Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Who's It Gonna Be?

Everyone ends up having to win at least one best of 3 playoff series in order to do anything - and, as we've found in the last several years, it can be all about who you get that plays a big role in whether you can advance, regardless of where the game is played.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, RPI is guaranteed to be playing in the first round, and are very likely to be playing that first round at home barring a complete disaster. There are five teams they could possibly face off with in the first round, and all of the others are still potential quarterfinal opponents.

Brown
Possible finishes: 7th to 11th
Season series: 2-0
* In Troy: RPI 4, Brown 1
* In Providence: Friday
Last 10 games: 4-6-0
* Offense: 2.2 goals per game
* Defense: 2.6 goals per game
* Power play: 5-for-38 (13.2%)
* Penalty kill: 26-for-38 (68.4%) 
* Won 2 of last 3, follows 4-game losing streak

Perhaps on a historical level, RPI shouldn't really want any part of Brown. After all, the Bears were responsible for two of the last three playoff upsets of the Engineers in Troy. And yet, at risk of jinxing Friday's game, RPI has certainly had their way with Brown during the regular season.

They haven't lost to the Bears in regulation during the regular season in over a decade - a 1-0 loss in Troy on January 2, 2004 was the last time it happened (the only Brown win since then was a 4-3 overtime victory in Providence in 2010, notorious for its ending when the Engineers were called for two highly questionable penalties in the last 10 seconds of regulation in a tied game).

RPI has a points earned edge of 35-5 against Brown in the last 10 years, and that's a stretch that included some pretty rough Engineer squads. But when meeting in the playoffs in that time period, Brown is 3-0. They swept a series in Providence in 2005, and picked up 3-game wins in Troy in 2010 and 2013. That gives RPI an overall record in that time frame of 2-6, meaning that the Bears have won more playoff games against the Engineers in the last decade than they've earned ECAC points against them. Wrap your head around that dichotomy for a while.

The Bears have been finishing well as of late and this season appears to be no different. Obviously, RPI can help throw a wrench into that situation on Friday with a win. That said, their penalty kill looks like it can potentially be exploited, and despite the bad history that is very recent, the Bears might not be a terrible opponent for the Engineers should they draw them in the first round, especially given some of the other options. That history could certainly be an X-factor, of course.

Brown is one team that the Engineers could potentially be travelling to should they have a disastrous final weekend and end up in 9th.

St. Lawrence
Possible finishes: 7th to 11th
Season series: 2-2
* In Canton: RPI 4, St. Lawrence 3
* In Troy: St. Lawrence 4, RPI 0
Last 10 games: 4-4-2
* Offense: 3.1 goals per game
* Defense: 3.0 goals per game
* Power play: 11-for-45 (24.4%)
* Penalty kill: 34-for-42 (81.0%)
* Unbeaten in 4 of last 6

One good glance at these figures, combined with the way the game between the Engineers and Saints played out on Friday of last week, and there should be no way that anyone in Troy would want anything to do with the Saints whatsoever. Their power play is lethal, and that's even after going 0-for-the weekend against RPI and Union. They boast the best offense down the stretch against any team the Engineers might face, and although their defense is about as weak as you can find among potential opponents, that defense did just shut out RPI last week.

Interestingly, RPI and St. Lawrence have never clashed in a best-of-three series despite the long history the schools have playing each other. In fact, the schools haven't met at all in the ECAC tournament since they contested the 2000 championship game, which the Saints won 2-0 on their way to the Frozen Four. The Engineers have never beaten St. Lawrence in a tournament game, losing 3-1 in 1964, 6-5 in OT in 1992, 6-3 in 1998, and the aforementioned game in 2000. That's the entire ECAC tournament history between these two original member schools.

But that's all in the past, with no real impact on the present. In the present, St. Lawrence is a dangerous team that lost a pitched battle against RPI in Canton and overwhelmed an uninterested Engineers squad in Troy. The Carey-Carey-Martin line is among the best in the nation, and they're an absolute menace on the power play. The only thing that can really match them is to take advantage of the defensive situation. If a team is unwilling or unable, you get a 4-0 blowout.

St. Lawrence is the other possibility for the Engineers to be on the road against, and frankly the more likely of the two against Brown, since the Bears win the tiebreaker with the Saints.

Dartmouth
Possible finishes: 8th to 11th
Season series: 4-0
* In Hanover: RPI 7, Dartmouth 1
* In Troy: RPI 4, Dartmouth 2
Last 10 games: 4-4-2
* Offense: 2.4 goals per game
* Defense: 2.9 goals per game
* Power play: 5-for-37 (13.5%)
* Penalty kill: 29-for-37 (78.4%)
* 4-game unbeaten streak, unbeaten in 5 of last 6

Before the season started, we pegged Dartmouth as a team that could be among the best in the league if they got goaltending. Lately, they've been getting goaltending, and their previously underachieving offense and defense has been picking up steam as well. All the better that the Engineers managed to get their regular season games in against the Big Green earlier in the season when they were still struggling, but Dartmouth now looks like a team that is back on track and ready to make some noise in the ECAC tournament, even if that comeback looks likely to fall short of earning them home ice.

