Friday, September 26, 2014

Back to Hockey

Our long national nightmare is almost over.

Real, honest to goodness hockey debuts tonight at the Field House at 7:30. We've got your fix as our sixth season of live tweeting kicks off with the women's team facing off against the Ottawa Jr. Senators.

Tonight is our first opportunity to see Whitney Renn, Shayna Tomlinson, Marisa Raspa, and Amanda Kimmerle suit up for the Engineers. The coaches poll has RPI finishing 10th this season and out of a playoff spot. The way the team finished off last season, and given the offensive losses they're dealing with, it's hard to quibble - but the path to quibble begins tonight.

And, of course, the time-honored tradition of the weekend pumpup. Something upbeat, something bouncy. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Know Your Enemy: Clarkson

Last but not least, it's Clarkson. The Golden Knights last season got out of the gates hot, but cooled in January and February before coming within a goal of reaching Lake Placid. They threw off their unusual dry spell at home in the playoffs by knocking off Princeton in Potsdam (although they did lose Game 1, causing folks to wonder for a short time whether there was really some kind of curse), then outscored Cornell in Ithaca but fell in three games. Like their arch-rivals from down the road, they lose some important pieces from last year's puzzle, but they at least retain some important elements heading into this season.

Nickname: Golden Knights
Location: Potsdam, NY
Founded: 1896
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2008
Last Frozen Four: 1991
Coach: Casey Jones (4th season)
2013-14 Record: 21-17-4 (11-9-2 ECAC, 5th place)
Series: Clarkson leads, 85-48-9
First Game: January 24, 1925 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: March 1, 2013 (Troy, NY)
Last CU win: January 31, 2014 (Potsdam, NY)

2014-15 games: February 7, 2015 (Potsdam, NY); February 27, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players: D James Howden, sr.; D Sam Labrecque, sr.; F Joe Zarbo, sr.; F Jeff DiNallo, jr,; D Paul Geiger, jr.; G Greg Lewis, jr.; F Pat Megannety, jr.; D Kevin Tansey, jr.; D James de Haas, so.; F A.J. Fossen, so.; F Troy Josephs, so.; G Steve Perry, so.; D Kelly Summers, fr.; F Samuel Vigneault, fr.

Key losses: F Allan McPherson, F Ben Sexton, D Alex Boak, F Will Frederick, F Jarrett Burton

Previous KYE installments:
Like SLU, Clarkson comes into this season losing four of their top five scorers from last year, but the good news in Potsdam is that the scoring was slightly more spread out last year than it was for the Saints. McPherson, Sexton, Frederick, and Burton accounted for 39 goals and 103 points last season, which is far less of a percentage of the team's total offensive output than SLU loses.

DiNallo was third on the team in scoring last year with 11 goals and 14 assists, and returning with him are proven offensive assets like Zarbo and Megannety. De Haas, Tansey, and Geiger also proved useful offensively as defensemen. Of this group, only Zarbo is a senior, which means Clarkson does have a strong core scoring ability to work with for the next couple of seasons.

That core, however, needs to show some improvement over last season's performance, as the Golden Knights struggled to put the puck in the net with frequency. Two seasons ago, Clarkson ended their season with a school record goalless streak, and last year the offense was even worse over the course of the entire season, netting just 2.40 goals per game. Only Harvard and Princeton had weaker offenses last year.

Defense was where Clarkson brought it, and the bedrock of their effort was given a significant boost with the addition of Perry to the mix in net. His presence helped boost Lewis' numbers from what had been a difficult freshman season, and ultimately the two would platoon during the ECAC schedule. Perry's numbers were better, but the team was more successful in the win column when Lewis was in net.

The defensive stand that this team will be able to put forward is going to be their touchstone for performance this season, there's no question. The combination of Perry and Lewis may not set records for stinginess but they're easily the most secure the Knights have felt between the pipes in years. In front of them is a corps of defensemen grounded by four upperclassmen, and a freshman who's an NHL draftee in Summers (who joins de Haas in that category).

