January 10, 2012

ECAC Hockey Journal: RPI finally showing signs of life

By Dan Guttenplan

RPI hockey coach Seth Appert wasn't exactly jumping at the opportunity to label his team's 2-2 tie against Harvard Saturday night as a potential turning point in the season. 

For one, RPI held a 2-0 lead at Houston Field House before coming away with a single point. Second, the Engineers are 3-16-1 overall and 1-7-1 in the ECAC after earning a trip to the NCAA tournament last season.

"It's been a challenge this year," Appert said. "I don't think I've done a good enough job getting the team to understand how I want them to play. We've certainly had some maturity issues. We've had a lot of injuries as well."

In fairness to Appert, his team this season has few similarities with a team that went 20-13-5 last season in what looked like another step in the coach's rebuilding project. The team graduated Hobey Baker Award finalist Chase Polacek and career 110-point scorer Tyler Helfrich. Goaltender Allan York also turned pro despite having one more year of eligibility remaining.

"That was a talented, dominant class that led the program for the last three years," Appert said. "Their graduation left a void we've had trouble filling. Then we lost three guys to either the NHL or AHL. That left a hole and I haven't done a good enough job helping the guys understand how to fill it. That's my responsibility and I take that on."

While it would be easy to write off RPI's season as a transition year, Appert's accountability seems to be spreading through the program. While the team has still only earned one point in three games since returning post-Christmas break, the Engineers are playing more competitive games. They suffered one-goal losses against Army and Dartmouth before earning a tie against Harvard.

"The process has been better in the last three games," Appert said. "Early in the year, we played very hard. Then we struggled as a young team with injuries, and losing close games started to break our confidence. We went through a period in November and early December when we weren't playing good hockey."

If anything, this down year has taught Appert that the entire process is important each season, from recruiting to training to in-game coaching. He found last season that he was the right man for the job when he was leading a team on the brink of its first NCAA tournament berth since 1995. This season, he's learning what it's like to start over.

"If we do things the right way, if we recruit the kids that work hard and come from good families, if we have that great mentality every day, it leads to results," Appert said. "It's really easy when you have a top 15 or top 20 team in the country like we have the last few years. It's easy to get caught up in results. Certainly now, keeping guys energized is part of the process."

Game of the Week

Union vs. Harvard, Friday (at Fenway Park)

The first ECAC Hockey game at Fenway Park will be part of the Sun Life Frozen Fenway series and the fourth college game at the historic ballyard.

UMass beat Vermont and Maine beat New Hampshire in a Hockey East doubleheader Saturday, and Norwich plays Babson in a Division 3 ECAC East game Friday before the Crimson and Union hit the ice at night.

ECAC Hockey power rankings

1. Cornell (9-4-2, 6-1-1 ECAC): The Big Red boosted their PairWise ranking by taking three points in two games against Colorado College last weekend.

2. Colgate (12-6-2, 6-2-0 ECAC): Colgate dropped a pair at Ferris State last weekend, making its finish in the ECAC all the more important for NCAA tournament consideration.

3. Union (10-5-6, 4-2-3): Union took out its frustration after a tie against Harvard Friday by beating Dartmouth 7-1 Saturday.

4. Quinnipiac (12-7-5, 4-4-4): The Bobcats are 4-0-1 in their last five ECAC contests.

5. Yale (8-6-1, 5-3-0): Not to sound any alarms, but the Elis are 4-5-0 in their last nine games.

6. Harvard (4-4-6, 3-3-4): The Crimson seem to be the epitome of mediocrity in the ECAC after posting ties against Union and RPI last weekend.

7. Brown (6-7-2, 3-4-1): The Bears entered last weekend with consecutive wins over Yale, UNH and Providence, and then they earned one point in a home set with Princeton and Quinnipiac.

8. St. Lawrence (8-11-2, 4-5): The Saints were unbeaten in their last five games (3-0-2) before losing to Minnesota State-Mankato Saturday.

9. Clarkson (9-10-4, 3-4-2): Clarkson has lost four in a row and has only one win in its last seven games.

10. Dartmouth (7-6-2, 4-4-1): Starting goaltender Cab Morris was pulled after allowing five goals in less than 22 minutes in a 7-1 loss to Union Saturday.

11. Princeton (5-10-4, 4-8-1): The Tigers will have their toughest ECAC test of the year thus far with home games against Colgate and Cornell this weekend.

12. RPI (4-16-1, 1-7-1): Don't look now, but the Engineers are unbeaten in their last two games.

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.