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At RPI, Not Hockey 101 Anymore

Last Year, Was for Learning; This One, Expectations Higher

By Matt Graves

Albany Times Union, October 9, 2007

TROY - When Peter Merth signed on as coach Seth Appert's first recruit at RPI, he wasn't surprised to be facing a baptism of fire in Division I hockey.

The fire ultimately smoldered into a 10-18-8 season and a quick departure from the ECAC Hockey League playoffs, but the experience Merth and his three fellow freshman defensemen acquired last season promises to pay dividends this year.

"Last year we had four freshmen and inexperienced upperclassmen," said Appert, whose only seasoned veteran was senior Jake Luthi. "They may be sophomores by class, but in terms of their experience level and the minutes they had to play for us in critical situations, really they're not sophomores. A lot of times you hide freshmen - you put them in certain roles, you hide them from certain situations. We didn't have that luxury last year."

The Engineers still will have one of the youngest defenses in the league, with three freshmen joining the four sophomores, but Appert seems confident that won't be an area of unrest with the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Merth leading the way.

"The area of concern defensively is much less than last year," said Appert, whose team started 4-1-3 and won the inaugural Governor's Cup. "Peter Merth played in every situation possible last year. I believe Peter was our best defensive defenseman last season, and I think he was one of the best freshman defenders in all of our league."

Merth played in all 36 games and fellow freshman defenders Garett Vassel, Christian Jensen and Erik Burgdoerfer appeared in 79 games among them.

"You think about it this way - we have a year under our belt," said Merth, who contributed 10 assists to the offense. "You just have to keep hoping that one year of experience is going to pay off. I think I had a pretty good season, but I have to build off that. You have to constantly try to improve."

Appert expects newcomers John Kennedy, Bryan Brutlag and Jeff Foss to handle the same expectations he had with last year's first-year players. They are part of a freshman class ranked 13th nationally by one prominent hockey Web site.

"They're all very talented freshmen in their own ways," Appert said. "Kennedy is more of a physical-style defenseman. He's mean and he's tough to play against. Jeff Foss is 6-2 and he's a great skater. Bryan is more of a power-play quarterback and also very competitive. We think all three can be impact players for us."

Experience is not an issue in the most critical portion of RPI's defensive posture - goaltending. Senior Jordan Alford and junior Mathias Lange bring plenty of familiarity to a position they virtually shared last season.

"There's open competition for the number one spot," Appert said. "One of them, if not both, need to assert themselves as the number one man. They both had times and moments last year when they were very strong, and they did some really good things. But the consistency from Mathias and Jordan last year wasn't where it needs to be if we want to be a top team in our league."

Lange was 5-11-5 with a 3.54 goals-against average and .876 save percentage. Alford was 5-7-2 with a 3.13 GAA and .892 save percentage.

"Usually teams that are above 91 percent (save percentage) have a chance to win championships," said Appert, who knows plenty about that after tending goal for Ferris State during his collegiate playing days. "Teams that are below 90 percent are usually at the bottom of their league at whatever level of hockey you're talking about."

But perhaps the biggest problem last year was putting pucks in the opposing net. RPI managed only 88 goals in 36 games, 42 fewer than its opponents. Appert has 10 forwards returning from the team that finished tied for eighth in the league (6-11-5), but lost its three most productive scorers - Kirk MacDonald, Luthi and Oren Eizenman.

"Finishing was an issue for us," said Appert, who made sure his players worked on that deficiency. "We requested of our players that they shoot 500 to 1,000 pucks every week in the off-season, off the ice. You can tell with the shots that they've shown us here in September that they've followed through on that. You add to that the freshman class with Bryan (Brutlag) and Tyler (Helfrich) - who are probably a little bit more traditionally set-up men - and on top of that Ben Contini and Chase Polacek, guys that can really shoot the puck and seem to have a good knack for the back of the net."

Appert said he is firm in his plan to have an up-tempo offense when all the parts are in place. The upperclassmen have had a taste of that already.

"We've had a year with the coaching staff, we know what they expect and we look to improve a lot upon what we learned last year," said junior captain Jake Morissette. "I think everyone's really prepared to play that style of game that we want to play to be successful. It's a new year. We know expectations have been raised; we've raised them on ourselves."

Appert buys that notion, and he's added former player Ben Barr as a volunteer assistant to help facilitate that progression.

"We don't see this as a transitional year whatsoever," said the 33-year-old coach. "Last year was a transition year, a year to improve within our program, to get to know our players, to understand the league better. This year is not a transition year, it's a year to start making more headway in terms of where we see our program in the league picture and the national picture."