The Big Green looked absolutely awful when RPI was there near the beginning of the season - and it didn't help that RPI's offense was dialed in at the time, too. Neither of those things are still true. It's certainly worth pointing out that in the second game between these teams in Troy, Dartmouth was without its top scorer in Eric Neiley, without its captain, Tyler Sikura, and did not have Charles Grant between the pipes, the goaltender who has been leading the team down the stretch. In fact, since Cab Morris was playing in the blowout at Thompson Arena and both games last season, the Engineers haven't ever even faced Grant, who is a sophomore.

Neiley, Sikura, and Grant have all been on the ice for the last four games, which included games against then-nationally ranked Clarkson and still-nationally ranked Yale. While special teams certainly could use a bit of a boost, the offense and defense tallies over the last 10 are skewed by an 8-1 loss to Quinnipiac. Don't be fooled - Dartmouth is back and they're a team no one wants in the playoffs.

Harvard
Possible finishes: 8th to 11th
Season series: 1-3
* In Troy: RPI 3, Harvard 3
* In Boston: Harvard 2, RPI 0
Last 10 games: 4-5-1
* Offense: 2.2 goals per game
* Defense: 2.7 goals per game
* Power play: 6-for-38 (15.8%)
* Penalty kill: 38-for-48 (79.2%)
* 3-game winless streak, follows 4 wins in 5 games

First of all, go ahead and throw out the RPI-Harvard series completely, considering that they practically happened a lifetime ago in college hockey terms. Both of these teams have had a considerable amount of experience since then that pretty much renders the results useless.

Since getting those two results from RPI, the Crimson have found that they have an affinity for scoring goals when they're playing either Princeton or Boston University, netting a total of 21 in four games against those two schools. Unfortunately, outside of those games, they've only scored 3 goals and won on two occasions: against UNH in November, and against Dartmouth on February 7.

Offense has been a struggle all year, but the defensive show that Harvard put on in the last five periods against RPI back in late October and early November has been enough to get results here or there. Steve Michalek and Raphael Girard, who have split time in net, have the top two save percentages in ECAC play, but they also face a lot of shots.

The Crimson have run hot and cold all season long, but especially when one considers RPI's history with Brown, their recent blowout by St. Lawrence, and Dartmouth's resurgence, there's certainly an opening when it comes to potentially playing Harvard. RPI's defense has been one of its strengths down the stretch for the most part, and Harvard's offense has been tough. There would be worse fates, that is for sure.

Princeton
Possible finishes: 12th
Season series: 2-2
* In Troy: RPI 5, Princeton 2
* In Princeton: Princeton 2, RPI 1
Last 10 games: 2-8-0
* Offense: 2.1 goals per game
* Defense: 4.2 goals per game
* Power play: 7-for-34 (20.6%)
* Penalty kill: 36-for-46 (78.3%)
* 3-game losing streak, 8 losses in 9 games

Princeton does seem an ideal candidate, but there's one major problem with drawing the Tigers - since they are guaranteed to finish 12th, the Engineers have some work to do and they need help in order to get them to Troy. In addition to sweeping the weekend, RPI needs Clarkson to take no more than one point at home against Princeton/Quinnipiac, and for Yale to either lose to or tie Union on Friday. That's how the Engineers would end up in 5th, and it would be the only way for them to play host to Princeton.

That's really all the more incentive that the Engineers should have to sweep this weekend and hope everything else shakes out well, because this is a team in a complete tailspin. Princeton managed to eke out a home victory over the Engineers back in January when RPI was looking quite dreadful, but since then they've lost eight games in their last nine. Teams have been scoring in bunches on the Tigers, so much so that they are 1-3-0 in the last four games in which they've scored three, usually considered the magic number for a win or at least a tie. Against Yale, they managed five goals and still lost.

This is a team that's looking a lot like Clarkson and Colgate were at the end of last season - defeated and ready to pack it in. They've had injury problems throughout the year, but they haven't really gotten back into the groove even with a full lineup. That's the recipe for a successful playoff outing even for a team that may not be at its sharpest. Landing 5th gives a team the added benefit of being able to avoid the top 3 teams in the quarterfinals, should they advance, a benefit that we thought would help back in 2011, too. Oops.

By comparison, here's the workup for the Engineers:
RPI
Possible finishes: 5th-9th
Last 10 games: 5-3-2
* Offense: 2.2 goals per game
* Defense: 2.1 goals per game
* Power play: 3-for-31 (9.7%)
* Penalty kill: 36-for-41 (87.8%)
* Unbeaten in 4 of last 5

Look at that power play. That is where mosquitoes come from. That's a problem. But the penalty kill is looking quite nice, so there's at least a bit of a balance there. The defense has been generally strong of late, keeping RPI in games where they aren't scoring in bunches. The same critiques that have been there for much of the season are still a concern - the Engineers need more goals from their 2nd and 3rd lines.

You can kind of ignore the fact that the Engineers have the best record in the last 10 games put up against the teams they could face in the first round - we knew they'd have a somewhat easier schedule down the stretch this year. But it's always better to be winning than to be losing late in the season, no matter what. But regardless of RPI's water-treading in the standings, they've been finding ways to pick up points, even if they've had to settle for ties a few times. If they can sweep this weekend (and recent history says this is a great road weekend coming up), no one is going to want to play a team that managed to go unbeaten in 6 of the last 7 games, no matter who they were matched up against.

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