Saturday, July 10, 2010

Top 10 Games of 2009-10

The 2009-10 Engineers were definite road warriors. They may have finished with a sub-.500 record away from Houston Field House - 8-9-2 - but somehow, every single one of their wins in the away red had a special quality to them that only 2 of their 10 home wins did. Some home wins, like those over Sacred Heart, AIC, Dartmouth, and Clarkson, were far closer than they needed to be. Some, like Brown in the regular season and Quinnipiac, were against teams that, at the time, were down on their luck.

But when it comes to the road wins, there wasn't a single one that wasn't special in some way.

This was a team that ran with the big dogs even while they sometimes struggled with the minnows. They amassed a record of 4-1-2 (.714) against teams that would eventually earn tickets to the NCAA Tournament (Yale, Cornell, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Alaska), but were 14-16-2 (.469) against those who would not.

10. November 13th
RPI 5, Clarkson 2

Cheel Arena - Potsdam, NY

Let's face it - it's always fun to beat Clarkson in their own barn. Most seasons, a decisive three-goal win in Potsdam would easily be a contender for one of the top games of the year, but 2009-10 was an odd season in more ways than one, and in this case, the Golden Knights were well on their way to a last place finish for the first time in program history. Ravaged by injuries and plagued with scandals, this was not the dominant Clarkson team that longtime fans have been used to.

But this game still makes the cut for a couple of important reasons. First, of course, beating Clarkson in Potsdam is still fun regardless of when it happens, and second, it marked a third straight ECAC win to start the league schedule, placing the Engineers atop the table with Quinnipiac and Colgate. Fans started to realize that this team had the potential to do something special. The train would be derailed the next night in Canton after a bitter loss was coupled with some key injuries, but for one night, wonder was in the air.

9. January 8th
RPI 4, Quinnipiac 1

TD Bank Sports Center - Hamden, CT

At the time, this big win was certainly farther up the list, but in retrospect, this was a Quinnipiac team that had shot to the top only to be at the beginning of a long, slow, painful regression to the mean. Still, it was a landmark win for a team that needed to bounce back strong after taking a pounding from Michigan State in the GLI title game.

The Bobcats were unbeaten and untied at home when the Engineers came calling. The 3-goal loss would ultimately be the first of a 7-game winless streak at home for Quinnipiac, however, and they were never quite the same team as they were in October and November. This win certainly gave Engineer partisans hope that RPI was ready for a solid stretch run.

8. February 12th
RPI 5, Harvard 4

Bright Hockey Center - Boston, MA

The win at Bright was one of those "never say die" games that you remember not because the team played particularly well throughout, but because they did what they had to do to get by despite playing through portions of the game where the odds seemed long.

The first period alone was epic. Harvard scored 18 seconds in and were up 2-0 before 2 minutes had ticked off the board. After a Jerry D'Amigo goal midway through the period, Harvard was up 3-1 just a minute and a half later, followed quickly by two RPI goals to make it 3-3 before 15 minutes had elapsed.

The Engineers had to fight to come back again in the second when Harvard scored to make it 4-3, scoring twice more in the period to finally take the lead. And after 9 goals in 2 periods, the spigot shut off in the third. It was a road win that made everyone believe that RPI could be a favorite for the bye. That hope was dashed the next night with a gut-kicking loss to Dartmouth, but this was certainly a win that would never have happened in other recent seasons.

7. October 10th
RPI 3, New Hampshire 1
Houston Field House - Troy, NY

The Engineers' unofficial "hello world" moment took place in the home opener against New Hampshire, a team that, for better or for worse, was ranked highly heading into the season. Coming off a rough loss at UMass in which RPI displayed some of the qualities that had caused headaches in years past, the Engineers displayed a tenacity in the 3rd period that hadn't been seen for quite some time - an early indication that the team was fit and ready to start putting in better performances in the final frame.

With the score tied at one, UNH took a double-minor penalty early in the period, and Chase Polacek scored his first goal of the season on the power play to give the Engineers the lead for the second time in the game. Mike Bergin would follow on a few minutes later shortly after a successful penalty kill to provide insurance, and that effectively broke the back of the Wildcat attack.

This was also the night Allen York proved that his playoff theatrics the previous March were no fluke - he stopped 37 of 38 shots to lead the Engineers to the upset victory.

6. October 30th
RPI 4, Union 3 (OT)

Achilles Center - Schenectady, NY

Yes, Union has certainly vastly improved over the past six or seven years or so, but still - going winless (not counting shootouts) in five straight games against the Dutchmen heading into the season was a little much. Thus, the first game against the budding rivals from Schenectady, a non-conference affair on their campus, was one of the early dates circled by a number of Engineer fans eager to see their team perform well on the road.

It wasn't one of those all-around fantastic games, but it contained just enough drama combined with atmospheric moments that creates a game you remember after it's over. The Engineers gave up the early goal, but took a 2-1 lead early in the 2nd period that they were unable to hold onto for long. After Union scored again late in the 2nd to make it 3-2, the clamp-down Union defense got underway in the 3rd period and RPI soon found itself unable to find room to make good passes and get good opportunities to score.