Clarkson is a strong team that has some areas which need some serious polishing - the offense in general, along with both sides of special teams need to be improved over last season. In many ways, that makes them quite similar to the last ECAC team that we'll be profiling before the season gets underway: the Engineers. The Knights have gotten out of the gate quickly in two of the three years that Casey Jones has been watching the team's speed, and it led to halfway decent finishes in the league table both times. If they can catch fire early and keep the momentum throughout the season, a first-round bye would surely be in the offing.

Last year's RPI-Clarkson series was won 3-1 by the Knights, and as with this season, both games occurred late in the season. The Knights won the game in Potsdam in one of the classic offensive power outages the Engineers endured last season, and tied the game in Troy in one of the classic blown leads RPI produced last year. It's tough to analyze a matchup that won't happen until four months of developments on the ice have taken place, and these teams are so similar that home ice and the bounce of the puck are likely to be pretty big factors. So we'll just end this by saying... go see both of these games, if you can. The crowds always bring a little something extra to this game, even if no one on either side would presently peg this rivalry as the most important for their team at present.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Is the Power Back?

There have been a few ruminations this offseason that the ECAC, after 30 years out of the national limelight in terms of being one of the "power conferences," is back.

I'd love for that to be true. However, as I usually end up doing, there needs to be some cold water thrown on this enthusiasm.

Yes, the ECAC has, after 25 years of none of its teams grabbing the mightiest crown, done it two years in a row. The league has produced the top team in the nation these last two seasons and there's an opportunity for the league to do it again this season. But when we're talking about which conferences are the cock of the walk, the ECAC is still a mid-major conference (although it's no longer the only one after the recent rearrangement).

The WCHA for years fancied itself as the very best conference in the nation and between 2000 and 2006, the fact that the conference won six of seven national championships (and placed at least one team in the title game in each of those years) was a point put forward as proof. So why can't the ECAC's back-to-back crowns be fully indicative of the league's ascension?

It's not simply the very best who make up a league. It's a top-to-bottom enterprise, which means Yale and Union count just as much as Princeton and Harvard these last two years. While the WCHA was banging out champion after champion, they were also seeing four, five, and even six from their ranks (back when it was a 10 team league) earning NCAA berths. The ECAC still hasn't seen more than three even in its best season. If the league were truly establishing itself on that level, a rising tide would probably at least add one more team to the tournament mix.

Take heart, though. The ECAC is at least to the point where the conference is pretty much guaranteed at least two berths in any given year (the ECAC was stuck with just one berth in 2001 and 2004), and three, previously seen as a tremendous season for the league, is now much more of a realistic goal with regularity. Four spots for the first time since the Hockey East split is no longer a total fantasy - more of a stretch goal, now.

Three spots split between 12 teams is also not quite as impressive as two out of six, as the Big Ten landed, or three of nine, as the NCHC got. Those new conferences, both born from previous power conferences, join Hockey East (5 of 11 last season) as the three major conferences in college hockey. The WCHA (2 of 12), long legitimately held as the top league in the nation, was stripped of its most storied programs and in the blink of an eye, joined the ECAC as a mid-major last season. It's the western version of the Hockey East split, 30 years later.

The "EZAC" sobriquet was always ridiculous, and anyone still using it today looks even more ridiculous, but that fact isn't enough to say that the league as a whole is due the utmost respect from the rest of the college hockey world. There is more work to be done, over a much longer time, for the league to potentially work its way back to the power ranks. It won't be easy, if even possible.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Know Your Enemy: St. Lawrence

Last week, we took a look at a team in Cornell that had the second fewest total goals (scored and allowed) per game in the nation. This week, the focus turns to a team that was the exact opposite, as no team played in as many track meets as St. Lawrence last season. The Saints undoubtedly had one of the best offenses in the nation last year, but they also had one of the worst defenses, and the team has gone five straight years allowing more goals than they've scored. Turning that around this year might be difficult.

