Better Offense has Cornell Riding High
Unless you’ve been living under rock, there is a very good chance you are extremely excited for the Cornell men’s hockey team. For the first time in 15 years, the team has earned the #1 spot in the NCAA poll. It has already clinched the Ivy League and has a very good chance of clinching the ECAC top seed soon. The Big Red seem primed to make its second straight NCAA tournament and perhaps even make a deep run, similar to what Harvard did last year.
So, obviously, expectations for this team are sky-high, but the question to ask is if we can expect Cornell to meet them. After all, this is a team that is just one year removed from an embarrassing first-round loss to University of Massachusetts – Lowell in the NCAA last year. Can it really be trusted to improve on that mark? Many of the key contributors on this year’s team (Anthony Angello, Alec McCrea, etc.) were on the team last year. Can the team’s improvement be attributed to an upgrade in goals or increased development from the forwards and defensemen? Is there any single aspect of the team’s play that explains its dominance?
The short answer is yes, but perhaps not in the way one may expect. While freshman goaltender Matthew Galajda has been absolutely fantastic this year, carrying a save percentage above .930 for most of the year, Cornell’s dominance cannot be attributed to him. Cornell has been one of the best shot-suppression teams in the country for years now, and defense was its main strength last year as well. The team was second in shots again last year, and is first this year. As such, the upgrade in goaltending cannot truly explain the superior play we have seen from Cornell this year.
Instead, Cornell’s real improvement has been in its offensive effort. In terms of raw totals, this does not really show, as Cornell currently has the third-fewest shots on goal in the country. Its shooting percentage is up, but that was also one of its strengths last year, so any improvement would only be marginal. This is where the traditional stats do not tell the whole story, and instead we have to look at the so-called “advanced stats.”
If you have been following BRSN for a few years, you may remember an article I wrote last year about the advent of more detailed statistics being analyzed by hockey teams at all levels, especially in the National Hockey League. Briefly, however, we will examine the stat known as Corsi, also known as shot attempt percentage. Basically, this statistic calculates how many total shot attempts (including goals scored, shots on goal, shots wide, or shots blocked) one team makes in relation to the total amount in all of its games. For example, if one team takes 50 shot attempts and allows 50 shot attempts from the other team, then the Corsi is 50%. A Corsi above 50% means a team is on offense more often than on defense, and vice versa.
According to most analyses, Cosi is one of the best predictors of future goals scored and given up. In fact, compared even to shots on goal, even-strength Corsi correlates better with number of goals scored. As such, is it worth looking at Cornell’s Corsi to see if its play has, in fact, improved? According to collegehockeynews.com, the only compiler of advanced stats for NCAA hockey, Cornell’s even-strength Corsi this year is 51.3%, a gigantic improvement over its mark of 48.7% last year. A mark of 48% usually indicates a very poor team, and any success that team has can usually be attributed to luck. A score of 51.3%, on the other hand, indicates a team that is primed to outplay its opponents consistently.
This brings me to the next advanced stat, PDO, also known as the summation of a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage. This stat is considered by many to be the best way to quantify a team’s luck. Since the total sum of save percentage and shooting percentage across the country has to be 100%, a value above 100 can indicate a team is lucky and over-performing its style of play. A value below 100 indicates the opposite.
Last year, Cornell had a PDO of 101.8, which much better explains Cornell’s success last year than its Corsi value. It also makes sense, then, why it was obliterated in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Cornell was simply not that strong of a team last year. So, the logical question then follows, is Cornell is getting lucky this year too? In fact, Cornell’s PDO this year is an astronomical 105.3, which is by far the highest in the country! For as well as Cornell has been playing this year, much of its dominance must be attributed to luck.
So, as we look towards the last three weeks of the regular season and the tournaments beyond, can we fairly expect Cornell to improve on its performance from last year? While there is no way of truly knowing, I believe the answer is yes. While the team’s PDO is much higher than it was last year, remember that PDO is made up of shooting percentage and save percentage, two of the areas we established were amongst Cornell’s strengths over the past few years. I believe we can reasonably expect that Cornell will go far in the NCAA tournament this year, as long as it can continue to carry a high Corsi. With a Corsi above 51% along with a high PDO, Cornell is capable of showing a deep NCAA tournament this year.
Overall, however, all that matters is how Cornell plays from here on out. The team has played extremely well so far, but anything can happen in the future. Still, there is every reason for us fans to have hope this year and, if all goes well, we could be in the midst of a very special time.