But then, with less than 5 minutes left to play, Stephane Boileau took a costly penalty, and the Engineers would score a big goal from the point as Bryan Brutlag scored his first of the season with just under 3 minutes to go in regulation. The Dutchmen had looked on their way to victory, and the score was suddenly tied. But the Engineers weren't done. Two minutes into overtime, Chase Polacek's big blast in the middle of the zone hit the back of the net, and one could practically see the air being let out of the Achilles Center. Sometimes, beating a team who hates you with a solid punch to the solar plexus creates its own fun memories.

5. January 10th
RPI 4, Princeton 1

Hobey Baker Memorial Rink - Princeton, NJ

The team's first nationally televised game of the season was another eye-opening experience. Princeton had been tabbed to be one of the beasts of the league before the season had started, and for good reason, but that had failed to materialize during the first half of the year, as the Tigers languished near the bottom of the ECAC table.

But with the ESPNU cameras rolling, the Engineers played with finesse and style, especially on the power play, where they scored all four of their goals. The team's stars shined brighter in the spotlight, as Brandon Pirri assisted on all 4 goals, Jerry D'Amigo made his return to the squad after striking gold in Canada by scoring the first goal of the game and making a ridiculous pass to Chase Polacek, who scored from an impossible angle for the game's final tally.

4. December 11th

RPI 5, Boston University 3

Agganis Arena - Boston, MA

RPI doesn't often get the opportunity to play the reigning national champions, but thanks to the practically yearly non-conference matchup with the Terriers, that chance was on the table in 2009. The Terriers, like the Tigers, were limping early in the season, however, and hardly looked like the team that had provided an amazing end to the NCAA Championship just eight months prior.

The Engineers got the opportunity to display their versatility and depth in this game. BU took a 3-2 lead into the third period thanks in part to a pair of shorthanded goals powered by RPI turnovers occurring while rolling with five forwards and no defensemen on the man advantage. Coach Appert made the adjustment to the power play during the 2nd intermission, and it was a pair of unlikely heroes - senior defensemen Erik Burgdoerfer and Christian Jensen - who would score to tie the game and then take the lead, both scoring their first (and ultimately, only) goals of the season. Tyler Helfrich's empty netter secured RPI's road win over the reigning champs.

3. December 29th

RPI 4, Michigan 3

Joe Louis Arena - Detroit, MI

An honorable mention choice as one of the top games of the 2000s, the Engineers used defense to top one of the nation's most powerful programs in their most important in-season tournament of the season. In this game, it was quality, not quantity, that earned RPI an unexpected victory against a Michigan squad that, while docile at the time, would eventually come within an overtime goal of reaching the Frozen Four.

The Engineers surely got some help from terrible defense, especially in goal, from the Wolverines. They scored twice in the 1st period on only three shots, but each shot was carefully considered before letting fly. The perseverance factor appeared in this game as well - Michigan caught up and tied the game, but unlike in years past, that didn't break the team's will to continue pushing for the win. The stage, the opponent, and the desire to win made this a great victory for the Engineers.

2. November 6th
RPI 5, Yale 2

Houston Field House - Troy, NY

We proclaimed this game the 8th best game of the 2000s back in January, just days before another game would come along and definitively top it as the best game of the season. In retrospect, the magnitude of the Black Friday win over the Bulldogs was indeed one of the best played games that the Engineers turned in during the first ten years of the new millennium - a big first league game against a tough opponent that went from promising (the Engineers took a 2-0 lead) to distressing (Yale came back and tied it), to inspiring (the team didn't quit and retook the lead).

The ultimate legacy, however? This may have been the first game, even more so than the win over New Hampshire, that got casual observers to realize that the Engineers weren't going to be pushovers this year, as in so many years past.

1. January 30th

RPI 4, Yale 0

Ingalls Rink - New Haven, CT

If this game had come just a month earlier, it could well have been #3 on the list of the best games of the 2000s - and perhaps as the #1 most complete game of the decade. Instead, the Engineers' 7th game of the new decade set a very high bar for excellence. In one of the best full 60 minutes that the Engineers have played in recent memory, RPI got a superb effort from practically every player on the ice in defeating the Elis convincingly for the second time on the year. It was the only shutout of the season for RPI, but the offense was just as outstanding as the defense in hostile territory against one of the top ranked teams in the nation, a team who, in a month's time, would be hoisting the Cleary Cup as the top team in the ECAC during the regular season.

Ultimately, there was only one team that gave the Bulldogs fits - only one team who they failed to take any ECAC points from on the season. After this game was done, several Yale stalwarts openly hoped that they had seen the last of RPI. They had.

Just under two months later, Yale would be knocking off the WCHA champions, North Dakota, in the NCAA tournament, before hanging seven goals on the eventual national champions, Boston College, in a losing effort, to miss out on what would have been their first Frozen Four in almost 50 years. And the Engineers didn't just defeat them, they soundly and methodically deconstructed the best team in the conference to earn the season sweep.

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