The Engineers were one of the hottest teams down the final stretch of the 2012-13 regular season. The last ten games of the regular season saw RPI earn nine victories. The lone loss came against Cornell. At Lynah Rink. Cornell dominated Seth Appert's Engineers from the opening draw to the final whistle while three Cornellians contributed four goals that made much-lauded RPI netminder Jason Kasdorf look like a sieve. The Engineers left East Hill deflated and no amount of pre-game hand-wringing and exchanging of pucks to their current head coach from Doug Hearns could wipe the egg from their faces. It was not the coups de grâce to the Engineers' season, but it might as well have been. RPI earned its first first-round bye of the seven-year-old Seth Appert Era. RPI's season ended when Brown took two games out of a rested Engineer squad at Houston Field House to advance to the 2013 ECAC Championship Weekend.
This is the first season in a long time that preseason expectations for the Institute on the banks of the Hudson River are as high outside of the Engineers fanbase as they are within it. Each season it seems, fans of RPI (choose one of the myriad of self-appellations) claim that this coming season will be the season. Well, this season, many agree with them. And, this writer cannot say they are entirely off-base. I think that these expectations should be tempered with a healthy dose of skepticism considering Appert's lack of playoff success (winning only two playoff series in seven postseasons), but the talent on RPI's team is undeniable.
RPI appeared to put the cart before the horse in its season debut. Seth Appert likes to use terms like "trap game" to disparage perceived lesser opponents like Sacred Heart, but Jerry York's Boston College showed up for the Eagles's trap game and demolished the Engineers 7-2 behind three-goal second and third periods. The Engineers rebounded in spectacular fashion with a convincing win over Boston University. The final tally was 3-1 and some of the goals appeared to follow odd paths from a suspect ice surface, but the ice plays the same for both teams, and the Engineers controlled play convincingly. The game was played against a Terriers team that is still trying to find its winning identity under Quinn, but they all count the same and wins at Agganis are never easy.
The Engineers took a second win out of Sacred Heart. They arched on to prove finally that they had found a winning rhythm. The Wildcats of New Hampshire fell to the Engineers of RPI in a high-scoring affair at Houston Field House. The official margin was 4-2, but early on it appeared that RPI had the game in hand. The Engineers surged to a 4-0 lead before surrendering a single goal.
Then, RPI's first weekend in the toughest conference in college hockey began. The Engineers played three games over five days. They would win only one of the contests. They emerged victorious from Dartmouth with a 7-1 victory, but allowed Harvard to take three points out of them in a Black-Tuesday tie and a loss at Lynah East.
What to Expect:
Seth Appert touted scoring depth as what he expected to be the strength of this team. He exclaimed that this Engineers team would not have a Chase Polacek to rely on and would need to score by committee. Perhaps it is naturally suited toward Engineer hockey or Appert-coached teams, but it appears that what Appert did not expect is what happened. One player, or 8% of RPI's roster that has seen action in all eight of the Engineers's contests, accounts for 31.3% of the Engineer's scoring output to date. RPI is undefeated when he scores goals, but when in its two losses, he has been shut out. Any loyal follower of ECAC Hockey knows that it is Ryan Haggerty who is having this season. He leads the nation in goals per game with an average of 1.25 goals scored per game.
Only four players on RPI's roster are averaging a point per game or higher. Haggerty is of course one such player. Predictably, Brock Higgs, Matt Neal, and Jacob Laliberte round out the remaining three. Laliberte has been underperforming in his junior season with just one goal on the season. If he were on pace with his goal production from last season, he would have scored three if not four goals by this point in the season. Cornell needs to be mindful of any abrupt changes in production that may occur mid-season and make sure that they do not happen at the Big Red's expense.
Where supposedly offensively minded RPI has only four players averaging one point per game, defensively minded Cornell has six producing at that pace. Cole Bardreau is unlikely to see action this weekend, but it indicates that the scoring attack of Cornell is much deeper than that of RPI. No Cornell goal scorer has contributed more than 25% of the goals that Cornell has scored. The highest producer is Joel Lowry who has contributed 23.1% of Cornell's goal-scoring offense.
