Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Know Your Enemy: Cornell

OK, back to reality.

Our 17th installment of "Know Your Enemy" is one of a program that most of the Engineers will handily tell you is one of their growing rivals. It's not hard for a team to gain that kind of attention from multiple teams when you have as much success on the ice as Cornell has had over the last several years. Arguably the team of the 2000s in the ECAC, the Big Red have found themselves in the thick of the race for the Cleary Cup practically every year for the last 10 seasons and can be frustrating to watch and to play.

Nickname: Big Red
Location: Ithaca, NY
Founded: 1865
Conference: ECAC (Ivy League)
National Championships: 2 (1967, 1970)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2010
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Mike Schafer (16th season)
2009-10 Record: 21-9-4 (14-5-3 ECAC, 2nd place)
Series: Cornell leads, 57-31-6
First Game: January 31, 1908 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: March 13, 2009 (Ithaca, NY)
Last CU win: December 4, 2009 (Troy, NY)

2010-11 games: January 14, 2011 (Ithaca, NY); February 12, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Key players: F Joe Devin, sr.; F Patrick Kennedy, sr.; F Sean Collins, jr.; F Locke Jillson, jr.; D Mike Devin, sr.; D Nick D'Agostino, so.; D Braden Birch, so.; G Andy Iles, fr.

Key losses: F Blake Gallagher, F Colin Greening, F Riley Nash, D Brendon Nash, D Justin Krueger, G Ben Scrivens

Like St. Lawrence, practically every key player that paced Cornell during an outstanding season will no longer be at the team's disposal this season. Unlike the Saints, however, the Big Red do have the ability - partially through the "slow-it-down, clutch-and-grab" system that they have played under Mike Schafer, to maintain themselves near the top of the league.

From 1900 to 1903, Cornell played seven games in Philadelphia and New York, winning their first three games over the course of four days in late February and early March against Swarthmore, Penn, and Princeton at the Philadelphia Ice Palace before going 1-3 over the next three years playing one or two games a year at the renowned St. Nicholas Rink in New York City.

The program went on the shelf for a few years and returned in 1907 when the team played its first games in Ithaca on a rink built on Beebe Lake, but Cornell would remain largely a barnstorming squad until the 1920s, when games on the lake would become more frequent. At about the same time, Nicholas Bawlf became the program's head coach. He would stay at Cornell for 27 seasons, but ultimately was little more than a solid presence for the team. While Cornell would have a few decent years in the 1920s, the team's 3-2 record in 1931 would be the final winning season under Bawlf, after which the team did not play for the next two seasons. When they returned to the ice, they put up a record of 21-46-2 through the Great Depression and past World War II, including a dismal 2-17 from 1944 through 1948, regularly giving up double digits of goals throughout while going 0-8 in the final two years of that stretch.

At that point, it appeared that hockey was dead at Cornell. The team rarely played in Ithaca due to poor conditions at Beebe Lake, and interest in a losing team was practically non-existent. While the Engineers were opening Houston Field House and beginning the modern era of hockey in Troy, hockey at Cornell disappeared for almost a full decade.

In 1957, Lynah Rink opened on campus, inaugurated by a game featuring the NHL's New York Rangers in April. The game helped spark interest in hockey at Cornell, and a varsity team was up and running that winter, led by former St. Lawrence coach Paul Patton, who would guide the team through its first six seasons of indoor hockey in Ithaca. But it wasn't until 1963 that hockey at Cornell would finally start becoming notable - and it would be thanks to the man that had already established at tradition of excellence at RPI with a national championship: Ned Harkness.

Harkness' arrival had an almost instantaneous effect on the Big Red. In just his second season behind the bench, Cornell went 19-7, besting the school record for wins in a season by six. The team would set or tie that record for the next six consecutive seasons. In 1966, following Cornell's first 20-win season, the Big Red claimed the Ivy League title for the first time, they would win a total of eight in a row from 1966 to 1973, the longest stretch in the history of the Ivy League. But most importantly, the team became a national force behind goaltender Ken Dryden, who joined the Big Red in the 1966-67 season. That year, Cornell would win its first national championship in its very first NCAA appearance, which would be the first of six appearances over the next seven seasons.

North Dakota would knock off the 26-1 Big Red in the NCAA semifinal in 1968, stopping their march to a second title. The following season, Dryden's final game would be a 4-3 loss to Denver in the NCAA championship game in Colorado Springs - it would be only his second loss of the entire season following the dramatic overtime loss in Troy in December when Doug Hearns scored one of the most memorable goals in RPI history. But the next season, Harkness and the Big Red were back on top in remarkable fashion, completing the only undefeated and untied season to end in an NCAA championship in history. The Big Red went 29-0 in 1970, defeating Clarkson in Lake Placid to claim their second championship in four years in their third title game appearance during that stretch. Cornell won four straight ECAC titles during this stretch, a feat duplicated only by rivals Boston University in the 1970s.

