Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Cornell

Six weeks in a row we've done Ivy League teams - just how the schedule plays out this season. We conclude our three fortnight look into the "upper crust" with a program that is really in a state of flux right now. The Big Red are encountering a locally difficult stretch statistically. Usually one of the top teams in the conference, they've fallen on rough times in the last few seasons, having completed a third-straight season outside of the league's Top 3 for the first time since the 2000-01 season. That's not a horrible stat for most teams, but it has the Lynah Faithful uncomfortable.

Cornell
Nickname: Big Red
Location: Ithaca, NY
Founded: 1865
Conference: ECAC (Ivy League)
National Championships: 2 (1967, 1970)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Mike Schafer (21st season)
2014-15 Record: 11-14-6 (9-9-4 ECAC, 7th place)
Series: Cornell leads, 60-35-9
First Game: January 31, 1908 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: January 17. 2015 (Troy, NY)
Last CU win: February 22, 2013 (Ithaca, NY)

2015-16 games: January 15, 2016 (Troy, NY); February 27, 2016 (Ithaca, NY)

Key players: F Christian Hilbrich, sr.; F John Knisley, sr.; D Reece Willcox, sr.; F Matt Buckles, jr.; F Eric Freschi, jr.; G Mitch Gillam, jr.; F Jeff Kubiak, jr.; D Patrick McCarron, jr.; F Jake Weidner, jr.; D Ryan Bliss, so.; F Jared Fiegl, so.; F Dwyer Tschantz, so.; D Dan Wedman, so.; F Anthony Angello, fr.; D Alec McCrea, fr.; F Beau Starrett, fr.

Key losses: F Cole Bardreau, F Joel Lowry, D Joakim Ryan, F John McCarron, D Jacob MacDonald,  F Madison Dias

Previous KYE installments:
Your eyes are not deceiving you. The next time the Engineers and Big Red face off at Houston Field House, it will have been almost a month shy of three full years since Cornell last defeated RPI. The Engineers are unbeaten in the last four matchups (2-0-2) and have suffered just one loss to the Big Red in the last four seasons (4-1-3).

Two years ago, games involving the Big Red averaged about 4.72 goals, which was second fewest in all of college hockey. Last season, that dropped off to 4.03, the fewest of any team in the nation by a solid margin. The reason? They got stingier on defense - but they also dropped off on offense. They were both allowing and scoring fewer goals.

This isn't altogether strange for Cornell. For many years, the Big Red has relied heavily on their defense to get them by, and usually they're able to at least scrape together enough goals to pick up points in the lion's share of their games. But these last couple of seasons, while the defense has been there, the offense hasn't been strong enough to make that strong defense hold up as regularly as Cornell is used to. It's turning what had been wins into ties, and what had been ties into losses.

Last week, we mentioned that Princeton was shut out nine times. Cornell walked off with donuts seven times (don't laugh, it happened to RPI eight times, albeit over a longer schedule than either of the Ivies here). It's a light illustration of the offensive struggles the Big Red endured during the 2014-15 year. They swept just one ECAC weekend all year - at home against Yale and Brown in November. They swept season series against only two opponents, Clarkson and Union (huzzah!).

The end of the season was considerably ignoble: losing a home playoff series for the first time in eight years when they were brutally ejected from the playoffs by a Union team that looked dead on its skates just a couple of weeks prior, falling in two games by a combined 11-2 score to the defending ECAC and national champions.

Hilbrich (10 goals) and Buckles (8) were the team's leading goal scorers last season, and they return as important elements of the Cornell attack, but they need to be able to cast a much wider net. Those two players last season accounted for 31% of the Big Red's total goal tally, an awfully big chunk to lay on only two players. Part of this can be blamed on injury: Lowry missed most of his senior season to a back injury, and he had been counted on to play a significant role for Cornell's attack (even in just 11 games, he still finished 5th on the team in goal scoring). But when Lowry went down, there wasn't enough left to pick up the slack - and of the seven shutouts the Big Red suffered, six of them were after Lowry had to be shelved during the December break.

There is some hope in the additions of Angello and Starrett, NHL draft selections both, although neither can be considered a sure thing. Angello did have 35 points in 54 games last year in the USHL, but those numbers may not translate to an immediate impact in the ECAC. With Starrett, Cornell brings in the talent of a third-round draft pick, but with the questions that surround any player - as with Evan Tironese at RPI this season - who missed most of their final junior campaign to injury.

Ryan and MacDonald aren't insignificant losses on the blue line, but if Cornell has shown a propensity for anything during the Schafer era, it's continuity on defense, and there's plenty there to suggest that they're still going to be a difficult team to score upon. With six NHL draft picks on the roster, this is a talented team, but unless they find a way to start burying pucks in the net at a pace that allows them to take a little more pressure off that defense, the Big Red will be treading water somewhere in the middle of the ECAC table for the third time in four years.

If this sounds familiar, RPI may have similar problems this year - solid defense, questions as to where the offense will be coming from (not to mention, rebounding injury woes from last season). With the RPI-Cornell games not coming until late in the schedule, it's hard to make projections, but based on what we're coming into the season with, whichever team can better remedy its offensive issues is going to have a giant advantage.

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