Thursday, September 29, 2016

Know Your Enemy: Cornell

It's time for the time-honored indication that the season is nigh - the final installment of WaP's Know Your Enemy. The Cornell class of 1996 very nearly went their entire collegiate careers without beating RPI (not that this is something they would even focus on), but they pulled out a 4-0 win in Ithaca in February of their senior year to avoid the feat - which has never happened in the half-century plus since the two schools have been regularly playing each other as league foes. With the Engineers boasting a 3-0-3 record against the Big Red in the last three seasons, the Cornell class of 2017 needs a similar result in February of their senior year in order to avoid becoming the first.

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 (22nd season)
2015-16 Record: 16-11-7 (8-8-6 ECAC, 7th place)
Series: Cornell leads, 60-36-10
First Game: January 31, 1908 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: January 15, 2016 (Troy, NY)
Last CU win: February 22, 2013 (Ithaca, NY)

2016-17 games: February 4, 2017 (Troy, NY); February 24, 2017 (Ithaca, NY)

Key players: F Matt Buckles, sr.; F Eric Freschi, sr.; G Mitch Gillam, sr.; F Jeff Kubiak, sr.; D Patrick McCarron, sr.; F Jake Weidner, sr.; D Ryan Bliss, jr.; F Jared Fiegl, jr.; F Dwyer Tschantz, jr.; D Dan Wedman, jr.; F Trevor Yates, so.; F Anthony Angello, so.; D Alec McCrea, so.; F Beau Starrett, so.; F Mitch Vanderlaan, so.; D Yanni Kaldis, fr.; F Connor Murphy, fr.

Key losses: F Christian Hilbrich, D Reece Willcox, F John Knisley; F Teemu Tiittinen

Previous KYE installments:
Standards are high at Cornell. That's why this could well be a make or break season for Mike Schafer - the Big Red have finished 7th in the ECAC in back-to-back seasons, outside the top-half of the league twice in a row for the first time since the late 1990s. Now, that's not quite the end of the world, of course, but it's the things that are adding up. The senior class that just graduated was only the second of Schafer's tenure that never played an NCAA tournament game or won any league hardware. That's four years of not being among the fearsome beasts of the conference (and frequently, in the nation) as has been the norm in the last couple of decades, and their record against RPI in the last three years is merely a microcosm of that recent reality.

The Big Red no longer led the nation in lowest-scoring games last year (beaten out by Army and Lake Superior State) in part because of an improvement in offense - but when you were starting out at 1.84 goals per game a year earlier, 2.32 is at least a step up even if it is still pretty far from where you want to be in order to be regularly successful (just ask 2.42 goals per game RPI).

The good news is that Cornell was young last year, and that youth led the way to a pretty solid degree on offense. That's not always the easiest place to be in - but when you've got a freshman reaching double digits in both goals and assists (Angello with 11 and 13 respectively), and another almost reaching 20 points (Vanderlaan with 19), that's at least a good starting point for what the Big Red will certainly hope is a launching point for even bigger numbers in the future. Defenseman McCrea managed 15 points as a freshman as well - and it's easy to overlook Starrett, who has played just 22 games last two seasons (across juniors and his freshman year) with injuries. He's a third-round NHL selection who was admittedly off to a slow start last year before getting hurt (just one goal in 15 games), but he represents a good amount of potential as well.

In a spoiler alert for next week's "Know Thyself," Cornell finds itself in a very similar situation to the Engineers on offense - there's lots of places that it could come from, including Kubiak, Weidner, Buckles, and Yates, as well as everyone listed above - but the trick is going to be getting two or three of them to take significant strides forward, and for the team in general to be able to roll two or three lines that are capable of scoring on any given shift.

On defense, it's Cornell.

Oh, you probably want more than that. Well, if you're used to a stifling defense with a better-than-average goaltender and a difficult time unleashing shots on said goaltender, that's more of what you can expect this coming season. A solid, seasoned goaltender in Gillam, a solid, seasoned blue line featuring four upperclassmen and losing just one senior from an effort that put up a solid 2.41 GAA last year - a bit high, perhaps, from the Cornell norms, but certainly an acceptable output from any team that is looking to take a step forward. Even if they merely duplicate that effort this year - and they can probably best it - all they'd need is a squared-away offense to be the Cornell we've come to know.

As with last week, I'm a little hesitant to really make predictions when it comes to RPI-Cornell simply because both teams have a lot of hockey - nearly their entire schedules - to play before they match up in Troy in early February in a game that was originally pegged as Big Red Freakout! before it was awkwardly pointed out that having the Big Red as an opponent would be strange - not to mention only add a few extra hundred eyeballs to a game that probably comes closer to selling out than any game that doesn't include Clarkson or Union.

But suffice it to say that if you know how the Cornell series has gone historically for the Engineers - and just take a quick glance at the wins and losses above if you don't - and it's hard not to just feel like Cornell's due. Yeah, it's being gun shy, but the Big Red have earned that over the decades. That said, Cornell may be the team that best mirrors RPI this season with pre-season expectations and potential, and that could make for a couple of really strong, close games when these teams meet, should they both live up to them.

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