There’s good reason to be surprised about Rensselaer’s sweep of Colgate and Cornell to cap the regular season. But then again, the fact that’s a bit shocking is a surprise in and of itself.
After making the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 1994-95, it’s safe to say RPI entered the season as a contender for home ice, if not more, in ECAC Hockey.
But, as coach Seth Appert put it, a “disgusting” first half saw the Engineers enter 2012 with just three wins, and none since the middle of November.
Plenty of space has been taken up dissecting that first half, but RPI has quietly turned it around since then, posting 7-6-3 mark since Jan. 1 and moving up two spots to 10th place in the ECAC.
It’s hardly lighting the world on fire, but certainly much better than “disgusting.” Still, Appert was quick to note that RPI still has had its fair share of stinkers, including a 6-2 loss to Princeton on Feb. 18 and an 8-3 walloping by Colgate on Feb. 4.
“We’ve been playing better as team,” Appert said. “The second half there have been less distractions, less individual ideas, such as the fact that guys aren’t getting points. [We've let go] of the things outside of our control and focused on the team game.”
RPI, which ranks last in the league and 56th in the nation in scoring, can’t get fixated with scoring five or six goals a night, especially against its opponent in the playoffs, seventh seed Clarkson, which has been buoyed all season by senior goalie Paul Karpowich (2.43 goals against average, .923 save percentage).
“For us, it’s really a depth thing,” Appert said of the Engineers. “Last year we had a Hobey Baker finalist in Chase Polacek. We knew Chase could put us in a good position to win. The only way to win [this year] is if 26 guys are pulling in the right direction.”
Last month’s 2-1 road win against Yale is solid evidence to back that point. RPI patched together just enough offense and hurled itself all over the ice to block a volley of Bulldogs shots. Those that made it through were denied by junior Bryce Merriam, who finished with 45 saves.
Appert admitted in his postgame comments that it wasn’t pretty, but it worked. The Engineers can use that game as a blueprint if they want to join a recent line of lower-seeded teams (Colgate, Brown) to make some noise in the playoffs.
There’s bound to be comparisons between last year’s Raiders team, which closed on a modest streak before becoming the first No. 12 seed to reach the championships, and this year’s RPI team.
But it’s two different years and two different teams, and while Appert has been asked about any similarities several times, he prefers to look at the balance in the ECAC.
“Usually the top two teams can separate themselves,” he said. “But it seems like it happens every year that the difference between the third- and 12th-place teams is minimal. Maybe it’s a goalie or one elite player that’s the difference. That can be negated in one weekend.”
Certainly, Clarkson’s Karpowich is a difference maker. And while Appert respects the Golden Knights’ talent both in and out of net, he’s more worried about what the Engineers have to do if they want to make a playoff run.
“We need to worry about how we have to play,” he said. “We’re not going to get caught up in a goalie’s tendencies or weaknesses. We’re going to have to win games 3-2, 2-1. We need to do the right things as a team.”
Checking in on the first-round series
Here’s a quick look at the playoff series this weekend. All are best-of-three and start at 7 p.m.
No. 12 Brown at No. 5 Quinnipiac
Season series: Quinnipiac, 1-0-1
There’s a lot of familiarities in this series. The Bobcats are hosting a playoff series for the seventh year in a row, while Brown hits the road for the playoffs for the eighth straight year, including the second consecutive trip to Hamden, where Quinnipiac swept the first round with a pair of 4-0 wins last year. The teams are also just a week apart from their last meeting, a 4-1 Bobcats win last Friday at the TD Bank Sports Center.
Quinnipiac closed the season 3-1-1 to give it 16 straight winning seasons under coach Rand Pecknold. The Bobcats are also the only team to win a playoff series each season since they joined the ECAC in 2005. The Bears ended on an 0-8-1 skid, with their last win coming against eventual regular season champion Union on Jan. 21.
