Rensselaer shakes off home pressure, late-season slump in first-round series sweep

Rensselaer advanced to the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals with a pair of one-goal victories over Brown (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Rensselaer’s win against Brown on Saturday was significant for a number of reasons. First, the Engineers overcame a 3-0 first-period deficit to advance to the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals for the second year in a row.

The win was also the first time that RPI had won a home playoff series since 2004 when it beat Princeton.

“It was something,” RPI coach Seth Appert said of his first home playoff series win. “You don’t get to be a part of a lot of those types of games in your career as a player or a coach. And it’s fitting that this team won that way. I’ve said all year, what I love the most about this group is how resilient they are.”

Brown gave the Engineers trouble in the opening round of the playoffs. Twice — in 2010 and 2013 — the Bears beat RPI at Houston Field House. Despite the struggles at home, the Engineers are back in the quarterfinals; they beat Clarkson on the road to get there last year.

“You guys [the media] will stop asking me about it,” Appert said when asked what it meant for the home postseason losing streak to end. “I don’t have to hear that question and give you the same answer — that it isn’t something I worry about. It’s not about does it feel good for me; I don’t worry about that. I do think there was some pressure that comes with that our team felt a little [Friday] in the first period.”

The series win came after RPI went 2-5-1 over the final month of the regular season. But the Engineers have defenseman Parker Reno back from injury, while some of their players have been coming on strong at the right time. Leading scorer Riley Bourbonnais had three points in the series after having only a pair of assists over the final month of the season. And senior Milos Bubela had a pair of goals to help lead RPI’s comeback Saturday.

“He’s been so good down the stretch,” Appert said of Bubela. “He’s playing the best hockey of his career, which you love to see your seniors do. He was just a beast [Saturday]. He had to play against [Brown’s] best players and had a lot of responsibility on the penalty kill and in the defensive zone.”

With the win, RPI booked a trip to Harvard this weekend to face the Crimson in the quarterfinals. Here’s a look at the four best-of-three series this weekend. Check the schedule for start times. All won-loss records are for conference play only.

No. 8 Cornell (8-8-6) at No. 1 Quinnipiac (16-1-5)

Season series: Quinnipiac, 1-0-1

The Big Red played the Bobcats tough, gaining two separate three-goal leads in Quinnipiac’s 5-4 overtime win in November. This is a matchup of two good defensive teams that get it done in different ways. The Bobcats play an up-tempo possession game, while Cornell is the biggest team in the country and can wear opponents down when its forecheck is going. These teams last met in the playoffs during the 2013 quarterfinals. The Big Red won the opener but lost 10-0 in Game 2 before dropping the deciding game 3-2 in double overtime.

What Cornell needs to do to win: Stay out of the box. The Big Red have 235 penalties minutes in 31 games this year, which averages out to just over seven minutes a game. That’s not an extraordinary amount, but four of the seven goals the Bobcats scored against Cornell came on the power play. It’s a bit surprising that the Big Red enter the weekend 30th in the country in penalty kill percentage, as junior Mitch Gillam (.929 save percentage) has been strong in goal this season. The Big Red can’t afford to give the fifth-ranked power play in the country any extra opportunities.

What Quinnipiac needs to do to win: Get an early lead. Yes, Quinnipiac has the offense to stage a comeback — and did just that in a 5-4 overtime win against the Big Red in November — but the Bobcats played from behind in several games during the second half. That can wear on a team.

No. 7 Dartmouth (11-11) at No. 2 Yale (14-5-3)

Season series: Yale, 2-0

Overshadowed by neighboring Quinnipiac’s dominance this season, Yale has nonetheless put together an excellent season, especially in the second half. The Bulldogs have only two losses in the second half, including a 4-1 setback to Quinnipiac in the regular season finale on Feb. 27. Dartmouth has been an improved second-half team as well, as its players have begun to settle into their roles after a tough early part of the season.

Yale’s Stu Wilson has three goals and four points in his last three games (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

What Dartmouth needs to do to win: The Big Green beat a speedy team Colgate team in the first round. Yale has plenty of speed as well but is much better defensively than the Raiders. Dartmouth needs to be solid in its own end and not let it develop into a back-and-forth game because it’s going to be hard getting goals past junior Alex Lyon, whose .941 save percentage is the best in Division I.

