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Despite Slump, Engineers Earn Decent Grade

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, January 8, 2008

TROY - Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has reached the halfway point of the season during the ill-fated two-game series with Miami in which the Engineers were outscored 9-0 in the third periods of 7-3 and 5-1 losses.

Since, they've lost three more games and have slipped to 8-10-3 overall.

With RPI's return to ECAC Hockey play against Cornell on Friday night, it's time for the team's annual midseason report card, a bit belated.

Until Sunday's disheartening loss to Maine, Rensselaer coach Seth Appert will tell you, the Engineers have played with passion, intensity and desire in all but a couple of its games, though putting all those ingredients together for 60 minutes has been a problem.

Here's a grading the Engineers in 10 categories, done on the 4.0 system.

Offense: With 50 goals in 21 games, the Engineers are averaging 2.38 goals per game this year. After 21 games last season, they had 48.

However, in seven ECAC Hockey games, RPI has 20 goals (a 2.86 average), after averaging 2.5 in league games last season.

Rensselaer has added speed and stick-handling skills and should total more goals than the 88 they scored in 2006-07.

"We're not going to fill the net with four or five every night, but we will score more," Appert.

The Engineers still miss more than their share of half-open nets and often shoot wide from short range.

And the team's dramatic falloff in third-period offensive production - not only in goals but opportunities as well, affects the grade.

Rensselaer has been outscored 31-7 in the third period after outscoring opponents 269 in the second.

Grade: C or 2.0 points

Defense: The play of RPI's all-sophomore/freshmen defensive corps has been one of the most consistent aspects of the team's play. Peter Merth has developed into one of ECAC Hockey's top defensemen, freshman John Kennedy was a physical force from the time he stepped on the ice. Sophomore Christian Jensen is arguably the team's most improved player.

Fellow soph 'D' man Erik Burgdoerfer is right behind Jensen in that regard.

Freshman Bryan Brutlag has lately exhibited glimpses of the skills that will likely make him a two-way star and the solid play of freshman Jeff Foss has been a big surprise. Garett Vassel, a natural forward, continues to play well.

Rensselaer defensemen have consistently been in position, haven't permitted many odd-man rushes, played the body, blocked shots, tied up sticks in front and cleared rebounds.

Brutlag is a +5 for the season, Jensen a +6, Foss and Merth each dropping lately to a +2. Rensselaer looks to be strong on defense for several years.

Grade: B+ or 3.5

Goaltending: Both Jordan Alford and Mathias Lange compounded RPI's mediocre defense last season with poor years.

Both had been stellar, for the most part, earlier this year before falling off lately.

Alford let in some soft ones in the Miami series and Lange one in a 2-2 tie with Brown, but with just a couple exceptions, they've given the Engineers a chance to win any game. It could be that Lange has captured the No. 1 goaltending role.

Lange is playing angles better and seems to have regained the confidence that waned last year.

Alford has improved greatly at both preventing rebounds and steering them to the corner.

Each has improved at sliding through the crease with the influence of Appert, a former goaltender.

If the defense continues to be strong, the goaltending duo could help the Engineers make a run at a Top Four finish in ECAC Hockey.

Grade: B or 3.0.

Transition: Transition was a team weakness last season.

Freshmen Tyler Helfrich, Chase Polacek and Brutlag have helped the Engineers in transition of the puck from the defensive zone, through the neutral zone and some upperclassmen have improved that area of their game.

Stick-handling has been a weakness of the team in recent years but it's also been improved.

Breaking opposing forechecks and skating the puck out of the defensive zone, still need improvement but each is far better than that of the past two seasons.

Grade: C+ or 2.5

Puck-handling: Consistency is a key here and it's certainly been lacking in recent seasons.

Against teams such as Miami, Notre Dame and Minnesota, it's clear to see a disparity in puck-handling skills those teams enjoy over RPI.

One main reason for RPI's nation's-worst 6.9 percent power play efficiency is that passing and cycling the puck isn't as strong as the opposition's.

With the addition of Helfrich and Polacek and the improvement of several upperclassmen, it's getting better, though.

Grade: C+ of 2.5

Power play: The colossal ineffectiveness of the RPI power play - 7 of 101 for the aforementioned 6.9 percent - has been well-documented and needs little comment here - except to add that two of the seven goals came on lengthy 5-on-3 situations.

Appert is still using different combinations and using forward lines intact, trying to find the right blend.

It will likely be some time before the power play shows any real efficiency but it can only get better.

Grade: D- or 0.5

Penalty killing: As frustrating as the power play has been, the penalty killing on such a young team has been quite good.

It's a shade over respectable 84.3 percent (91 of 108) at the halfway point but since allowing three power-play goals to both Minnesota and Boston College in the Ice-Breaker Tournament, the Engineers have killed 72 of 83, an 86.7 norm.

Appert has used most of the forwards on the team in penalty-killing situations and they've virtually all done a creditable job.

Grade: B or 3.0

Body-checking: The Engineers aren't a heavy-hitting, physical team; they're just not big enough.

A team doesn't need a bench full of huge bodies to play the body effectively, though.

Merth and Kennedy are big hitters and Brutlag picks his spots well.

Among the forwards, Andrew Lord has become a better body-cruncher and led by Kurt Colling, RPI forwards matched bigger, stronger Miami in body checks being worn down.

Uryadov has added some physicality to his game, though he had a rough weekend against Miami and charted 19 penalty minutes in Game 2.

Separating opposing players from the puck with big hits won't be RPI's main asset but the Engineers have shown they can be effective in that area.

Grade: C+ or 2.5

Intensity and motivation: It's a noticeable as a save on a breakaway, how much less the Engineers' intensity has wavered this season from the previous several years.

Yes, they're getting beaten badly in the third period of games but much of that, as mentioned, is due to the fact that they've played a brutal schedule against a number of teams that are physically stronger.

They seemed out sync against a weak AIC team, nearly losing in a 1-1 tie, never really got going in a 1-1 tie with Yale and in a major puzzle, allowed Brown to score twice in the third period and had to settle for a 2-2 tie.

It's never easy for teams to play well for 60 minutes or to maintain a high intensity level for an entire game, though doing so is the goal of any team.

The Engineers have been motivated and played with passion in most every game, Sunday's game notwithstanding.

Grade: B or 3.0

Leadership-Intangibles: Eight of RPI's 10 losses have come to teams currently ranked No. 15 or higher nationally (seven to Top 10 teams) and the ninth came to a team (Quinnipiac) that's since climbed to No. 16.

Quiet leaders such as Jake Morissette and Lord have been quite effective this season, and others seniors have led by example.

And, Helfrich is an instant leader despite his rookie status.

The Engineers have shown they can play with the nation's best, the third-period meltdowns notwithstanding.

Having said that, they were clearly bewildered by the way Miami seemed to dominate them with ease over the final 20 minutes, and back at Thanksgiving time, after they blew a 3-0 lead in a 4-3 loss to Notre Dame, some RPI upperclassmen had a 'deer in the headlights' look.

They overcame that and rallied to win at Princeton and beat 13th-ranked Harvard a few days later.

Appert has expressed a bit of dissatisfaction with some upperclassmen of late but says "that will be taken care of."

It has to be, with 15 ECACH games upcoming.

Grade: B or 3.0.

Overall grade: 25 points for a C+