TROY, N.Y. — The homestanding Rensselaer Engineers came out strong and defeated the Brown Bears, 4-1, going away to even their best-of-three first round ECAC playoff series at one game apiece Saturday night.
While Brown kept its lineup exactly the same from the night before, RPI coach Seth Appert affected several changes throughout his four forward lines. Josh Rabbani and Garett Vassel replaced Tyler Helfrich and C.J. Lee in the lineup as the only personnel changes, but Appert also completely shook up his line combinations.
Bryan Brutlag stepped up to fill the role as the right wing on the top line next to Chase Polacek and Jerry D’Amigo in place of Helfrich. Paul Kerins also returned to his previous position at left wing alongside freshmen duo Brandon Pirri and Marty O’Grady and Joel Malchuk centered two new linemates in Alex-Angers Goulet and Rabbani.
“One thing I think Kerins does is he provides a veteran stabilizing presence for Pirri and O’Grady so that’s why I put Paul back with them,” Appert explained. “Then Rabbani and Vassel are two of our most physical forwards. They are going to give us fresh legs and finish checks and be hard to play against. With how physical and tough Brown was last night, I just felt we needed a little more edge.”
Although RPI did not really turn on the jets until after the first 20 minutes, it was evident early on that the Brown team lacked the same level of defensive intensity they had displayed in their win last night. Indeed, it seemed like a different game altogether, as the intensely physical style Brown prefers simply was not there.
Just over halfway through the opening frame, the Engineers had sustained pressure in the Brown end for well over a minute after solid backchecking by Kerins and O’Grady in the neutral zone prevented Brown from getting a change. Eventually, it led a fatigued Mike Wolff to take a hooking call at 11:48, and as they did last night, RPI capitalized on its first man-up opportunity.
With yet another delayed penalty coming up on Brown as Sean McMonagle had taken Kerins down in the low slot, D’Amigo, with a defender draped on his back, sent a laser shot-pass from his knees in the left corner which found the stick of Kerins on the near side after he had gotten back to his feet and deflected into the net between goalie Mike Clemente and the left post for the 1-0 lead at 12:52.
The Bears got that one back just over two minutes later when they capitalized on one of the very few errors made tonight by an Engineers’ squad whose defensive accountability has been streaky at best. McMonagle wrestled the puck away from Mike Bergin just outside the RPI zone and tipped it ahead to Harry Zolnierczyk to lead he and Aaron Volpatti on a two-on-one. Zolnierczyk skated in on the right wing and, after the lone defenseman back on the play went down to the ice to try and cut off the passing lane and Allen York committed to his side, he still managed to get the puck across to Volpatti, who had the easy task of planting it into a yawning net.
In the second period, not only did that chippiness from the night before came back in full force, but the Engineers took control of the game by finally playing their ‘A’-game for the first time on the weekend.
Pirri, who took three penalties in game one, took two more in the first three minutes of the period on a rough and a charge. The first Brown power play, just :13 into that middle frame, was killed easily by RPI and the second was quickly erased when Volpatti took an inexcusable call for charging the goaltender.
It seemed only a matter of time before the Engineers would break the tie. Pirri got fed bursting out of the penalty box up the right wing and nearly hit his target inside the far post, but Clemente managed to get his stick handle on it to knock the shot aside.
Kerins nearly picked up his third goal of the weekend at the 7:30 mark when he rang it off the left post with an open look from the slot, and then a minute later he found Rabbani right in front of the crease from behind the net, but Wolff was there to take a rare heads-up penalty by knocking him over before he could get his wood behind the puck. Just as that penalty was expiring, Pirri found some good luck of his own when he clanged a slap shot off the bottom of the same post from the left faceoff dot.
“I liked the way we were playing in the second,” Appert said. “We went to the net harder and we possessed the puck and our forwards were more physical. It’s amazing what happens when you finish checks. You get turnovers and you get puck possession. I wasn’t worried because we were playing the right way, but you know, you hit a couple posts and we have pucks bouncing around the crease so you start getting a little concerned that Clemente might be starting to feel it a little bit.”
The chances kept coming. Center Jack Maclellan got caught back alone on defense after and RPI takeaway in the neutral zone and made a great diving play to break up a near-perfect feed from Brutlag to Polacek, and later on the same shift, Clemente stoned Polacek on the doorstep off a rebound of a Brutlag shot from the half-wall.
With all of the Engineers’ top forwards having their chances denied by the goaltender and his two best friends, it was unsung hero Patrick Cullen who finally broke through at 14:41 of the second to give RPI a 2-1 lead they would never look back from, and he did it all alone, as he took a pass from Peter Merth to enter the offensive zone on the rush, powered through the defense all the way down the left-wing boards and around behind the net, and then came back out in front on the other side before turning to the net and letting loose a wrister that found its way through screens set by Angers-Goulet and Rabbani for the goal.
The teams traded penalties six seconds apart on the ensuing shift to set up nearly two minutes of four-on-four hockey, and Pirri took advantage of the more wide-open play with a quick goal in transition at 15:56 to give the Engineers a two-goal cushion heading into the third, a rather significant difference from the one-goal lead they had after two periods the night before. With his feet still moving to the net, he wound up for a slap shot in the high left circle and banked it in off the corner where the left post meets the crossbar, taking advantage of his good luck from earlier in the second and picking up a little more for later.
In the third, the teams continued to move in the same respective directions, with RPI getting even stronger and Brown even more lifeless. After last night’s loss, Kerins had said he was “embarrassed not only for myself but also for my teammates just coming out with that response in the third in our own barn with a lead in the first playoff game we’ve had here in four years. It was pathetic.” Tonight, it would be different. “We knew what happened last night,” he said, “and we reminded each other of it this morning, and then before the game, and then again before we went out for the third.”
Brown would be given its chances to fight back with two additional power plays on top of the four they had in the second period, but its power play unit struggled mightily. They were 0-for-6 with the extra man in the game, only mustering a single shot in four-and-a-half minutes of total power play time, and are now 0-for-9 in the series.
Allen York made 23 saves, as he was strong early and late when his team needed him most.
“(The power play) is always important,” Brown coach Brendan Whittet commented. “We haven’t been good at all. We can’t even get in the zone. We have to find a way to be able to capitalize on those situations. We’ve been good down the stretch on the power play, so we’ll find a way, but we get goofy when we win a game and we get mentally soft and that’s how we played tonight.
“We looked tired, really tired. We go to the well a lot with the same guys because we just don’t have a lot of depth, but that’s no excuse because they’re young legs and it’s not like we’re doing a lot during the day other than resting to get ready.”
RPI added extra insurance on a power play of its own at 10:09 of the third to make the score 4-1. After D’Amigo got stuffed in front by Clemente’s left pad, he got his own rebound and curved a pass around the goalie to Polacek on the weak side. The junior Hobey Baker candidate atoned for a whiff on a look at an open cage minutes before and tucked it under Clemente as he made a head-first desperation dive.
The Engineers continued their relentless pressure over the final 10 minutes and were not for Clemente, who finished with 30 saves, staying focused and the defenseman coming up big with blocked shots, the final score could have been far more lopsided.
The third and deciding game of the series will be held Sunday night at 7 p.m. in Troy at the HFH.