The schedule says Rensselaer’s hot streak began Feb. 1, when the Engineers blanked Harvard 3-0 to start a 9-1 stretch that helped lock up the program’s first-ever bye in the ECAC Hockey tournament.
But that’s not how coach Seth Appert sees it.
“These things are never one moment,” Appert said. “Despite what everybody thinks, that’s not the case.”
RPI went 12-24-3 last season, but 7-6-3 after Jan. 1, a turnaround that continued into the offseason when seniors Nick Bailen and CJ Lee stayed and trained in Troy over the summer.
That dedication paid off early, as the Engineers took three points from national runner-up Ferris State in the opening weekend and followed that with a pair of overtime games at Minnesota State. But things went downhill quickly, as RPI lost its first five league conference games.
“We played poorly in our first four league games,” Appert said. “I didn’t do a good job and we didn’t have the right mind-set. It’s a slow, steady march trying to be on the same page, trying to be a hard team to play against. Since mid-November, those moments have started to get better.”
It was around that time that freshman goalie Jason Kasdorf began to work his way into the picture, moving ahead of incumbent goalies Bryce Merriam and Scott Diebold.
“We were struggling a little bit and Bryce and Scotty weren’t playing up to their expectations. But neither was the team,” Appert said.
“It was time to give him an opportunity and he’s played well,” Appert said of Kasdorf, who has a 13-3-2 record and is among the top 10 nationally in goals against average and save percentage.
As the only NHL draft pick on the team, it would have been easy for Kasdorf to sulk over his lack of playing time. But that wasn’t the case for the freshman, who was a sixth-round pick by Winnipeg in 2011.
“Give credit to Jason; he came in and worked his tail off,” Appert said. “We’re struggling and he’s not playing, but he didn’t whine and complain. He spent a lot of extra time on the ice, honing in on the little details.”
It hasn’t all been Kasdorf, though. RPI has gotten balanced scoring and better play throughout the lineup, especially from sophomore forwards Matt Neal, Jacob Laliberte, Ryan Haggerty, and defensemen Curtis Leonard and Luke Curadi.
“The biggest thing that a sophomore needs to do is have an unbelievable summer,” Appert said. “The sophomore slump comes when they have success as a freshman and don’t believe they have to work as hard anymore.”
That commitment has paid off, as RPI hosts Brown this weekend, looking to advance to the semifinals for the first time 2002.
As Brian Sullivan noted Monday, there were few upsets in the first round of the ECAC playoffs.
No. 9 Cornell was the only lower seed to advance, although the Big Red entered the postseason on one of their best stretches of the year. While the regular season has been hard to predict, this year’s playoffs are already mirroring last season’s, where all four of the top seeds made it to the semifinals.
There’s still one weekend to go until Atlantic City, so a lot can happen. But it goes to show how important consistency can be through the ups and downs of the regular season.
Harvard and Colgate each made it to the semifinals last year but those two teams are done for the year, along with Clarkson and Princeton.
Much of Colgate’s struggles down the stretch were tied to giving up early leads. That’s what happened last weekend, as the Raiders trailed 4-0 and 3-0 in both games against St. Lawrence.
Keep an eye on the Raiders, though. While inconsistent at times, Colgate had five freshman finish with at least 15 points. They’ll lose some key seniors, especially on defense, but the Raiders have plenty returning next season.
The Crimson rebounded from a brutal two-month stretch and started to look like a team that could do some damage in the playoffs. Harvard beat Boston University twice this season and downed top-ranked Quinnipiac on the final weekend of the regular season. They beat Dartmouth in Game 1 Friday, but lost the next two by a combined score of 10-4.
Their power play finished last year ranked first in the nation, but sits at 54th as the Crimson head into the offseason. Harvard was 2-for-9 last weekend on the man advantage, although one of those scores came with Game 3 already well in hand.
Lack of offense is what sent Clarkson and Princeton home early. The Golden Knights ended the regular season on a four-game losing streak, including three straight shutouts.
“When you press, sometimes you bury your head,” Clarkson coach Casey Jones said after Friday’s 3-0 loss to Brown. “We hit a lot of shin pads. We’re lacking some poise to make maybe one additional play.”
The penalty kill was the Golden Knights’ Achilles’ heel all season, and that continued last weekend with the Bears going 3-for-6 on the power play.
Princeton’s offense was quiet down the stretch as well; the Tigers scored more than two goals only twice in February and March. The Tigers also drew a hot Cornell team that’s been playing better than its seeding lately.
The next month also kicks off a wave of departures across the college ranks, as seniors and underclassmen alike hook on with professional teams for the stretch run. Several ECAC seniors have already left following their team’s elimination last weekend, including Princeton’s Michael Sdao and Colgate’s Jeremy Price:
Sdao was a seventh-round pick by Ottawa in the 2009 NHL draft, while Price was taken in the fourth round that same year by Vancouver.
As selected by the conference:
Player of the week — Kyle Flanagan, St. Lawrence: The senior had five points in the Saints’ sweep of Colgate after missing the final weekend of the regular season following an appendectomy. He also became the seventh player in program history to pass the 100-assist mark.
Rookie of the week — Mark Naclerio, Brown: Naclerio had three points in two games against Clarkson as the Bears advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2010. The freshman was 15-for-28 on faceoffs Friday and is sixth in the ECAC in faceoff percentage.
Goalie of the week — Anthony Borelli, Brown: After not appearing in a game his junior season, Borelli has made up for lost time quickly this year. The senior goalie posted his third shutout of the year Friday against Clarkson, and stopped 65 of 68 shots overall in the sweep of the Golden Knights. Borelli’s .945 save percentage is tied for second in the country.
The league also announced that Appert, Yale coach Keith Allain and Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold were selected by their peers as finalists for the Tim Taylor Award, given to the league’s top coach.
As always, check the ECAC blog later in the week as Brian Sullivan and I will weigh in on the quarterfinal round this weekend.