St. Lawrence
Nickname: Saints
Location: Canton, NY
Founded: 1856
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2007
Last Frozen Four: 2000
Coach: Greg Carvel (3rd season)
2013-14 Record: 15-19-4 (7-11-4 ECAC, 8th place)
Series: SLU leads, 77-55-6
First Game: January 3, 1951 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: February 1, 2014 (Canton, NY)
Last SLU win: February 21, 2014 (Troy, NY)

2014-15 games: February 6. 2015 (Canton, NY); February 28, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Patrick Doherty, sr.; F Gunnar Hughes, sr.; F Chris Martin, sr.; F Alex Hagen, jr.; F Tommy Thompson, jr.; F Brian Ward, jr.; D Gavin Bayreuther, so.; F Alexander Dahl, so.; F Woody Hudson, so.;  F Drew Smolcynski, so.; D Eric Sweetman, so; D Mitch Eden, fr.; G Kyle Hayton, fr.; F Christian Horn, fr.; D Matt Purmal, fr.

Key losses: F Greg Carey, F Matt Carey, F Jeremy Wick, G Matt Weninger, D Justin Baker, F Kyle Essery, D Pat Raley, D Riley Austin

Previous KYE installments:
Part of what made SLU's games goalfests was the stark contrast between the Saints' power play and penalty kill. The very best power play in the entire nation last year belonged to St. Lawrence, who produced goals at a 27.2% clip for the season on the man advantage. Meanwhile, the penalty kill was the next-to-worst in the country, succeeding only 73.7% of the time with a national median about ten percentage points higher. The end result was a special teams output that was even on the year (when including both power play goals and short-handed goals), something you usually don't get out of the very best power play in the land.

It added up to a nation-leading 6.66 (shut up) average in total goals per game featuring the Saints. Fans were practically guaranteed a barnburner when SLU was in town (which makes RPI's 4-0 home loss to the Saints even more infuriating - it was a harbinger of things to come offensively). 

Weninger's graduation deprives St. Lawrence of their go-to-guy in net from the past four years, but his departure may not be overly problematic. Although he was known for putting together a solid outing from time to time - he pitched two shutouts in each of his four seasons - his overall numbers were mediocre at best and somehow his stats from his senior season were worse than any other single year that he had in Canton. 

The new man in goal is Hayton, a former teammate of RPI freshman Kenny Gillespie at the renowned Shattuck St. Mary's prep school in Minnesota. He's coming off a pretty decent season for Sioux City in the USHL and may actually represent a quick upgrade at the position for the Saints. But the SLU defense looking to improve on one of the worst showings in college hockey last season is painfully young in front of the freshman netminder. Aside from one junior who's made just 25 appearances in two years (about 1/3 of SLU's games), the blueliners will all be in either their freshman or sophomore years.

That's not to say that there isn't talent there. Bayreuther especially was dominant last year as a two-way defenseman and is SLU's top returning scorer. The ECAC co-Rookie of the Year last season scored six of his nine goals on the power play, and leads returnees in both goals and assists (27). Sweetman, his classmate, also showed a proclivity for being able to move the puck in back.

The fact that Bayreuther was not drafted in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft - something that seemed fairly impossible given the incredible season that he had - may bode poorly going forward for the Saints, as he's now a free agent open to fielding offers from any NHL team that's interested in plunking down the cash for him. If he duplicates what he did last season in Canton, it would be hard to see him sticking around much longer.

As rough as the defense may be, the main power for SLU's high-flying offense has been stripped away as well. The Carey brothers are both gone (Greg to graduation, Matt to a pro contract with three seasons of eligibility remaining), as are Wick and Baker, meaning four of the Saints' top five scorers, accounting for 62 of the team's 122 goals, 33 of 47 power play goals, and 162 combined points. Hughes (18 points), Doherty (17 points) and Ward (17 points) are the team's top returning scorers from last season.

Added up, you've got a team that still has question marks where they were rough last season (defense and penalty kill), and a team that has new question marks where they were strong (offense and power play). It's not a recipe for success, and this season has all the hallmarks of a rebuilding year for the Saints, which is kind of a downer for them since they're not rebuilding from a position of great success, having finished in the bottom half of the league standings.

Unfortunately for RPI, they won't see St. Lawrence until late in the season, which gives them plenty of opportunity to make something operational by the time the Engineers pull into Canton. From where things stand here, however, SLU could be in for a long season unless Carvel is able to make this squad far more than the sum of its parts. The basic elements are there to grow this team into a contender in a season or two, but this probably won't be the year.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Know Your Enemy: Cornell

If you're being 100% honest, you weren't surprised by the fact that Cornell managed to grab the last first-round bye in the ECAC last season. Most of the time, even when the Big Red aren't lighting the world on fire, they're at least doing enough to take a break during the first weekend of the ECAC tournament. That's pretty much the tale of last season for Cornell - decent season in which they didn't exactly overwhelm.