What Yale needs to do to win: Stay consistent. Despite a dominant second-half record, Yale did have some lapses at times. The Bulldogs had some trouble finishing off their chances throughout the year, but the top line of Joe Snively, Stu Wilson and John Hayden has been playing well.

No. 6 Rensselaer (8-7-7) at No. 3 Harvard (12-6-4)

Season series: 1-1-1

Defending Whitelaw Cup winner Harvard has a first-round bye for the first time since the 2011-12 season. The Crimson are averaging over three goals a game and have the nation’s top power play. Jimmy Vesey is arguably the top player in the league and snapped a mid-February dry spell with six points over his last three regular season games. Harvard’s defense had some blips this year but finished third in the league in goals allowed per game. RPI finished right behind the Crimson at fourth, but the Engineers should have the advantage if this turns into a tight, defensive series.

What Rensselaer needs to do to win: Get physical with Harvard’s forwards. RPI has had success in the past against teams that like to push the pace. If the Engineers can win the possession game, they could be able to wear down the Crimson defense.

What Harvard needs to do to win: Don’t get frustrated. The Engineers block a ton of shots and do a good job keeping the front of the net clear. The Crimson will need to generate second-chance opportunities against senior Jason Kasdorf (.933), who has finally been healthy in the second half and is playing very well.

No. 5 Clarkson (10-9-3) at No. 4 St. Lawrence (11-8-3)

Season series: 1-1

The powers-that-be in the league office must like this series, as it guarantees a North Country team and its fan base will be at Lake Placid in two weeks. But first things first: This should be a phenomenal series between two of the league’s best rivals. Both teams are solid defensively and can get some offense from their defense. The Saints might have one of the most dynamic back ends in the league, highlighted by leading scorer Gavin Bayreuther.

What Clarkson needs to do to win: Win the possession battle. After facing Princeton’s Colton Phinney in the first round, the Golden Knights will once again face another good goalie in St. Lawrence’s Kyle Hayton (.933 save percentage). They will need to get plenty of shots on net to have a chance.

What St. Lawrence needs to do to win: St. Lawrence is the only team in the league with a defenseman as its leading scorer. That ability to generate offense from the blue line could help against a physical Clarkson team.

Around the league

• Brown senior forwards and linemates Mark Naclerio and Nick Lappin signed professional contracts on Tuesday. Naclerio signed with the AHL’s Providence Bruins, per a tweet by Brown coach Brendan Whittet, while the New Jersey Devils announced a two-year deal for Lappin. That deal will begin next year, as Lappin will play the remainder of this season on an amateur tryout agreement with Albany, the Devils’ AHL affiliate. He’ll be reunited with former Bears linemate Matt Lorito, who has 45 points in 53 games for Albany.

• The ECHL’s Brampton Beast announced that it signed Princeton senior forward Kyle Rankin. The Beast are the ECHL affiliate of the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps and Montreal Canadiens.

• Dartmouth’s Brad Schierhorn (player) and Connor Yau (rookie) joined Cornell’s Mitch Gillam (goalie) as the weekly award winners. Schierhorn had the Big Green’s first hat trick since 2010 Friday against Colgate, while Yau had three points on the weekend and Gillam stopped 59 of 60 shots in a sweep of Union.

Looking back

The league’s media will vote on the end-of-year awards, with the winners being announced on Thursday, March 17 during the Slap Schotts college hockey segment. It will air at 11:05 a.m. on Fox Sports 980 out of Troy, N.Y.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how I voted in the preseason media poll. The numbers in parentheses indicate where each team finished the regular season. I underestimated Rensselaer and Clarkson, while not taking into account how some early departures would impact Colgate.

1. Yale (2)
2. Quinnipiac (1)
3. Colgate (10)
4. St. Lawrence (4)
5. Harvard (3)
6. Union (9)
7. Brown (11)
8. Rensselaer (6)
9. Cornell (8)
10. Dartmouth (7)
11. Clarkson (5)
12. Princeton (12)

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