HANOVER, N.H. — They’re baaaaaaaack.
The team preseason crystal-ball gazers expected to contend for its first ECAC Hockey League championship appears poised to, at a minimum, make a run for its third successive first-round tournament bye. The next eight ECACHL games will tell, but Dartmouth made its best argument to date by sweeping its first league weekend of the season with a 4-2 defeat of Rensselaer at Thompson Arena Saturday.
As was the case in its 5-1 win over Union on Friday, the Big Green (11-8-2 overall, 8-6-0 league) scored early, built a solid lead and never let the Engineers (11-16-2, 4-11-1) get close enough to challenge. To its credit, RPI did generate a number of quality chances despite being outshot 45-17, but they came too infrequently and too late.
“I like our team; I’ve liked it from day one,” Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but I like the progression of the team. It’s a team that’s playing solid hockey, disciplined hockey, playing hard and is confident.”
The Big Green, picked by the media and coaches to finish among the top two teams in the ECACHL, has finally begun to earn its preseason plaudits. Friday’s win was Dartmouth’s fifth in six games, and a 7-2-1 run over its past 10 contests has moved the Big Green to sole possession of fifth place, three points behind Harvard (Dartmouth’s next opponent on Friday) and four in arrears of Vermont.
Lee Stempniak got the home squad going by deking a deflected Sean Offers wrister around fallen Rensselaer goaltender Andrew Martin (41 saves) just 50 seconds into the contest. David Jones upped the edge at 13:56 on the power play, blasting a shot into an open net after an Eric Przepiorka drive took a hard bounce off the rear boards, pulling Martin out of position.
“We had a tough time getting our legs going,” Rensselaer coach Dan Fridgen said. “When you don’t have your legs going, you don’t apply pressure. They had their legs going and they certainly applied some pressure on us.”
RPI, outshot 34-8 over the first two periods, did have some good opportunities on Dartmouth netminder Dan Yacey (15 saves), but only found misfortune. Kevin Croxton missed high from the crease, Vic Pereira mishit a crossing pass wide of an open net in the first period, and Croxton had a breakaway busted by a diving Mike Hartwick sweep check eight minutes into the second.
Hartwick’s defensive gem kickstarted a counterattack that led to Jarrett Sampson’s goal at 8:26 of the second for a 3-0 lead. Kirk MacDonald gained one back at 11:18 on a shorthanded shot that appeared to hit the crossbar and bounce out, but Mike Ouellette made the controversy moot by redirecting a Nick Johnson shot past Martin at 16:07.
“I think we’re starting to be where we want to be as a team,” said Stempniak, who extended his team-best scoring streak to six games with a goal and an assist. “We’ve had a re-emphasis on defense. … We’ve made a point of driving to the net, paying the price to score the rebound goals, and I think that’s really starting to pay off for us.”
Rensselaer’s Andrew Lord ended the scoring with 2:26 to play, banging home the rebound of a Brad Farynuk shot under the diving Yacey.
Greg Fennell covers Dartmouth hockey for the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H.