and could simply become more turnovers. This may be true, but they are also a way to exploit the Bobcats’ main weakness: their goaltender. Freshman Keith Petruzzelli has played very well in February, but sophomore Andrew Shortridge played both games against the Red earlier in the year due to Petruzzelli’s early season struggles. Neither has emerged as a reliable option for the Bobcats, despite Petruzzelli’s excellent pedigree and status as a NHL draft selection.

The freshman should get the nod against Cornell, and the Red will want to test him early. Peppering the goalie with shots, even from the point, is a logical strategy. An early goal for Cornell could affect Petruzzelli, playing his first college playoff game, on the road in a raucous Lynah Rink. The Red will want to break down the Bobcats’ defense and test Petruzzelli from the get-go.

Cornell’s defense has always been its specialty, and the defensemen will be even more important than usual this weekend. Cornell will ask them to shut down one of the nation’s best playmakers in Tufto, all while getting involved offensively. The defensemen should test Quinnipiac’s unproven netminder early and often, especially on power play opportunities. Cornell’s defensemen will be pivotal if the Red beat Quinnipiac this weekend.