Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Makes a Good Season?

(This is Part 1 - Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.)

Last week, we called the ECAC Tournament "a new season." And it is, in almost every way that matters. The only thing that really carries forward from the regular season are the built-in advantages in the first two rounds. Home ice for the middle four teams in the first round. A week off for the top four followed by home ice. After you get past that, it's eight pairings of two teams trying to be the first to two wins until the league gets whittled down to four.

The tournament has drama and allure to it. Following the four month grind of the ECAC season, there's a three week stretch where anything can, and frequently does, happen. Everything is earned when a miscue at the wrong time means you're hanging up the sweater until next year, or for the last time if you're a senior, no matter how good or bad your regular season was.

So what's more important, then? Having a good regular season, or having a good tournament? If one is good, does it matter if the other is awful?

It's a fair question to ask, especially when it comes to RPI - a team that for years has pretty much only ever had a good season OR a good tournament, never both, rarely neither.

Growing up, I remember a time when RPI could practically do no wrong in the ECAC Tournament. Even during an age where getting to play in the tournament was never a given - the league admitted only eight of 12 teams following the Hockey East split until 1990, then 10 of 12 until 2003 - the Engineers always managed to find a way.

* The '87 Engineers finished in a tie for 7th, and ended up reaching the third-place game.
* The '92 Engineers finished 10th, and took eventual champions St. Lawrence to overtime in the semifinals after knocking off Vermont and Harvard in succession on the road.
* From 1992 to 2002, RPI missed out on the semifinals only three times.
* The '95 Engineers finished in 6th, and still became ECAC champions.
* The '02 Engineers resurrected their season at the very end, reached a home ice spot, and made their way to Lake Placid, finishing third.

That was quite a stretch. More often than not, RPI was either one of the top teams during the regular season and they translated that to the tournament, or they made up for lost time in the tournament.

Perhaps now, as we sit 13 years removed from that epic stretch, we can see that nothing should ever be taken for granted.

The numbers are stark. No home playoff series wins since 2004, a drought of five series in a row (Quinnipiac, Brown, Colgate, Brown, and Dartmouth). No semifinal appearances since 2002, coming within a single victory of playing in a semifinal in 2004 (Dartmouth), 2009 (Cornell), and 2013 (Brown), but coming no closer.

It's a heartache lane that has even the most stalwart RPI backer just waiting for the next hit sometimes. The ECAC's final four took place in Albany, literally down the road, for eight seasons. We never went. It moved to Atlantic City for three years. We never went. Now it's back in Lake Placid again, a place we rarely missed out on the last time the tournament was held there every year.

Here's a tale of two seasons for you to ponder: 2009 and 2013.

There were a lot of warm fuzzies coming out of 2009. The Engineers won a playoff series on the road at Dartmouth, their first playoff win in five years. They beat Cornell in Game 1 of the quarterfinals. It was Allen York's coming out party. The future looked a lot brighter. People felt good about the team again.

But that was five games. The team was 3-2 in those five games. It was a near sight better than the absolutely dreadful season RPI fans had to endure ahead of that, finishing next to last and in serious danger until the very end of the season of finishing dead last in the ECAC, something the team had never (and has never) done since the mid-1960s. Did those five games seriously make that season better?

Contrast with 2013. A wonderful regular season. Won 11 of their last 12 games, really rolling. Highest finish in the ECAC standings in 20 years. And then, disaster in the tournament. 1-2 in three games, ended their season prematurely. Did those three games seriously make that season worse?

The answer to both questions - yes. Games mean more - far more - in the tournament. But they don't ever erase what happened in the regular season. We shouldn't ignore the bad seasons that precede good tournaments, and vice versa.

I recall hearing from Brown fans that 2010, the year they beat RPI and then top-seeded Yale to reach Atlantic City, was one of the best seasons they'd had in years, and that they were "climbing the ladder." They finished 11th in the ECAC that season. They'd finish 9th and 12th in the next two years. Now, bear in mind that Brown is used to finishing in the bottom four (9 times in the last 10 years), but still... how can you apply two weekends worth of success to wipe out four months of futility? Sure, at least your last impression left you smiling, but... how long did it take you to get there?

It's just a little something to remember when you look back on this season. It's very, very acceptable to be happy with what happened last weekend in Potsdam. Hope springs that a Cinderella run is in store for this coming weekend and beyond. Hopefully at the very least we see, as in 2009 and 2012, hope for the near future. But when the book is written on 2015, it's been a rough season. It's hard to get beyond that.

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