Nickname: Big Red
Location: Ithaca, NY
Founded: 1865
Conference: ECAC (Ivy League)
National Championships: 2 (1967, 1970)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Mike Schafer (20th season)
2013-14 Record: 17-10-5 (11-7-4 ECAC, 4th place)
Series: Cornell leads, 60-34-8
First Game: January 31, 1908 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: February 15, 2014 (Ithaca, NY)
Last CU win: February 22, 2013 (Ithaca, NY)

2014-15 games: January 17. 2015 (Troy, NY); February 20, 2015 (Ithaca, NY)

Key players: F Cole Bardreau, sr.; F Madison Dias, sr.; F Joel Lowry, sr.; D Jacob MacDonald, sr.; F John McCarron, sr.; D Joakim Ryan, sr.; F Christian Hilbrich, jr.; F John Knisley, jr.; D Reece Willcox, jr.; F Matt Buckles, so.; F Eric Freschi, so.; G Mitch Gillam, so.; F Jeff Kubiak, so.; D Patrick McCarron, so.; D Ryan Bliss, fr.; F Jared Fiegl, fr.; F Dwyer Tschantz, fr.

Key losses: G Andy Iles, F Brian Ferlin, D Kirill Gotovets, F Dustin Mowrey, F Rodger Craig

Previous KYE installments:
After securing that fourth-place finish, the Big Red dispatched Clarkson in three games in the ECAC Quarterfinals (despite being outscored in the series as Dartmouth was against RPI in the First Round) before getting run over by out-of-control Union in Lake Placid. All in all, not much to write home about when it's Cornell.

Defense? Strong. That's almost a given in Ithaca. Even two seasons ago, when the Big Red were limping their way to their worst finish in well over a decade, the defense was still at the very least near the national average - and last year, Cornell's defense was ranked 8th in the nation.

Offense? That's been the bigger concern in the last couple of years. The goal-scoring last year turned out to be as weak as the defense was strong, almost exactly. Long time observers are not shocked to see Cornell compete in a number of low-scoring contests, but they were exceptionally adept at starring in them last season, scoring just 2.41 goals per game against 2.31 given up. Only UMass-Lowell (4.71 against Cornell's 4.72) averaged fewer total goals in their games nationally, and the River Hawks were more adept on both sides of the puck.

Ferlin was the only Cornell player to reach double digits in goals last season (13), he also led the team in total points with 27. He signed a pro contract at the end of the year, which means the Big Red will lose out on his services for what would have been his senior year. Hilbrich (9) is the top returning goal scorer, while Ryan, McCarron, and Lowry all return for their final seasons at Lynah Rink as the top returning point talliers with 24 each last season.

In net, a new era begins as Ithaca native Iles departs, and Gillam is the heir apparent. He appeared in two games last season, playing a non-conference game against Niagara for his only full-game experience, turning heads when he scored an empty-netter in the game's waning moments. Regardless of that unique debut, we haven't seen enough from him to get a good feel, but Cornell isn't often without decent options between the pipes.

Bliss and Fiegl arrive directly from the US Under-18 team. Fiegl and Tschantz were both picked up in the NHL Entry Draft back in June, giving Cornell seven NHL draft picks on their roster for a second consecutive campaign. All three freshmen, part of an incoming class of seven, should fit in well with the way they play hockey in Ithaca.

No one ever bets against Cornell and there's no reason to start now. While the Engineers have shown recently that they can run with them - 3 points last season and a 3-1-2 record against the Big Red in the last three - they're still not exactly the easiest matchup on the calendar. There are questions that need to be answered about this team heading into the season for sure, like how well Gillam will slide into the starting role, and whether the team can boost its offensive output. But this is a team laden with talented seniors, and that's a positive for any team, let alone one that typically plays as disciplined a game as Cornell. They may not be favorites to storm the league this season, but they're certainly part of the discussion, as they usually are, for the top four.

