Monday, March 7, 2016

Men's Hockey - ECAC First Round (4/5 Mar)

For over a decade, RPI's playoff bugaboos have been two-fold - an inability to reach the semifinals, exacerbated by an inability to win a playoff series at home. One of those roadblocks has now been overcome, although it wasn't easy. The Engineers, some would argue, managed to escape in the first round this year at Houston Field House, claiming a 3-2 victory on Friday night despite being outplayed for large swaths of the game, and completing a two-game sweep by overcoming a 3-0 deficit for the second time this year against the Brown Bears for a 4-3 victory.

Game 1
Bourbonnais-Schroeder-Nanne
Liljegren-Bubela-DeVito
Wood-Miller-Ohrvall
Rodriguez-Fulton-Gillespie

Bradley-Prapavessis
Wilson-Reno
Moore-Hampton

Kasdorf

Travis Fulton and Zach Schroeder both returned to the RPI lineup in time for the playoffs, which necessitated Lonnie Clary and Tommy Grant coming out.

Looking back, it seems odd to say that the Engineers never trailed on Friday night, especially considering the near total dominance of Brown during the first period, especially the first 15 minutes or so. Indeed, RPI was badly outshot in the opening frame, 17-5, a figure that's especially bad when you consider that Brown usually gives up a good chunk of shots.

But it was the Engineers who struck first, well against the flow of play - naturally, on a counter-attack. Alex Rodriguez moved the puck out of the defensive zone and pushed it up for Kenny Gillespie. The sophomore winger gained the zone, but lost the handle on the puck as he went to cut toward the net. Fortunately, Meirs Moore was trailing the play, and he picked up the loose puck as though it had been a drop pass. The freshman d-man turned himself into a forward and raced it up the boards, ripping a shot when he reached the outer edge of the faceoff circle. The shot beat Tim Ernst over his glove on the far side, putting RPI ahead 1-0 at 7:37 of the first period.

Brown evened it up early in the second period even as the Engineers started tilting the ice back in the other direction. Moments after Max Gottlieb failed to pot a backhander into a gaping net, Brown's other Max (Willman) struck twine after a shot from the top of the faceoff circle, beating Jason Kasdorf through a screen to make it 1-1.

That was easily the brightest moment of the period for the visitors, as RPI basically turned the first period on its ear, outshooting the Bears 12-2 in the middle frame. But for much of the period, it seemed that the Engineers' dominance was destined to be as effective as Brown's was in the first 20 minutes, as the possession and shot control was not adding up to additional points on the board. It wasn't until the final minute of the second period that RPI was able to pounce on a defensive miscue to retake the lead.

Mike Prapavessis took the puck along the side boards, then took advantage of a pick thrown by Zach Schroeder on Tommy Marchin and caught Mark Naclerio moving in the wrong direction to move into a wide open spot at the top of the slot. The sophomore defenseman paused, set up his spot, and then roofed one to make it 2-1 at the end of the second.

RPI opened some breathing room early in the second period as Jared Wilson put one home from almost the same exact spot on the ice that Willman had scored the previous period, and in much the same way - through a screen. Wilson's fifth goal of the season gave the Engineers a much-needed two-goal edge.

That goal would prove crucial later in the period, as the Bears pulled back within one on the power play. Sam Lafferty maneuvered the puck from the blue line into the slot, then got Kasdorf to hesitate ever so slightly when dishing the puck through traffic to Charlie Corcoran, standing just to the right of the crease. The hesitation gave Corcoran enough time to one-time the puck home to make it 3-2.

Less than a minute later, Brown believed they'd tied the game up on a wraparound try by Willman. While Kasdorf usually does a pretty solid job of sealing up the post on wraparounds, this time his foot ended up in the side-netting, allowing a bare amount of space, and Willman thought he made it through. The try was waved off on the ice, and while several replays, from both overhead and in front showed that the puck probably went in, there was no angle by which it could be said definitively that it was in and fully over the line. The wave-off stood.

That stands in stark contrast to the goal review in Brown's previous game in Troy - in which there was exceptionally clear evidence that a goal should have been awarded despite having been waved-off on the ice. In this case, a gut feeling that a goal happened was not enough to overturn a wave-off.

The ice must have been tilted toward the west end of the Field House all night, because the same dynamic of the team shooting that way coming away with the lion's share of the shot total continued in the third period - 16-6 (and 45-13 for the evening). But RPI managed to hang onto their lead throughout. Kasdorf stood especially tall during the final 1:24 with the extra skater, and the Engineers managed to escape with the 3-2 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

Game 2
Bourbonnais-Schroeder-Nanne
Liljegren-Bubela-DeVito
Wood-Miller-Ohrvall
Clary-Fulton-Rodriguez

Bradley-Prapavessis
Wilson-Grant
Moore-Hampton

Kasdorf

Parker Reno is probably still not back to 100%, and it looked it on Friday night - whether he was reinjured or not remains to be seen, but he was pulled in favor of Tommy Grant, while Kenny Gillespie came out for Lonnie Clary's return.

