NCAA Hockey Tournament Wrap-Up

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Updated: April 15, 2017

Photo courtesy of CBS Minnesota. 

The Cornell men’s ice hockey season ended almost a month ago, but the NCAA tournament continued until this past weekend. Last Thursday was the Frozen Four semifinals, which saw top-ranked Denver, led by Hobey Baker winner for best college hockey athlete Will Butcher, up against the surprising Notre Dame team, and Harvard taking on the University of Minnesota-Duluth. I had predicted the winners to be Denver and UMD, and sure enough those were the two teams who moved on to the finals.

Both of these results were supported by the advanced stats for each team. If one were to rank these four teams based on their puck-possession (Corsi) stats, it would be Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Harvard, Notre Dame — in that order. It was not too surprising that Denver pretty much had its way with Notre Dame, winning 6-1. On the other hand, UMD and Harvard were somewhat close in their stats, and so it is not surprising that it was a very close game, ending with a last-minute goal for the 2-1 UMD victory.

So that left the finals as Denver vs. UMD, and I had predicted Denver to win that game since they were far and away the most elite puck-possession team in the Frozen Four. It was a close game, of course, because hockey is never easy, but Denver lived up to their lofty expectations, winning 3-2 behind a hat trick from Jarid Lukosevicius.

Some of you may be wondering how this year’s results, and this year’s champion, compare to past winners and finalists. Let’s start with the fact that all four Frozen Four teams this year ended the season in the top-half of the country in Corsi, with Notre Dame the worst at 22nd. Despite that somewhat low ranking, however, Notre Dame still had a very good 51.4% number. That is a mark of an elite team that will be, at the very least, competitive in every game it plays. Last year, the lowest Corsi mark in the Frozen Four belonged to Boston College, which sat at 52.4% and in 2014-15, when University of Nebraska-Omaha rode a ridiculously hot stretch of goaltending and shooting to the semifinals, posting a Corsi of 47.5%. The other semifinalist that year had a more believable 51.5%, nearly equivalent to Notre Dame’s this year.

Next, let’s look at Denver, who ended up as the 6th best Corsi team this year, at 56.0%. Last year’s champions, North Dakota, were fourth, with a value of 56.6%, and the year before the champs were Providence, who had the ninth-best Corsi at 54.3%. So the theme seems to be that a team that directs a high number (54-56%) of shot attempts at even-strength towards the opposition’s net will have a very strong chance of winning it all. It should be mentioned that the elite NHL teams rarely have a Corsi of over 53-54%, meaning the teams that put up these numbers in the NCAA truly are the best of the best.

This brings me back to the discussion that started this entire journey into advanced stats, way back before the ECAC tournament started. I had written then about the place of advanced stats in NCAA hockey and especially here at Cornell University. We had a great run this year, finishing second in the ECAC en route to a NCAA tournament berth, our first since 2012. But our advanced stats were lacking, as Cornell once-again finished in the bottom-half of all college teams with a paltry 48.8%.

It seems pretty evident, now with three years of concrete data, that there is a correlation between the teams that have success in the NCAA tournament and the teams that dominate puck-possession and shot attempts. Cornell’s style of play, on the other hand, calls for a very passive offensive game that prioritizes quick-strike techniques (fast breaks, dump and chase, etc.) over cycling the puck, low-to-high, constant-movement hockey. This has led to Cornell garnering the seventh-lowest raw shot attempt-for total in the country!

Now, they were led by their unquestionably elite defense, which was ninth-best in shot-suppression. That is fantastic, and must be continued regardless of what happens with the team offensively, since a strong defense makes it easier for the offense to be better. It’s interesting to note, however, that Denver was a very average shot-suppression team, while none of the other top-ten defensive teams made the NCAA tournament. That is pretty clear evidence that college hockey is becoming more of an offensive team’s game, which honestly makes it all the more concerning that Cornell has been so successful this year – we pretty much went as far as goaltender Mitch Gillam could carry us.

Gillam is gone now, having signed to an amateur tryout offer from the Orlando Solar Bears, the ECHL affiliates of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. I do not know much about next year’s goaltenders, but the consensus seems to be that nobody in the stable compares to Gillam. Still, with the defensive prowess of the team, that should be fine. What Head Coach Mike Schafer should focus on is improving the team’s offensive system. I believe that even with an average offense, an elite defense and above-average goaltending, Cornell could make it back to the NCAA tournament and maybe even make a run to the Frozen Four.

All in all, this was another fun NCAA hockey season, and with Cornell returning many of their key roster players, they should be strong again next year. Let’s hope that they can improve, and maybe this article will have a different tone a year from now.

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