Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What If: Lake Placid in March

* March 1984: Jon Casey leads North Dakota to a 9-6 series upset over home-standing RPI in the NCAA tournament

Van Halen - Jump

Something was certainly afoot in Troy in 1983, and it made the entire college hockey world stand up and take notice of RPI in ways it hadn't for at least 20 years dating back to its last NCAA tournament appearance and perhaps even 30 years dating back to Gordie Peterkin and the goal that shocked the college hockey world.

The 1983-84 Engineers were beastly. Practically able to score at will, RPI dominated scoreboards night in and night out, beatable only when held under three goals in a game (they were 1-4 in those games during the regular season, all five were one-goal games). Furthermore, they were unbeatable at home with a perfect 17-0 record at Houston Field House, winners of 23 straight in Troy dating back to a December 11, 1982 loss to Clarkson by the time the 1984 NCAA tournament began. During that run, they outscored opponents at home 177-84, averaging over seven goals per game.

So when North Dakota, runners-up to Minnesota-Duluth (in both the regular season and the tournament) in the 6-team WCHA came to Troy for the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament, there weren't too many giving the Fighting Sioux a fighting chance. While RPI was busy dominating all comers in the east down the stretch to the tune of 15 wins in their last 16 games on their way to the ECAC title (mostly - Clarkson proved more than game in both RPI's only loss and in the ECAC semifinal), North Dakota had limped to a 6-6-2 record in the same stretch, their final win a 5-4 "victory" in the back end of a two-game series with Duluth in the WCHA playoffs that followed an 8-1 loss that had the Bulldogs in cruise mode.

Truly, the Engineers had a date with destiny in front of what was sure to be a favorable crowd at the Frozen Four in Lake Placid. North Dakota senior Jon Casey had other plans.

With some of the greatest names ever to don the Cherry and White blasting away at him, Casey put on a display of brilliance in net that propelled North Dakota to an upset of the ECAC champions and into the Frozen Four themselves. The netminder faced a total of 93 shots in a two-game, total goal series at Houston Field House, and managed to emerge victorious on the other end. In game one, Casey allowed the Engineers four goals, but the RPI defense, frequently able to bend significantly due to the usual higher output from the offense, allowed five, giving the Fighting Sioux a one-goal edge heading into the back end of the series.

The Engineers couldn't have been overly concerned about falling out of the tournament at that point, after all, they had put together a barrage and were still just one goal down. Another similar effort the next night offensively combined with a boost defensively would surely still see them through. But as good as Casey had been on Friday night, he was even more effective on Saturday night, limiting RPI's freakish offense to only two goals, while the Sioux were able to pump in four of their own. Despite being outshot 93-52, the total score was 9-6, and it was North Dakota, on the back of an incredible performance by their goaltender (with a save percentage of .935, good by today's standards and unheard of at the time), who was off to Lake Placid, leaving the Engineers to wonder about what could have been.

Mike Addesa and some of his charges were critical of the officiating in the series (which had featured western referees), but at the end of the day, officiating can't accomplish what Casey did in net - the numbers simply don't lie.

But what if Jon Casey hadn't been Superman that weekend in March? What if the heavy favorites from that school with the funny name had gotten the job done and moved on to the Frozen Four for the first time in 20 years?

Presuming that the heavy favorites had found a way to continue their usual goal scoring ways and had gotten themselves past Casey and North Dakota, the Engineers would have been the lone eastern team in the 1984 Frozen Four at Lake Placid, which actually ended up being an all-western affair. RPI was not the only team that could have been local in Lake Placid - Clarkson, it should be noted, came within a goal of forcing a Game 2 overtime at Minnesota-Duluth. Boston University, meanwhile, did face overtime in its Game 2 while hosting Bowling Green, the odd sight of a 4-1 game going into overtime thanks to a 4-1 BU win the night before ended with a goal for the Falcons, sending the CCHA regular season champs to the Frozen Four.

But leaving everything else alone, RPI would have gone to Lake Placid with Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan State, and Bowling Green as the other three teams. North Dakota faced off with the Bulldogs, leading to the possibility that an RPI win over North Dakota would have created the classic RPI-UMD matchup that graced the 1985 tournament, just one year sooner.

The 1984 Duluth squad, as one would expect, was largely the same as the 1985 team, with one major exception - Brett Hull was still a year away from matriculating. Both teams included 1985 Hobey Baker winner Bill Watson as the top scorer, both included Norm Maciver, who went on to a long NHL career, and both featured Rick Kosti in net. The 1984 team, in place of Hull, really, had defenseman Tom Kurvers, who had won the 1984 Hobey Baker.

UMD defeated North Dakota to advance to the national championship game, but it wasn't for lack of effort by Jon Casey, who continued his amazing performance to limit a team with two eventual Hobey Baker winners to just one goal in regulation. The Bulldogs advanced in overtime, 2-1. Would RPI have done any better? It's almost impossible to know for sure. To their advantage, they would have been closer to home, but RPI did end up with a 1-3 record against WCHA teams in 1983-84 in real life, coupling the two losses to North Dakota with a split against Wisconsin in Madison. It certainly would have been a very, very good game, probably quite similar to the 1985 classic (especially since UMD went to four overtimes in the 1984 national championship).

We're probably assuming a lot by pondering further, but the Engineers would likely have been favorites against Bowling Green in the national championship had they advanced that far. The Falcons had a number of players who had long NHL careers, including Garry Galley, Dave Ellett, and Gino Cavallini, and they were coached by Jerry York, who was in search of his first national championship. They had overachieved a bit on their way to what would eventually be that first national championship.

The question really isn't whether RPI could have beaten Bowling Green here, because it presumes an answer to the previous situation. The question really is this: if RPI had won the 1984 national championship - certainly a happening that would not have been outside the realm of possibility - what would have changed?

Would the professional exodus that took place after the 1985 championship have taken place? Possibly. Daren Puppa probably would have stuck around since he'd just finished his freshman season, but would sophomore Adam Oates have stayed? Hard to say for sure, but probably just as hard to see them staying. It's certainly not a given that the Engineers would have been in a position to go back to back, especially if they'd run into a UMD team with extra motivation to beat RPI in 1985.

Outside of RPI, one wonders if Jerry York would have caught on at his alma mater in 1994 without the national championship win in his back pocket from a decade prior. That seems pretty likely, but if not, what becomes of the current Boston College dynasty? Just a ponderance.

All in all, it's hard to see exactly what RPI would have gone on to accomplish if they had lived up to expectations in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but it certainly underscores the speed with which Mike Addesa was able to build a national contender in Troy.

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