We muddle together some form of a “three things we learned” update on the blog at the conclusion of each weekend’s action, but now that we’re halfway through the season (yes, really), I figured I’d kick it up a notch (bam) and dish out triple-portions of piping perspicacity for each of ECAC Hockey’s dozen denizens.
I’m not going to list the schools alphabetically – as I generally do – but rather from the bottom of the league standings on up: this way, RPI and Princeton fans can (continue to) beat the traffic. Here’s the first/bottom/heaviest third of the league; the top eight will follow in near-future posts.
• Scoring is good, but health is better. Goals don’t come any easier when forwards are falling to injury left and right. During one three-week stretch, the Engineers had all four of their regular centers out simultaneously, and head coach Seth Appert estimates well north of 40 man-games lost already. Appert’s necessary lineup contortions remind me of a trip to Europe with a bunch of North American electronics and no converter: short-outs, power outages, inability to achieve desired results, small fires… all in all, a disastrous voyage from start to finish.
• Don’t blame the goalies. Junior Bryce Merriam and rookie Scott Diebold have performed well despite little offensive support, and there’s a lot to be said for consistent achievement in the face of unlikely success. Together, the netminding tandem has maintained a top-half 2.42 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Confused by the team stats? The numbers don’t jive because RPI has allowed nine empty-net goals… more than Brown, Clarkson, Colgate, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and Union combined (eight). (The Raiders, Red, Crimson, nor Dutchmen have allowed any ENG’s this year; the rest of the league has given up two each, with the exception of Yale .)
• Don’t lump the special teams together. Just because the power play and penalty killing units each fall under the category of “special teams” doesn’t mean they should be judged as a singularity. RPI’s power play is predictably dismal, scoring just seven times in 75 opportunities to date. (That said, Dartmouth’s PP percentage is even worse, at 5.7 percent overall.) The Engineer “advantage” is one of only six in the nation to fall beneath the 10 percent mark. The PK, on the other hand, is churning out kills at a robust 87.5 percent pace (77 of 88), good for 11th in the land. If the previous points didn’t make it crystal clear already, let me lay it out slowly… in small words: RPI will have… to win… with defense.
• The young are restless. Bruno’s youth movement has been entertaining to watch, but infuriating to predict on a game-to-game basis. The Bears looked promising on the heels of November 11’s 2-1 win at Union – their second straight league win, both over ranked opponents (beating Cornell 5-4 the week before). But then Brown was banished from RPI’s Houston Field House without a goal, falling 1-0, and they haven’t been above .500 since. Following 14 goals in their first five games (3-2-0), the Bears scored just once in their proceeding four outings (0-3-1), but then opened the throttle again with nine goals in a home-and-home with Yale earlier this month. Meehan should have a warning on the door, discouraging attendance by fans with heart conditions or who may be pregnant.
• Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Among head coach Brendan Whittet’s 18 underclassmen is rookie forward Matt Lorito, who broke the lineup three games ago following a preseason broken wrist. Whittet remarked on him in particular before the season began (“He’s one that I expect will come to the forefront in terms of being able to put up points at this level, and being a guy that we lean on,”) and Lorito did not disappoint with two assists and a +3 rating in a 6-4 upset of Yale on December 3.
• This year’s Bears are free to roam. Last year, a Harry Zolnierczyk-fueled Bruno squad placed ninth (as in ninth-most, or ninth-most-undesirable position) in the nation in penalty minutes per game, with 17.1. This year, they’re all the way down at 45th with only 12.1… a full major-penalty’s worth, knocked right off the sheets. Coincidence? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
• Losing in bunches is bad. The Tigers have nine losses so far, but they’ve preferred to acquire them as if they were shopping for bananas: who only picks up one at a time? Through the end of the first semester Princeton had saddled itself with 0-2-1, 0-2-0, 0-3-0, and another 0-2-1 skids. It’s not good for confidence of (or under) a new coach or with a young squad, but by the same token it’s likely a vicious cycle of inexperience and tough defeats. The Stripes are 2-5-2 in one-goal(-or-tighter) games, 2-4-0 otherwise, so realistically they’re performing about as well in the tight games as could be expected. The real solution to their troubles would be to draw first blood, as Princeton has been scored on first in 11 of their 15 outings.
• Rob Kleebaum is finally stepping up. Not that the junior forward was holding back previously: the poor dude was hurt practically all of last year, so by games-played he’s hardly a junior… he’s more like a soph-plus, if you will. (“Super-soph”, maybe?) In any case, the third-year winger has potted a team-lead-sharing six goals so far (knotting him with “true” sophomore and opposing wing Jack Berger), and finishes off what is by far Princeton’s most imposing line, centered by sophomore Andrew Calof.
• This is likely a “rebuilding” year. While it’s tough to say that about any team, it’s probably true for the Tigers. New coach, only nine upperclassmen, and middling preseason prognostications give this squad a lot of room to grow without the ever-needling presence of external expectations. Though it can be frustrating for players, coaches and fans to suffer through perhaps a whole season of inconsistency, there appears to be a very lucent lining trimming the dashers at Baker Rink. The (three-man) senior class has contributed four goals and 12 points to the team’s summed 35-58–93 line, meaning that although the youngsters are still acclimating, they have already established themselves as capable of supporting the team as a whole.
• Something funny is going down ‘tween the pipes. Seniors James Mello and Jody O’Neill have combined for over 90 percent of the Big Green’s goaltending minutes this year, with Mello getting about four times as much playing time as O’Neill. And yet, Mello’s numbers aren’t bearing the No. 1 mantle in which he’s draped: his save percentage is a sub-par .898 overall (.892 in league play), and his goals against average is 2.99/3.36 (ECAC) compared to O’Neill’s .922/2.02 figures (both league and overall). I’m not saying that I question veteran leader Bob Gaudet, but I’m sure that he and his staff must be seeing something I’m not vis-a-vis Dartmouth’s goaltending options.
• The offense is a surprise struggle. Entering the season, I thought the Green were in pretty good position to make a run at a first-round bye, if not more. Veteran classes are well-represented on the roster, the 2010-11 team achieved beyond expectations on the wings of electric young talent, and the back end appeared to be in good hands with either Mello or O’Neill sure to make things right. So what happened? Obviously, this year is by no means a failure… but it’s a far cry from success, too. Beyond DC’s goaltending woes, the offense is scoring at nigh on a point-per-game slower pace than last year’s squad. With a mean just over two and a half goals a game to date, last year’s 3.3 GPG makes me wince while pondering how much things have actually changed since last March. Perhaps I put too much blind faith in Dartmouth’s depth, for Scott Fleming, Adam Estoclet, Matt Reber and Evan Stephens sure could come in handy right about now.
• That said, the Green still pack a mean one-two punch. That double-whammy comes in the form of sophomore Eric Robinson and freshman Tyler Sikura. They each boast nine points in 11 games, with Sikura leading the team in goals (six) and Robinson hot on his tail with five. Whereas you might expect many teams with offensive concerns to pair the right-wing Robinson with pivot-man Sikura, Gaudet prefers to split the talented producers – the “veteran” Robinson (with 36 career games to his credit) starts on the top line with left wing senior Doug Jones and soph center Matt Lindblad, while Sikura most recently anchored classmates Brandon McNally on the left and Eric Neiley on the right.