Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Don't Panic

This is one of the best 1-6-0 teams you'll ever see.

Now, please examine these words carefully. I'm not saying we've got one of the best teams in the nation. I'm not saying that the Engineers are going to be favorites in the ECAC, necessarily - although that's not outside the realm of possibility if some things improve.

But there's certainly a long way from the casual fan looking at a 1-6-0 record and declaring the team completely screwed, and a close look at the facts to say... there could be something here.

Let's run down the list.

1) Of RPI's first seven games, five (the last five) were against teams currently ranked in the Top 10 in the nation (and they have another one coming the weekend after next). No other team in the country can make that claim - Minnesota-Duluth, Northern Michigan and Vermont come closest with four each.

2) In none of these first seven games did the Engineers have less than two of their forwards sidelined with injuries. Brock Higgs, who most observers have picked to be one of the team's best offensive sparks this season, has missed the last five contests. Marty O'Grady, one of the team's key centers, has been out with a concussion, also missing the last five games. Jacob Laliberte, whose departure from junior hockey had opposing coaches in Ontario on their knees and finding God, has been out for the last three.

Higgs and Laliberte have had this coming weekend marked on the calendar for their return, though we're still waiting to hear if they've been cleared to play. It sounds like O'Grady may be on the road to recovery as well. Fingers crossed.

3) Six of the goals given up in the losses - almost 1/3 of the total goals given up - were scored on empty nets. While RPI has averaged three goals given up per game, discounting the empty netters brings the true defensive number (that is, goals given up when the team is actually playing defense, which they aren't doing with the net empty) down to something closer to two per game. Not bad given the competition.

4) The penalty kill is working - toss the empty net power play goal from last Friday, and it's clicking at a rate that puts it in the top 10 nationally.

5) Most importantly, heading into this weekend, RPI is 0-0-0 in ECAC play, just like everyone else (although the league's first two points get doled out tonight in New Jersey as travel partners Quinnipiac and Princeton get it on).

So, at the end of the day, it was October adversity that created a 1-6-0 record. It's something that could be problematic later in the season if the Engineers play well enough in league play to be an NCAA tournament contender, but that's an awful long way off from here. With league play beginning, it's time to reset back to 0-0-0 and, especially if they get some returns from the injured list, move forward with confidence.

What's on tap this weekend? The North Country trip, which is getting out of the way (hopefully) before the weather becomes an issue in it.

On Friday, it's Clarkson, which may be one of the least impressive 5-1-2 teams you'll ever see. While the Engineers were busy running a veritable gauntlet, the Golden Knights frolicked through one of the easiest non-conference stretches any team could possibly assemble - consecutive home weekends against Sacred Heart and American International, followed by a road weekend at Bentley.

Yes, while over 4,400 were watching RPI go stride-for-stride with Colorado College in Troy on Saturday, a reported crowd of 312 at the Waltham, Mass. municipal rink watched Clarkson tie Bentley despite an overtime power play chance. That attendance figure was obviously affected by the nor'easter, 850 had jammed the John A. Ryan Skating Rink the previous night.

We've talked about Atlantic Hockey's position in the college hockey pecking order enough that we don't need to underline it again. But guess which three teams the league's coaches thought would be on the bottom of the AHA barrel? You guessed it.

St. Lawrence, bless them, had a pretty difficult opening schedule as well, and there's a direct comparison - Ferris State. One week before RPI visited Big Rapids, the Bulldogs were in Canton, playing a close game with the Saints on Friday before a more solid victory on Saturday.

That was followed by a trip to Ann Arbor, where the Saints were just brutalized at the hands of Michigan, another one of the nation's top teams, 10-3. Two nights later in Rochester, the Saints redefined getting your heart ripped out and stomped on, giving up the tying goal with 9 seconds left on the clock, and then the game winning goal 14 seconds into overtime to fall to RIT.

SLU has been off the last two weeks, which either gives them plenty of time to forget that game or plenty of time to dwell on it. At any rate, Union's going to be more worried about that than we are.

RPI, to be fair, has some things they need to work on. They could probably afford to put more shots on net. Their finishing has been suspect, whether it's crashing the net or picking up rebounds - these things can't be placed solely on the lineup of quality defenses and goaltending that the Engineers have faced.

The power play needs a big boost - 2-for-40 speaks for itself no matter who you've been playing, especially considering that both goals came in the same game.

Defensively, there's been one goal given up each weekend on glaring defensive breakdowns. Those breakdowns need to occur less frequently, because they're a black mark on what has otherwise been a solid defensive showing given the circumstances.

But on Friday, perhaps we'll find out which tactic works better to prepare for league play - an endless supply of some of the nation's best teams to force a team to step up their game, or a steady diet of cupcakes to build confidence.

So no, it's not time to panic just yet. If some of the issues continue this weekend, especially if the injured soldiers return to the front line... maybe a little.

1 comment:

  1. The attendance at Bentley's rink on Saturday is typical. Friday the school offered free busing for students because it was the home opener.

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