The Engineers will try to defeat Cornell without the services of Jason Kasdorf. Kasdorf suffered a season-ending injury to his shoulder during practice earlier in the season and needs to undergo surgery to try and rehabilitate it. All harassing banter aside, I wish Kasdorf well and that he can return to form and continue to play the game he loves. This has made the Engineers rely upon Scott Diebold.
Diebold has been stellar in net. His numbers are great and his play as been nearly as good. He owns a goals-against average of 1.58 and a save percentage of 0.946 headed into the contest. Scoring on the Buffalo native will be no small task. He has played as many games this season as he did last. Diebold has not proven that he is a workhorse goaltender who can take the majority of minutes of the Engineers. Last season, with one exception, his save percentages dipped in every sequential game ranging from outings with save percentages as high as 0.967 and as low as 0.750 including a contest when he was pulled. That trend has not been apparent this season, but it is worth considering that as he logs more minutes than expected, his form may diminish.
Cornell will look to get rolling on the power play. RPI's penalty kill, killing at a rate of 85.2%, will be a formidable test. But, look for the game to be decided on even strength when Cornell can exploit stubborn yet entrenched stereotypes within Engineer hockey that Cornell plays an uncreative, slow game. If the freshmen decide to tickle the twine, it will be in this contest. I have my eye on one player in particular after last weekend.
What is there not to love about a contest between a program and fanbase that loathe your program and fanbase more than you even care about them?
The story on opposite sides of the Hudson River hardly could be more different. While RPI has not won more than two playoff series in the last seven seasons, Union has swept two playoff series and won consecutive Whitelaw Cups. Union rose to that level of success after Cornell hung three first-period goals on the Dutchmen at Lynah Rink in February 2013. The atmosphere of the game was captured best when Rick Bennett went to discuss something with the officials, obviously irritated, and the Lynah Faithful informed him in unison that he just sucked. Well, that hardly is the case, notwithstanding a lack of success at Lynah Rink, Rick Bennett led his team to playoff glory for the second season in a row and had the pleasure of eliminating the defending national champion, Boston College, in a 5-1 rout. The win ranks easily as one of the best from ECAC Hockey in the last five seasons and is a strong contender for the most important.
It is obvious on what Union has its sights set. It has tasted playoff glory. It wants more. To their credit, the Dutchmen are very up front about their desires and expectations. They want to do what only two other programs in the history of ECAC Hockey have done: win three (or more) ECAC Hockey championships in sequence. The last program to do so was Boston University from 1974 to 1977. The last current member of ECAC Hockey to win four, obviously, was Cornell from 1967 through 1970.
The Dutchmen stumbled on their first steps toward reaching that goal. Troy Grosenick abandoned his team for the professional ranks before the team began and before his eligibility expired. The next goaltender on the depth chart was Colin Stevens. Stevens was viewed as the only starter on the team that had a chance to fill the void left after the early defections of Kinkaid and Grosenick. Stevens played admirably for six minutes. Then, injury removed him from the first game of the season against Bowling Green. Beat writers and sports information directors alike flipped frantically through their depth chart to see who was next and then prayed the pronunciation guide would be merciful. Alex Sakellaropoulos took his place in the blue paint as a freshman who did not expect to see game time.
Miraculously, Union responded. The Dutchmen did not get a win but they did enough to get the tie. In the second game of the series, Union downed the Falcons and gave Sakellaropoulos his first win. Rick Bennett-coached teams are nothing if not resilient and the first weekend showed that even though some brand-name players from Union are gone, the character remains.
Union dropped two one-goal decisions to Lake Superior State at Messa Rink. The Lakers at that point were undefeated and Union did not quite have enough to put them away. The untold narrative? Union has not lost since then. Quietly, Union is on an unbeaten streak.
This included taking a tie out of UConn, a team that owns the best power-play conversion rate in the country. The Dutchmen allowed no power-play goals in that meeting. While RPI floundered with Harvard, Union swept the Dartmouth-Harvard weekend by a margin of 11 goals for to four goals allowed. The lone blemish on that outing according to detractors? Ted Donato played the wrong goaltender against Union so the Dutchmen did not have the privilege of giving Girard his first loss.
