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With MacDonald's Return Uncertain, Engineers Must Rebuild Their Offense

By Ken Schott

Schenectady Daily Gazette, October 5, 2005

TROY - The question that is on the minds of every Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute hockey fan is if senior forward Kirk MacDonald will be able to play at all this year.

In April, MacDonald announced that he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. MacDonald , the Engineers' leading scorer last season with 16 goals and 20 assists, remains at his Victoria, British Columbia, home, recuperating.

MacDonald's shadow will loom large over the Engineers as they prepare for the 2005-06 season. RPI, which finished 11th in the ECACHL last season with a 6-15-1 record and a 14-22-2 overall mark, plays an exhibition game Friday against Ottawa before opening the regular season Sunday at UMass-Lowell.

The thing that RPI coach Dan Fridgen has to do is keep the players focused on the task at hand and not worry about whether MacDonald will be playing this season.

"We really haven't thought about it very much," said Fridgen, who begins his 12th season as RPI's head coach. "He's in the back of our minds, but the way we're approaching it is we're going with what we have with the players that are here. If he were to come back, that would be a bonus. But I think we're getting closer to a time when he'll be able to make that decision."

Since announcing his diagnosis, MacDonald hasn't spoken to the media. Two scheduled teleconferences with him last month were postponed.

"He's still going through the healing process," Fridgen said. "His spirits are up, yet he's a little frustrated because you have to be patient with the healing process. When you're a young go-getter such as Kirk, that can be very frustrating ."

MacDonald's absence won't hurt RPI's depth at forward, where the Engineers have 16 players.

"Of course, from a quality perspective , you're not replacing a guy like Kirk," Fridgen said.

MacDonald could decide to redshirt this season, and return next year.

"That's been brought up, but it's not a conversation that I've had in depth with him personally," Fridgen said. "Once he can make that decision, as to whether he'll be able to play or not, will determine what kind of options he has available."

Even though MacDonald won't start the season, he was named a tri-captain, along with senior forward Kevin Croxton and senior defenseman Brad Farynuk.

"We all want Kirk to get back as soon as possible," Croxton said. "Obviously, he's a huge part of our team. But we can't really prepare one way or the other. We just have to worry about ourselves, and control the things we can control."

One of the areas that the Engineers must control is their goal scoring.

Even though RPI scored 102 goals overall last season, it managed just 46 in ECACHL play. Only Union (43) and Clarkson (44) were worse.

Croxton, who was the team's second-leading scorer with 10 goals and 25 assists, suffered through a 22-game scoreless drought, which didn't end until the final weekend of the regular season. Croxton finished the season with a four-game goal-scoring streak.

"I don't think about it too much," Croxton said. "Obviously, that is one of my jobs, to score goals. I try to contribute in other ways when that's not going well. All you can do is keep shooting the puck, and doing the little things right, and not being a defensive liability and not hurting the team that way."

"You try and put it out of your mind, and just hope the first couple of shots go in."

Croxton won't be the only player expected to help out in MacDonald's absence.

Junior Oren Eizenman, who missed 11 games last season because of illness, had six goals and 14 assists to finish fifth on the team in scoring. Senior Chris Hussey got off to a hot start before cooling off in the second half. He finished with six goals and seven assists, both career highs.

Freshmen Mathieu Angers-Goulet and Andrei Uryadov have an opportunity to make an impact.

Angers-Goulet had 21 goals and 25 assists in 59 games for the Notre Dame Hounds of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, and was named the team's rookie of the year. Uryadov had 18 goals and 23 assists in 30 games for the South Kent School last season, and won his second team MVP award.

"[It's] a situation where I'm looking for more offense out of Jonathan Ornelas, Jake Morissette, guys like that who really didn't find the scoring touch last year," Fridgen said. "We're looking for that to happen. Hussey found it early in the season last year, but leveled off."

"I don't see it as any player's responsibility, as I see it as a team responsibility. And that's not to say we're going to open it up and not to take care of our defensive responsibilities. But I would certainly like everybody to generate more shots from a team perspective, as far as our offense is concerned."

Farynuk, senior Alexander Valentin and junior Jake Luthi anchor the defense. The trio combined for 15 goals and 34 assists.

Luthi was the biggest surprise. After playing just five games his freshman year, he blossomed into a top-notch defenseman. He also provided offense, with six goals and six assists.

Who emerges as the top goalie will be a key factor in RPI's success. Sophomore Jordan Alford struggled last year, going 5-5-1 with a 2.84 goals-against average overall, but he had a 4.57 GAA and a.783 save percentage in league play.

Freshman Mathias Lange will compete with Alford. Lange comes to RPI from the New York Apple Core of the Eastern Junior Hockey League. He posted a 19-16-6 record with a 2.69 GAA, a.910 save percentage and one shutout in 44 games last season.

"I'm looking for a guy to step up right off the bat," Fridgen said. "It's no different than all positions, and that is you want to go with the guys who are going to be capable of performing. Then, from the performance stage, you look at the consistency of that performance."

Fridgen is in the final year of his contract. He is 197-176-32, and is the school's all-time wins leader. But the team has finished 11th in two of the last three years.

He isn't worried about his contract situation.

"I don't operate as if I'm under pressure," Fridgen said. "Whether there is pressure or not, I've just got to do my job."