Winning in clumps is a good thing, as long as the clumps aren’t too far apart.
Rensselaer did that well last year, with two three-game winning streaks, three two-game runs and a balanced season: 9-9-1 in the first half, 9-8-3 in the second. It was not a glamorous year, but it was exciting, with the Engineers in the hunt for a first-round bye until the final weekend.
The ‘Tute boasted the league’s second-ranked defense in front of a fresh young face in the league’s storied ranks of elite goaltenders, as Allen York held his own with a .910 save percentage and a 2.54 goals-against average.
Freshmen sensations Brandon Pirri and Jerry D’Amigo stole the show many nights, combining for 21 goals and 77 points in what proved to be disappointingly short collegiate careers. Third-year striker Chase Polacek didn’t mind sharing the spotlight, though, as his bulb burned brightest: 26 goals and 26 assists landed him among the Hobey Baker finalists.
If you ask coach Seth Appert about his team’s greatest strengths entering the new year, he won’t give you names … he’ll give you a whole class.
“The one thing I’ve always been looking forward to with this team was our senior class,” he said. “I really like the senior class; they’re guys that came here to try to help change the culture of our program and to take our program from where it was, and try to contend and compete for ECAC championships. They’re guys that have been totally committed and have bought in to what we’ve expected of them, how we want to run our program, and they’re really driven, dedicated kids. They’re guys that represent our program both on and off the ice in a first-class manner.
“There are some good players in that class. There’s obviously Chase Polacek, the reigning player of the year in our league, first-team All-American and a Hobey Baker finalist. Guys like Bryan Brutlag, Jeff Foss, John Kennedy, Tyler Helfrich, Joel Malchuk. There are two other guys, Kevin Beauregard and Scotty Halpern, who have been in and out of the lineup, but again are two real, real committed young men who’ve done everything we wanted from them in terms of what they give to the program.”
The large cadre of fourth-year players should give RPI every opportunity to play fast, hard and heavy, as the experience and leadership can keep the club flying straight while allowing it to take potentially rewarding risks.
The weak links
Losing two truly high-end freshmen like Pirri and DAmigo is a kick in the shins (or higher) by anyone’s standard. Polacek is left as the Engineers’ only proven scorer, and Appert knows that there is work to be done if RPI is to make another run at a top-four finish.
“I think we’re going to have to score by committee — I think that’s going to be important for us, Appert said. We have enough scoring, we have Chase coming back and we have a lot of junior and senior forwards. We add a lot more talent on our blue line even though … it’s a little younger, we get a little bit more mobile. I think that … last year we relied on four or five guys to do the bulk of our scoring. This year, outside of Polacek, we need to be a team that scores a little bit more by committee.
“How do we react as a team?” Appert asked rhetorically regarding the frosh flights. “Not at all. Not at all, we’re not going to change a thing. It only re-emphasizes the things that are most important to us and what we need to be great at. We need to be a difficult team to play against, we need to possess the puck and take pride in having the puck, we want to be an aggressive, physical team. We want to use our speed not only on the attack, but also on the backcheck … to play great team defense. Those are the things that are important to us; they’re not going to be any different because those two are gone. We’re proud of Jerry and Brandon, we certainly wish them all the best … and it certainly shows that elite-level players can come to RPI and develop well, and have the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League. But [their departures] aren’t going to change the way we play.”
Scoring by committee isn’t easy. It demands team-wide focus, diligence and perseverance, and if just one player would rather someone else play Mr. Clutch — well that’s a few opportunities that he cost the entire team. We’ll see who steps up to support Polacek, and how often. Until then, this is a middle-of-the-pack team.