Two months after the immaculate season ended, Ned Harkness left Ithaca to become the general manager and head coach of the Detroit Red Wings, the first coach to move from the NCAA to the NHL. He was replaced by Dick Bertrand, who had just graduated as one of the captains of the undefeated team. Cornell's success generally continued under Bertrand, although they would not return to the top of the college hockey world. They would win 22 games in 1971, but would not claim any hardware or return to the NCAA Tournament. A still-standing home undefeated record of 63 games (spanning five years) ended at the hands of Clarkson in February 1972, but the following month the Big Red would be back in the national championship game, falling to growing league rival Boston University, 4-0.

Bertrand would lead Cornell back to the NCAA Tournament in 1973, 1980, and 1981. His only losing season was his last one, in 1982, which snapped a streak of 18 consecutive winning seasons dating back to Harkness' first year in Ithaca, and was the Big Red's first losing season in the ECAC. After the 1981-82 season, Bertrand would leave and take up the reins at Ferris State.

The 1980s and early 1990s were a bit of a lost period for modern Cornell hockey under Lou Reycroft and Brian McCutcheon between 1982 and 1995. During this stretch, the Big Red would claim only one ECAC title (in 1986, powered by Joe Nieuwendyk, who would later have an exceptional NHL career) and two NCAA appearances, one under each coach. During this period, Cornell wasn't exactly terrible (with the exception of McCutcheon's final three seasons from 1993 to 1995) but they weren't among the top programs in the ECAC, either.

Echoes of the glory days began to return in 1996 when first-year coach Mike Schafer, one of the captains of the 1986 ECAC title winning team, took over in Ithaca. Immediately, the Big Red rattled off two 20-win seasons, their first back to back since the late 1970s. Both seasons, Cornell would claim the ECAC title and their first two Ivy titles in a decade. The Big Red would start middling over the next three years, but a new Cornell dynasty would get under way in 2001.

That season, Cornell made an impressive run through the ECAC playoffs to reach the title game, their first of six consecutive (and eight in ten) ECAC championship games. While they would only claim the Whitelaw Cup twice during that stretch, they would win three Cleary Cups as the first place finisher in the regular season three times during the same stretch, including a 2002-03 season which saw Cornell returning to the Frozen Four for the first time in 23 years and setting a new school record with 30 wins. Since 2002, the Big Red have won 3 ECAC titles, 4 Ivy titles, and have made 6 NCAA appearances.

Last year, Cornell won the ECAC championship for the 12th time, putting them four ahead of arch-rival Harvard in that category. They were helped in their journey to the title by Brown's shocking defeat of Yale in the quarterfinals - Yale had certainly had Cornell's number in two games last season - but the Big Red were hardly a surprising champion. They returned to their familiar destination using the same formula which has made them a dominant force during the Schafer era: big, burly defensemen playing a lockdown style. Usually, this is paired with at least enough offense to get by, and a goaltender who takes full advantage of the behemoths in front of him to put up eye-popping numbers.

When Cornell has scoring, they can be a very exceptional team, and that's definitely what they were last season. Gallagher and Greening were twin scoring threats, both extremely agile and dangerous with the puck. Riley Nash was another important scoring angle, and Scrivens, even with the help a Cornell goaltender typically gets in front of him, was nonetheless the best goaltender in the league even after factoring in Schafer's system. Some pundits were touting the Big Red as a legitimate Frozen Four threat out of the Eastern regional thanks to Scrivens and the ability of the Cornell offense.

Unfortunately for the Big Red, none of the rocks that made last year successful - with the obvious exception of the big, burly defensemen, of which there will probably never be a serious shortage in Ithaca - are returning this season. Cornell loses a significant chunk of its demonstrated scoring ability in Greening, Gallagher, and Nash, and has a highly-touted and local, but short of stature, undrafted, and largely untested goaltender coming in Andy Iles. He will almost certainly be called on from the get-go.

That's not to say they're going to be any more difficult to beat than they are in any given year. Cornell hockey can tend to be fairly tedious to watch even in a good year. When they don't have much in the means of scoring, it can look a lot more like what we saw from Brown last March. The difference between Brown and Cornell is that the Big Red is stocked with players that have bought into the system and generally have more talent than the players Brown brings in, and that's usually enough to make them difficult on any given night. The key is the same - score first and make them have to come from behind. That's just not as easy against Cornell. Even when you can neutralize the clutch and grab, you still need to be able to maneuver around giant blueliners who are more than just road cones in order to put yourself in a position to just to be able to put the puck on net.

If Iles is even just adequate in net, Cornell will probably be a very boring team to play against this season but they will likely still enjoy heaps of success and at the very least be in the running for the bye the way they usually are. If the Engineers can utilize their team speed and score early goals the way Yale did to them last season, the door could still be open to good results.

1 comment:

  1. Too bad for RPI that Iles is more than adequate. Don't bother making the trip.


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