What to Expect:
One of the best games during the regular season. That is what has become expected of the Cornell-Union series over the last two seasons since Rick Bennett has become head coach in Schenectady. Yes, I realize the disparity in the winning record at this point, but all games were closely played, all were well played, and all were accompanied by tremendous amounts of zeal from both fanbases. Cornell travels well and Union has a respectably sized contingent that travels. This will be a fun contest in one of ECAC Hockey's unique buildings.
Union has outshot its opponents by a margin of 116 shots over a mere seven games. Where most coaching staffs that espouse the doctrines of Guy Gadowsky or Seth Appert may think that is a promising sign, Rick Bennett, et al. wanted to see a dramatic change after the UConn series. Quality, not quantity, was the focus. The philosophy of the inevitability of sinking a shut in a haphazard deluge does not appeal to the way the Dutchmen play.
Whether the Dutchmen heeded that warning or not (they outshot their opponents 78 to 39 last weekend), the results were two wins. Oh, yeah, and Colin Stevens returned.
Not enough can be said in praise of Sakellaropoulos' service to the Dutchmen this season or Union's defensive corps that made it seem seamless, but Union appears immediately more like a team poised to win a championship with Stevens between the pipes. Stevens recorded a mere 0.897 on the weekend, but the Dutchmen kept his shot total over two games to a number that some teams allow commonly in a single game.
Stevens will improve. It was his first weekend back from injury. Anyone who thinks that goals will come cheap and easy at Messa Rink will be in for a rude awakening. Cornell knows well that reality. Last season's Union squad according to Bennett relied too much on its power-play unit that ranked among the best in the nation throughout the season. Whether it is a positive or negative in the eyes of Union's coaching staff is unknown, but the Dutchmen rank a respectable, but not fear-inducing, 19th nationally in power-play conversion headed into the weekend. Union converts on 22.0% of its power-play chances.
Union, like Cornell, has six players producing offense at a rate of one or more points per game. Where Cornell is expected to be without the services of Cole Bardreau, Union welcomed back Max Novak last weekend. Novak had a coming back party of sorts with a four-point weekend including a goal against Dartmouth.
Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who last season could be counted on to shoot the puck whenever it was on his stick, has been instructed to look for offensive openings less than goals this season. He appears to have taken to that approach to his game as he has scored only one goal this season but has contributed six assists. Gostisbehere's skill is undeniable and as he has added to his game, he becomes all the more threatening. He was the only Dutchman to tally a point in each of the games that Cornell and Union played last season.
The game will be a great match-up. Union has been allowing just 21.3 shots on goal per game. Cornell has been winning with fewer. Rick Bennett and his staff will not have overlooked the talent of Cornell's freshmen, so the heavy lifting in this match-up may fall on the more seasoned usual suspects of Brian Ferlin and Joel Lowry who combined for five points against Union last season. Ferlin assisted on three of Cornell's four goals at Lynah Rink. Cornell cannot underestimate the scoring dynamism of Union freshman Michael Pontarelli.
Mike Schafer likened the experience of playing Bennett-coached Union teams as like Cornell playing itself. Cornell and Union are the two teams soundest in their systems. The games between the two have become great and are particularly enjoyable affairs for the Lynah Faithful who prefer team-first, disciplined contests.
Union is aiming for the truly historic with the goal of winning a third Whitelaw Cup. Much has been made that Union would be the first team since Boston University in 1976 to win three consecutive ECAC Hockey Championships. However, what of what it would mean for Rick Bennett? Ned Harkness won four consecutive ECAC Hockey Championships for Cornell, but he did not do it in his first four seasons on East Hill. Rick Bennett, like Mike Schafer, won a Whitelaw Cup in each of his first two seasons. However, if Rick Bennett manages to win a third consecutive ECAC Hockey Championship, he will tie the record of Boston University's Jack Parker who won the four consecutive titles of the Terriers. Bennett would be unique in that he achieved the feat as the first ECAC Hockey Championships for his program, like Harkness, and in his first three or more seasons, like Parker. The 1975-76 team that won Boston University's third consecutive ECAC Hockey Championship went on to the Frozen Four where they fell to Herb Brooks and the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the national semifinals. That team from Boston University counted Mike Eruzione and Jack O'Callahan as members. It is fitting that if Rick Bennett has the opportunity to seek a third consecutive Whitelaw Cup, that he will do it in Lake Placid.