After shutouts, Rensselaer takes a step in the right direction

In its first games since Adam Oates’ induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Rensselaer manufactured some of Oates’ (class of ’85) favorite product: offense.

On the heels of consecutive shutouts at Dartmouth and Harvard (each 4-0 losses), the Engineers quietly dismissed Atlantic Hockey foe Mercyhurst by 4-2 and 4-1 margins. The victories were RPI’s first since Oct. 12 (a season-opening win against Ferris State) and set season highs for goals scored. (The previous mark had been three.)

“It was obviously a step in the right direction,” coach Seth Appert said. “We didn’t like how we played — especially the second Union night [a withering 7-3 loss in Schenectady] — but against Dartmouth and Harvard as well. Some of our immaturity showed in those games” and the Engineers got away from their team ethic, he said.

Appert’s icers are about as far from a stable of stars as you can get. Only four players have mustered more than two goals so far this fall, and center Jacob Laliberte’s five strikes are good enough for the team lead. Sophomores Laliberte (11 points in eight games) and linemate Matt Neal (10 points in 10 games) are the only Engineers players averaging at least a point per game.

That power play — running at an acceptable 18 percent conversion rate — had scored seven of RPI’s 16 total goals entering last weekend. The ratio is a bit more reasonable now, at eight of 24.

“As I’ve been saying all year, we need to be a team that scores by committee,” Appert said. “Our power play was creating too large a chunk of our offense.”

The collective effort clicked against the Lakers, but that’s not to say that it’s the first time Appert has seen it happen this year.

“We tried to have a real team mentality through 120 minutes of hockey and not worry about the results. When we’re playing the right way, we’ve given ourselves plenty of chances to win.”

The coach singled out dynamic forward Marty O’Grady as a big reason for the turnaround, as the veteran’s leadership helped to settle down a restless bench.

“It’s nice to see Marty O’Grady back after having hip surgery,” Appert said. “He’s a senior, and we don’t have many seniors on our team.

“Mark Miller was real strong on the weekend,” he said, noting the freshman’s goal and assist on Saturday. “We had three lines that produced five-on-five goals this weekend.”

Heading into RPI’s first Thanksgiving break in well over a decade (the Engineers haven’t had the following weekend free since 1997), one of Appert’s greatest concerns is the viability of his three-headed goaltending corps.

“They haven’t been good enough,” he said flatly. “Certainly, our team hasn’t been good enough in some games, but you look at those numbers (.890 team save percentage, 3.14 team goals against average) and see that. They have the potential to play better.”

After the Mercyhurst sweep, Appert may look closer at freshman Jason Kasdorf: The Winnipeg Jets prospect allowed a single goal on 31 shots in Saturday’s win.

This 1 percent really is elite

While discussing goaltending — his occupation, in an earlier life — Appert referred back to a number he had mentioned a few years past: 910.

As in, point-nine-ten, 0.910. The save percentage. It is the threshold for legitimate goaltending, he said.

“Nine-one to .915 is solid, it’s a legitimate starting goalie, but not many elite teams get away with numbers like that from their goaltenders,” he said.

Let’s check it out. This year, Niagara junior Carsen Chubak is stopping everything he sees and then some: 97 percent of the shots he faces are going somewhere the shooter didn’t intend. Chubak’s Purple Eagles are sixth in the country in winning percentage, at .731 (8-2-3).

Casey DeSmith of New Hampshire boasts an astounding .961 save percentage; UNH is 8-1-1 in large part thanks to DeSmith’s incredible stop-ability.

Yale’s own Jeff Malcolm is saving nearly 19 out of every 20 shots he’s facing this year, but whither the Bulldogs? Malcolm has played only six games … and earned a decision in only four (3-1). Ohio State’s Brady Hjelle and Dartmouth’s Charles Grant also fit the bill as big savers earning only split time.

Going the other way around — from the top teams to their goalies — Boston College’s 9-1 record complements Parker Milner’s .928 save percentage nicely. Denver has the same record, and a .935 goalie in Sam Brittain.

“We need really high-end guys, not just solid guys,” Appert said of his team, but really of all teams as well. “The difference from the top of our league to the bottom is minimal. Most of the top four teams have goalies in the .920-.925 range.”

Dartmouth’s team save percentage is .930. Check. Cornell’s: .920. Yep. Union? Only .912 (though Colin Stevens’ is .933). And Quinnipiac’s team save percentage is a mere .907 (but starter Eric Hartzell is a whisper shy of .920).

If you’re still reading this, you may be wondering what the big deal is about ten-thousandths of a point. Well, it’s the same as one-hundredth: What separates a .910 goalie from a .920 is one goal in 100 shots.

How much can that really be worth? It’s roughly one goal every three to five games. That doesn’t seem like much, but if that goal is scored — or saved — at the right time in the right game, it could mean the difference between a win, a tie and a loss.

Divide the ECAC Hockey season’s 22 league games by four, and you end up with five or six goals saved by elite goaltenders that are missed by their more pedestrian brethren. Sprinkle those goals (or saves) in just a couple of appropriate places over the course of the campaign and you get a difference of maybe three, four, six, even 10 points in the final standings, depending on who’s benefiting and suffering from the swing.

It’s not much of a stretch to argue that .920 goaltending could earn you a four-spot boost in the final standings compared to .910 … from a first-round road trip to a home stand, or a home series to a bye.

That is what 1/100 is worth.