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Engineers Will Likely Remain on Defensive

Low-scoring Affairs of First Month May Be the Norm This Season

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, November 11, 2002

TROY - The first month of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's hockey season - and especially Week 1of the ECAC conference campaign - has reaffirmed what Engineers fans expected in preseason: The team will struggle to score goals at times, and goaltending is the Engineers' main strength.

Those facts were borne out vividly over the weekend, when the Engineers were beaten by Clarkson and rebounded to edge St. Lawrence, both decisions by a 2-1 score.

Though they played well both nights, the Engineers could have easily lost both games, and they trailed 1-0 well into the third period of Saturday's St. Lawrence game. In fact, Rensselaer simply appeared headed for its second shutout defeat in four games.

"When you're playing hard, though, often times you get the big plays you need," RPI coach Dan Fridgen said.

Oh, the Engineers got some big plays - two of them. Each was started by a defenseman, Matt McNeely and Keith MCWilliams, and each was finished by freshman right winger Kevin Croxton.

McNeely won a battle for the puck after Conrad Barnes won a defensive zone faceoff and noticed Croxton doing just a bit of anticipating - and flying through neutral ice. McNeely headmanned the puck right to Croxton's stick and the freshman sized up St. Lawrence goalie Kevin Ackley and beat him with a backhander to tie the game 1-1 at the 3:10 mark of the third period.

Four minutes, 16 seconds later, MCWilliams stole the puck with some outstanding forechecking and whisked the puck across ice to Croxton in the right goalmouth.

Game-winning goal.

"Ah, just nice to get the win, get to .500," Croxton said humbly.

The Engineers, who put just 17 shots on the St. Lawrence net, have scored only six goals in their last four games but have won two of those contests, due mainly to the goaltending of Kevin Kurk and Nathan Marsters.

The fact that their overall defense and defensive zone coverage have improved immensely over the last two weeks should not be overlooked.

But Kurk and Marsters have each shaken off some early-season bad outings to put up some solid numbers.

Kurk won three of his first four decisions with a pair of shutouts and has been sharp while losing his last two to St. Cloud State and Clarkson. His goals against average of 2.22 is among the nation's leaders and he's stopped 91.8 percent of the shots he's faced.

Marsters, 2-2-0, is even better in saves percentage at 92.3% and has a 3.00 GAA.

"They've both come up big for us, made some big saves and kept us in some games," Fridgen said of the two lanky junior netminders.

The Engineers actually outplayed Clarkson for much of the game on Friday night but couldn't put in the tying goal. Then Saturday night, they missed some outstanding scoring chances in the second period. They overcame the frustration they felt, continuing to play hard and producing the big plays they needed.

"They showed a lot of character coming back after a real disappointing loss at home (Friday night)," Fridgen said of the Engineers. "Talking to (St. Lawrence) coach (Joe) Marsh after the game, he said, 'this was the best game we've played.'"

"We played real hard both nights," Fridgen said.

And while RPI forwards were getting frustrated over the weekend and have just 16 goals in 10 games, Croxton became the ninth forward to dent the net. Only seven had scored at this time last year. And Croxton's pair has to be a good sign; he's been a big scorer at other levels.

"We're playing well defensively and we realize that it's going to be scoring by committee," Fridgen said.

Fridgen, ever concerned with "the process" of progressing into a solid team - "I don't look at it from a wins-losses perspective," - said another tough loss Saturday night wouldn't have been disastrous.

Captain Danny Eberly disagreed.

"It would have been a real damaging loss," he said. "The win was huge and the split will definitely give us confidence for next weekend."

Next weekend, the Engineers hit the road, meeting Yale and Princeton.

The Yale Bulldogs don't have Jeff Hamilton and Ben Stafford anymore but they do have Chris Higgins, Nick Deschenes and Jeff Dwyer and will likely be among the ECAC contenders throughout the season.