The Big Red, unlike most teams, have already had the opportunity to play together in competition as they completed a four-game tour in Europe (without their freshmen) last month - something the NCAA allows teams to do once every four years. Dartmouth and Quinnipiac did this in August 2013, playing against teams from Italy and Switzerland as the Big Red did. Cornell went 2-2 in these exhibition matchups.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Know Your Enemy: Colgate

Last year, we pondered that Colgate looked a lot like RPI did in 2012-13. The end result? A 2nd place finish, just like that Engineers team accomplished, and in a similar fashion - a sophomore class leading the way with scoring, and a freshman between the pipes who caught fire and lifted the team. Suddenly, they look a lot like RPI did coming into last season - and if they don't suffer the same fate the Engineers did in net injurywise, the sky could be the limit.

Nickname: Raiders
Location: Hamilton, NY
Founded: 1819
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2014
Last Frozen Four: 1990
Coach: Don Vaughan (22nd season)
2013-14 Record: 20-14-5 (13-6-3 ECAC, 2nd place) 
Series: RPI leads, 60-56-4
First Game: February 19, 1916 (Hamilton, NY) 
Last RPI win: November 9, 2013 (Troy, NY)
Last CU win: February 4, 2012 (Troy, NY)

2014-15 games: January 16, 2015 (Troy, NY); February 21, 2015 (Hamilton, NY)

Key players: D Brendan Corcoran, sr.; F Daniel Gentzler, sr.; F John Lidgett, sr.; F Joe Wilson, sr.; D Spiro Goulakos, sr.; F Kyle Baun, jr.; F Michael Borkowski, jr.; D Ryan Johnston, jr.; D Kevin Lough, jr.; F Darcy Murphy, jr.; F Tylor Spink, jr.; F Tyson Spink, jr.; F Andrew Black, so.; D Brett Corkey, so.; G Charlie Finn, so.; F Tim Harrison, so.; F Jake Kulevich, so.; F Mike Panowyk, fr.

Key losses: F Mike McCann

Previous KYE installments:
For many RPI fans, their impression on Colgate netminder Charlie Finn is the bizarre, bouncing puck goal Guy Leboeuf scored on him during a penalty-kill in the first period of the game in Troy, followed by the yank he got early in the second period after allowing a third goal on just seven shots. A better impression, however, would be the 41 saves on 42 shots he posted against RPI in Hamilton three months later, stonewalling the Engineers completely until Ryan Haggerty scored in the final minute of regulation to force overtime and an eventual draw. That performance was far closer to the way he played the vast majority of his freshman season.

The Raiders bring back their top eight goal-scorers and top nine point producers from a season ago, anchored by their fab five juniors-to-be, Murphy, Borkowski, Baun, and the Spink twins. Throughout the season, Baun was on a line with the Spinks, and Murphy and Borkowski also keyed a scoring line, both of these combinations proving dangerous for the opposition.

Ultimately, Colgate last season was a team that revolved around getting their offense going. Having a strong defensive showing is always good and it tended to work out for the Raiders, but in games like the aformentioned RPI-Colgate tilt in Hamilton and their final game of the season, a 1-0 loss to Ferris State in the NCAA tournament, the offense definitely needed to be clicking in order for Colgate to be successful. Another year of experience for their core should help in that field immensely.

Nationally, the Raiders were average all around - offense, defense, penalty kill, and power play were all somewhere in the middle compared to the rest of the nation. But make no mistake about it - this is now a much more seasoned squad that is ready to take longer strides. Once again, they're easy to compare to the Engineers at this time last year. They've lost no major cogs - McCann was a solid offensive producer but not the most crucial - and they don't have too many major flaws in their game with the exception of offensive consistency.

These next two seasons should be exciting for the Raiders and their fans. A new rink is on the horizon in the not too distant future, and the components are in place for a Colgate team that's going to be difficult to beat. RPI may have taken three points from the Raiders last season, but they'll need to put up a stronger effort this year in order to duplicate the feat, especially considering how flukish the game in Troy now appears. Colgate is, without doubt, a team ready to contend for the very top of the ECAC this season.