No. 11 Princeton at No. 6 Yale
Season series: Yale, 2-0-1
The Bulldogs had their struggles this year, but pulled even at .500 to avoid their first losing season since 2006-07, Keith Allain’s first as coach. Yale won 5-2 at Hobey Baker Rink last Friday. Eight different players recorded a point for the Bulldogs, giving them a balanced attack that they’ve been missing at times this season.
Yale’s Andrew Miller, Brian O’Neill, et al will draw most of the attention in this series but don’t overlook the Tigers’ Andrew Calof and Jack Berger, who each turned in an impressive sophomore season.
It’s possible this series could see four different goaltenders between the two teams, as Princeton’s Sean Bonar and Mike Condon have split time all season, while Nick Maricic has started four consecutive games for Yale after Jeff Malcolm played virtually every minute in the early going.
No. 10 RPI at No. 7 Clarkson
Season series: Clarkson, 2-0
There’s no doubt that Clarkson is glad to be playing at home, but the Golden Knights probably wish it wasn’t for another week. They entered the last weekend of the regular season clinging to fourth place but slipped to seventh after losses at Dartmouth and Harvard.
Clarkson is 10-3-2 this season at home, including a 4-1 win over RPI in the ECAC opener for both teams. Clarkson received a combined six points from senior forwards Louke Oakley, Nick Tremblay, Jake Morley and Corey Tamblyn in that November win. Those four, along with sophomore Ben Sexton, have been some of the top producers for Clarkson this season. And of course there’s Karpowich, who saved his best performance for his senior year.
Not much to add about RPI other than what’s above. Freshman Scott Diebold stopped 49 shots for the win at Colgate last Friday, but Merriam has seen the majority of time in net. Diebold has been solid, although his numbers are skewed by several mop-up outings. Appert wouldn’t tip his hand as to which way he’s leaning, but Merriam seems a likely choice. The Engineers don’t have a player with double-digit goals, as CJ Lee’s seven are the most on the team.
No. 9 Dartmouth at No. 8 St. Lawrence
Season series: 1-1-1
This is the third series in the opening round that features a rematch from last weekend. These two teams closed out the regular season Saturday, when the Saints evened their record against the Big Green with a 3-1 win at Thompson Arena.
Bigger things were expected for Dartmouth after a trip to Atlantic City last year, but injuries and inconsistency plagued the Big Green, as top forward Dustin Walsh has been out since January, and no one from the trio of James Mello, Jody O’Neill and Cab Morris has run away with the starting goalie job. Still, Dartmouth had the highest-scoring freshman class in league play, led by Brandon McNally (10-5–15) and Tyler Sikura (7-8–15).
Sophomore Matt Weninger has carried the load in net for the Saints, starting all but one conference game, but hasn’t gotten much support from an offense that ranks second-to-last in league scoring (2.27 goals a game). Greg Carey (11-10–21) and Kyle Flanagan (5-13–18) were the top two scorers for St. Lawrence in ECAC play.
In case you missed it
Union coach Rick Bennett was one of the guests on this week’s USCHO Live! Check it out here.
Poll and PairWise check-in
The ECAC closed the regular season with two teams: Union (seventh) and Cornell (13th) among the top 20 in the latest USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, with Quinnipiac, Harvard, and Colgate also receiving votes.
Union (tie, eighth) and Cornell (16th) are the top league teams in the latest PairWise Rankings, meaning there’s a good chance the league could receive only one bid if the Dutchmen win the Whitelaw Cup.
With the playoffs starting, that means it’s time to start thinking about regular season awards. The league won’t officially announce them until the championships in Atlantic City, so that leaves plenty of time for debate.
Colgate’s Austin Smith led the ECAC with 25 goals in league play and finished tops in points with 34. Linemate Chris Wagner had the most assists (22), while Harvard’s Danny Biega (8-15–23) led all defensemen in points. Union’s Troy Grosenick (1.60 goals against average, .940 save percentage) was the top goalie.
USCHO covers the ECAC all week long on the ECAC Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.