Despite formulating a single set of back-to-back wins through the entire regular season, the Engineers whipped up three straight W’s to open the playoffs to off Dartmouth and agitate Cornell. The Big Red finally ditched the pesky ‘Tute, but not before RPI had finally reached the 10-win mark on the season.
The offense was thoroughly inept, as the Engineers ended more games with one goal or none than otherwise: 20 times in 39 games, Rensselaer failed to score twice.
Four underclassmen topped the scoring chart, with Chase Polacek tallying 21 assists for the second time in his two years of service. He also potted 11 goals, edging rookie Patrick Cullen, who had 10.
Mathias Lange played 25 games in his senior season, but first-year Allen York put up better numbers in both goals against average and save percentage.
The squad bid adieu to only a single double-digit scorer from last year’s club, as Matt Angers-Goulet scored six times with eight assists in 39 games. Younger brother Alex scored once more than his senior sibling, generating 15 points his freshman year. The aforementioned top four scorers from 2008-09 are all either sophomores or juniors, and it will be intriguing to see how well they’ve matured over the offseason.
York topped the .900 save percentage mark, but will be asked to do better by coach Seth Appert if he hopes to claim the starting job all season long. A former goalie himself, Appert believes that .910 is the magic number separating decent goalies from great ones.
One area that Appert already believes to be in capable hands is the blue line.
“We’ll be looking better,” he said. “We weren’t as good as we wanted to be last year defensively, but we didn’t lose anybody, and we return one of our more talented defensemen in Mike Bergin. He’s a Dallas Stars draft pick, and was out really the whole season with an injury. So we’ll gain maturity, and we certainly gain a lot having Mike come back into the lineup.
“At the same time, we need that group to be better. We need to do a better job of coaching them, and instructing them how we want them to play, but we also need a stronger, more consistent performance in how they take care of the puck and how they get us out of our own end. It’ll be, certainly, an experienced group, as we have a lot of guys back there who have played a lot of minutes and a lot of games, so that won’t be an issue. We should be a very good defensive team.”
Up front, the coach is only seeing opportunity ahead for his young forwards.
“You lose experience, and sometimes you gain talent and enthusiasm and skill, and some different attributes that the kid brought to the table,” Appert said. “We have four extremely talented forwards that are coming in that will help us inject talent and intelligence and competitiveness into our lineup, but at the same time, you win in college hockey with your older players. So we need our older forwards — and we only have two forwards that are seniors [Paul Kerins and Garett Vassel] — to execute their roles very well, and then we need our junior and sophomore forwards … to take steps. They’ve been very good freshmen and sophomores, but now we need them to become strong, competitive, real high-end players in our league. You can’t stagnate and be a pretty good sophomore, and a pretty good freshman, and then just still be a pretty good junior. We need Tyler [Helfrich] and Chase [Polacek] and Patty [Cullen] and Alex [Angers-Goulet] … to really make elevations in their game.”
Appert is especially high on his incoming class, and was thorough in his analysis thereof.
“Brandon Pirri was a second-round draft pick to the Blackhawks, and is probably one of the more talented players entering college hockey this year,” Appert said. “We won a good recruiting battle for him; he’s really blossomed in the last year and a half. He and Jerry [D’Amigo] certainly highlight the freshman class. Jerry was the leading scorer at the World Under-18 Championships for the U.S. team. … He’s a draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and was at the World Junior camp and certainly performed well there this summer. He also has that year of collegiate experience that the U.S. Under-18 Team gets to have under his belt which is certainly going to help him in his transition.
“Then you have Marty O’Grady, who had a very good year at Wellington as a captain up there, and then he was also a captain for Team Canada East at the World Junior Challenge, and performed extremely well there. C.J. Lee, another freshman forward, was a captain for Green Bay, and they won the USHL regular-season championship, and was about 10th or 11th in the USHL in scoring. We’re expecting strong production from our freshman, but as I said before, I think it’s going to be our upperclassmen that set the bar if we’re going to have the type of season that we’re looking for.”
The coach is also big on his newest net acquisition, 21-year-old Bryce Merriam.
“I think that’s why we recruited him,” Appert said. “We think he’s one of the premier American goalies playing junior hockey last year. He wasn’t playing a very high level of hockey through most of his high-school days, and he’s really come into his own later in life. He has certainly earned his way to this opportunity; I like that quality in him. I think goaltenders, more than any other position, mature with age and with the amount of games he’s played — specifically in the last few years — combined with his age, and some adversity he’s had to overcome to get to this point, there are strong characteristics for a goaltender.
“At the same time, we’re really excited to have Allen York back. He was a very highly touted freshman last year, who probably struggled in the first half of the season, and we expected that. It was a big adjustment, he had some things to work out, and to his credit he put a tremendous amount of time before and after practice working on his own game and honing his skill development. He put in a lot of time in the weight room, he gained 25 pounds of muscle with no gain in body fat from this point last year. He was 6-4, 160 this time last year; he’s 6-4, 185 now. He had a great run down the stretch, played very well in the playoffs for us, allowed us to win the [Dartmouth] series and push Cornell in round two, and he had a good summer.
“We’re high on both of our goaltenders, but they’re still young, and that’s where the veteran defensive corps that we have really needs to step up and help them in their transition to a little bit more of an experienced goaltending tandem.”
Through one coaching cycle — four years, so he is now working exclusively with his own recruits — Appert has stuck to his guns.
“We’ve stuck to our plan,” he said. “We came in here as a staff … and we had a plan for how we were going to build [the program] the right way to represent RPI. It takes time, and it’s been frustrating at times, but it’s the path that we knew we were going to be on. We’ve had to adjust and we’ve had to be flexible, as all plans account for, but we’re striving forward on that plan and we’re excited about the year ahead and making strides for our program. At the same time, we know we have a lot of work left up ahead.
“I think that anybody that’s seen us play will say that we’ve attempted [to play up-tempo hockey]. We don’t trap, we don’t sit back and play four guys back. We’re an aggressive team. Maybe we haven’t always executed properly and maybe I haven’t gotten our guys at times to play the way I’d like them to play … and maybe at times we didn’t have the talent to put the puck in the net, but you can’t just look at the scoreboard and say, ‘We’re not scoring goals, so we’re not playing an attacking style.’ We’re going to continue playing an attacking style; we have been for three years.”