While the first 15 minutes of the first period on Saturday weren't exactly as dominating for RPI as they had been for Brown the previous night, it's probably fair to say that the Engineers at least had the better of play. And as with Friday, it was the team opposite the momentum who managed to strike first - and in Brown's case, struck multiple times to put an emphatic stamp that they were still very much a part of the proceedings despite the first night loss.

Penalty troubles for the Engineers in the first period certainly didn't help matters, as Brown got on the board first with a goal by Sam Lafferty on the power play 7:25 into the game - roughly the same time that Meirs Moore had scored the previous night to establish the 1-0 lead. Just a couple of minutes later, a lost defensive zone faceoff turned into a general defensive let-down as a pass through the front of the crease was not cleared by two defenders in front, getting picked up by Nick Lappin instead and one-timed home to make it 2-0 Brown just after the game became 10 minutes old.

A tripping call on Tommy Grant late in the period turned into a second power play goal for the Bears as Tyler Bird took advantage of poor defense off a faceoff in the RPI end, slipping behind everyone and then receiving the pass after the faceoff win, roofing it to make the score 3-0 Brown just seconds from the end of the first period.

But as with the last time Brown went up 3-0 on RPI - in Providence - the silver lining for the Engineers was that it happened relatively early, giving the Engineers 40 minutes to start their comeback. They used nearly all of it, but come back they absolutely did.

It started early in the second period with a herculean individual effort by Milos Bubela. Off a save by Kasdorf, Mike Prapavessis moved the puck to the RPI senior, who fought his way through the neutral zone and up the boards, speeding into the zone and then gliding into the slot one-on-one. He picked his spot, and then snapped a shot that beat Ernst to get the Engineers on the board and set the tone early that RPI was not yet beaten. Incidentally, the save by Kasdorf ended up being the secondary assist on the play, which was the first point recorded by an RPI netminder since October 25, 2008, when freshman Allen York had the lone assist on a goal by Erik Burgdoerfer.

Seven and a half minutes later, it was Bubela scoring again in almost the same exact fashion - using his speed into the zone along the boards (this time the feed coming via linemate Jimmy DeVito) and cutting to the net to wrist one in to make it 3-2 RPI, confirming the comeback try.

A number of times, the Engineers looked ready to tie things up, but it would take over 20 minutes more down just one goal to complete the comeback. Bubela took a shot on the power play midway through the third period that was saved by Ernst, but the puck bounced free to Riley Bourbonnais, who immediately shoved it home to level things up.

Brown appeared to have retaken the lead minutes later off a goal by Lafferty, but it was immediately waved off due to goaltender interference. From there, the game evolved into more of a back and forth, and minutes later, RPI had to defend their newly-procured tie on the penalty kill following a boarding call against Grant, but they managed to emerge unscathed.

As time ticked by, it seemed increasingly likely that the next goal would be the game winner, and the Engineers would be the beneficiaries. With 1:42 left in regulation, a total laser shot by Jared Wilson - who'd also earned the game winning goal the previous night - got through traffic and past Ernst to give RPI the lead for the first time on the evening at 4-3.

The Engineers staved off the final rush by Brown, and despite being dominated for two periods on Friday and going down 3-0 on Saturday, RPI had a series sweep, and their first home playoff series victory in 12 years.

That's one monkey off the back. There's another one that can be removed this coming weekend, although it certainly won't be easy. The last time RPI saw the Crimson, it was an absolute offensive barrage - one that the defense stood up to and pulled out a 2-1 victory. You're not going to see those materialize in that fashion very frequently, let alone twice in one weekend, so the Engineers are certainly going to have to be a lot stronger for a lot longer if they're going to build upon the home win and return the program to the promised land.

ECAC Quarterfinals
#8 Cornell at #1 Quinnipiac
#7 Dartmouth at #2 Yale
#6 RPI at #3 Harvard
#5 Clarkson at #4 St. Lawrence

Brown at RPI
ECAC First Round Game 1 - Houston Field House (Troy, NY)
3/4/16 - 7:00pm

RESULT: RPI 3, Brown 2

RECORD: 17-13-7

Brown at RPI
ECAC First Round Game 2 - Houston Field House (Troy, NY)
3/5/16 - 7:00pm

RESULT: RPI 4, Brown 3

RECORD: 18-13-7

Upcoming games
11 Mar - at #12 Harvard (ECAC Quarterfinals Game 1)
12 Mar - at #12 Harvard (ECAC Quarterfinals Game 2)
13 Mar - at #12 Harvard (ECAC Quarterfinals Game 3, if necessary)
18 Mar - vs. #1 Quinnipiac/#18 St. Lawrence/Clarkson/Dartmouth (ECAC Semifinal, Lake Placid, NY - if qualified)
19 Mar - ECAC Championship (Lake Placid, NY - if qualified)

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