Friday, December 27, 2013

What's the Story?

Before we get too far out of sorts with how the Engineers have performed thus far, let's take one thing into account. This time last year, things weren't looking altogether that great - so it's important to remember where RPI was on New Year's Day last season and where they will be this season.

Then: 6-7-4 overall (1-5-2 ECAC, 4 points - tied for 11th)
Now: 8-6-4 overall (3-3-3 ECAC, 9 points - tied for 6th)

It's also worth nothing that at this time last year, Yale was 7-4-2 with a 3-3-1 record in the ECAC. That's slightly ahead of where RPI is right now. We know how their season ended up.

So this is your final warning. Stop hitting the panic button like a madman. There's plenty of hockey left to be played.

That said, it's obvious that, thus far, things haven't quite panned out the way the preseason prognosticators (ourselves included) had hoped. On the current track, the Engineers aren't exactly primed to finish in one of the top two spots in the ECAC.

What's going on? Well, quite a bit.

Offense: Early on, it seemed that RPI would probably be able to score from practically any line they put out on the ice. Over the course of the first three months, taken as a whole, that's sort of true, since there are only three forwards on the roster (Zach Schroeder, Travis Fulton, and Riley Bourbonnais) and only five skaters total (Bo Dolan and Craig Bokenfohr) who haven't scored a goal. The problem now? A whopping nine skaters have just one goal in 18 games, five of them forwards who have appeared in more than half of the team's outings.

As a matter of fact, there are only four players on the team that have potted more than three, and you can probably name them off the top of your head: Ryan Haggerty, Brock Higgs, Matt Neal, and Jacob Laliberte. Three of those guys are on the same line, and playing well together. Laliberte and Mike Zalewski are moving the puck well. After that... there's a lot of mediocre stat lines for the rest of the forwards.

Ready for a startling figure? The last time a forward not named Haggerty, Higgs, Neal, or Laliberte scored a goal was... the Colgate game on November 9. Mark McGowan scored in the second period, while that quartet pitched in with four goals (Guy Leboeuf had that bizarro shorty in that game). Before that McGowan goal, you have to go back to Johnny Rogic's opening goal against Harvard on October 29. Yes, RPI made it all the way through a 7-1 destruction of Dartmouth without a single goal from a forward outside of the aforementioned four (six from them, and one from Luke Curadi).

One has to go all the way back to the 4-2 win over New Hampshire to find the last game which featured goals by two forwards outside the top four (Rogic and Jake Wood). Before that one, every contest except the victory over BU had featured at least two other forwards on the team scoring goals.

There's no doubt that the Neal-Higgs-Haggerty line is among the best in the nation in putting the puck in the net, but the thing that was supposed to separate RPI from St. Lawrence (Carey-Carey-Martin) and Brown (Lorito-Naclerio-Lappin), for instance, really hasn't been there in the last two months. That has got to change going forward.

Fortunately, that one line has at least been enough to keep the team in games for the most part. The good news is that if they can add in help from the other groupings on the line chart - even to the tune of around a goal per game or even slightly less - it should make things a whole lot easier going forward. That's how good the Neal-Higgs-Haggerty line has been.

Defense: Let's be 100% clear. A major element of the expectations heading into the season was that the Engineers had a goaltender that was one of the best in the nation last season anchoring things between the pipes. Scott Diebold has not done poorly, as a matter of fact, he's actually performed quite well as the team's top goaltender, which has not been a great shock to anyone who's been paying attention to his play during the last two years. He had an exceptionally good weekend against Denver. But he's not Kasdorf, and no one expected him to be on that level.

Injuries to key players are a good way to blow up a season. We never really got to see what Kasdorf was capable of this year, as he wasn't called on to be huge in a shutout of Sacred Heart and got overwhelmed by a blitzing Boston College the next day before his year was in the books, victim of a freak accident before practice.

To be very fair, the Engineers have played a significant portion of their games - six, to be exact - against teams that are in the top 10 nationally in goals per game. Five of them were against teams in the top four with Boston College (#1), Union (#3) and Mercyhurst (#4) having proven across the first three months of the year that they know how to put the puck away. However, just as many games have been played against teams in the bottom 12 nationally, with Harvard (#48), Boston University (#49), Princeton (#54), and Sacred Heart (#56) having well defined problems scoring goals so far this year. Colgate, Dartmouth, and Denver are all outside the Top 40 (out of 59) as well.

RPI is 1-4-1 against Top 10 offenses. That may be par for the course for a team in the middle of the pack, but it's something one would want to see improved upon if greater things are expected. There are four more opportunities to take on teams currently scoring at a clip better than the Engineers' 3.44 goals per game - next Friday against Ferris State (#7), potentially the next night against Minnesota (#2), the Mayor's Cup game against Union, and the return ECAC engagement at Quinnipiac (#9). All of these games are set to take place in RPI's next three game weekends, and two of them are on neutral ice. The time is now for the 'D' to prove itself.

What's been the weak link? It's been noticeable that RPI gives up most of its goals from two places - counter-attacks and on blue line blasts. Denver scored basically all three of its goals in transition, and other teams, when given lots of space up at the top of the zone, have found the back of the net with some ease. The defense has got to do a better job overall of at least keeping the speed through the neutral zone down, which will cut down on the fast-break nature of counterattacking shots.

Special teams: Hard to be critical of a power play scoring on over 20% of its chances (21.4%) or a penalty kill squashing nearly 85% of opposing man advantages (84.9%). There's room for improvement in both of those figures, but at this point special teams haven't been a major problem.

Momentum and finishing: RPI's been jumping on teams this year. That's good. That shouldn't stop. However, it's plain to see that most teams that can weather the early storm and keep the Engineers limited to a goal or two in the first period are pretty well positioned going forward to fight for a result, be it a win or a tie.

The games are stark and memorable: a 3-0 lead on Harvard ended in a 3-3 tie. A 3-1 lead on Cornell with two minutes left in regulation ended in a 3-3 tie. The Engineers had leads on consecutive Friday nights against Union and Mercyhurst that ended in losses. RPI blew a 2-0 lead and a lateish 3-2 lead against Quinnipiac in settling for a tie.

If the Engineers had only closed out the Harvard and Cornell games, at home no less, their record would be 10-6-2. At 5-3-1 in league play, they'd be in 4th rather than tied for 6th. How much better does that look from here? RPI's outscoring opponents 28-5 in the first period. That's, quite frankly, insane. If you're just looking at the six full games worth of first periods thus far, RPI is potting 4.67 goals per game in first periods, and have a GAA of 0.83.

The 2nd and 3rd? Not so hot. RPI is being outscored 34-39 in those periods, and are -4 and -1 respectively in goal differential.

So to sum it up, the three things that need to improve going forward:

1. Goals from outside the top four forwards
2. Defending the counter-attack
3. Maintaining the first-period onslaught past the first intermission

And, as mentioned at the top, RPI's looking better now than they did at this time last year, standings-wise.

Don't give up just yet.

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