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Annual Letdown Has Plagued Engineers

By Ken Schott

Schenectady Daily Gazette, October 9, 2008

TROY - The numbers certainly tell how rough last year was for the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute men's hockey team.

After starting the season 8-5-3 and being nationally ranked, the Engineers went into a freefall. They had a 3-18-1 rcord over their final 22 games, and suffered through a 10-game losing streak, which included a loss to Princeton in the Big Red Freakout, their first defeat in that game since 1990.

There are some other disturbing numbers. The Engineers were outscored, 50-18, and outshot, 374-268, in the third period. They were 6-9-1 when scoring the first goal, just 9-5-1 when leading after two per­iods and 0-14-3 when trailing after two. And probably the most dis­appointing numbers of all - RPI was just 12-for-170 on the power play, its 7.1 percentage the worst in the country. The Engineers allowed 11 short-handed goals, the most given up in the country.

"Obviously, our power play was a bit of a struggle last year," soph­omore forward Tyler Helfrich said.

It added up to a 10th-place finish in ECAC Hockey play for the Engineers (6-13-3 ECACH, 11-23-4 overall). It also marked the second straight year that team started well, and faded at the end.

"We started really well the past couple of years, and then hit a wall," senior goalie Mathias Lange said. "That's something we need to address, and have addressed in the past. All we can do is work hard, and keep improving our conditioning and strength."

Third-year RPI coach Seth Appert knows last season was rough, but he believes better times are ahead for the Engineers, who open the season Saturday against Vermont in Quebec.

"We're excited, as all teams are this time of year," Appert said. "Our guys had very good summers. I'm extremely pleased with the shape they came back in, and how hard they trained over the summer, but also the mental mindset they came back in. They seem very determined to start to make headway, and to start turning the corner to getting our program to where we all want it to be."

If the Engineers are going to turn things around this season, they must find a way to score more goals. Last season, RPI averaged just 2.08 goals per game. Only Minnesota-Duluth (2.06), Michigan Tech (2.00) and Alabama-Huntsville (1.94) were worse.

The Engineers didn't have a player score more than nine goals last season, but there is some potential. The team's top two scorers were freshman forwards. Helfrich led the Engineers with nine goals and 20 assists, and Chase Polacek had seven goals and 21 assists, and was named to the ECACH All-Rookie team.

Senior Andrei Uryadov was third in scoring with seven goals and 12 assists, but led the team with 89 penalty minutes.

The only other returnee who scored more than five goals is senior forward Matt Angers-Goulet, who had eight.

"Scoring is going to be an issue," Appert said. "It doesn't happen overnight. Normally, you need to have a lot of scoring from the upperclassmen to be a good offensive team. Obviously, the majority of our scoring came from our freshmen last year. That makes it difficult."

Also making it difficult to score was a defensive unit that didn't have an upperclassman. The lack of upperclassmen played a crit­ical role in the team's slump, , particularly toward the end of the season.

"We got hemmed in our own zone a lot," Appert said. "We spent a lot of time in our defensive zone. We didn't transition it as well. Therefore, you don't get as many offensive opportunities. Or, when you do get down into [the opposition's] end, you're 30 seconds into your shift, and you start to tire out."

Appert believes the defense will be better this season. Junior Peter Merth (3-10-13) and sophomore Bryan Brutlag (3-9-12) are the top returnees. Sophomore Jeff Foss

(1-3-4), who was a steady defender last season, should play with more confidence this year after getting selected by the Nashville Predators in the June NHL draft.

"Our D-corps should be a great strength for us this year," Appert said. "And, with that, we'll spend less time in our own zone, and then [we'll have] more time in the opponents' zone."

Probably the Engineers' biggest strength is in goal. Despite a 6-14-3 record last season, Lange posted a 2.47 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. His best game may have been against Yale in Game 1 of the first round of the ECACH tournament, when he made 53 saves in a 3-2 triple-overtime loss.

"Mathias has had an outstanding summer," Appert said. "He's come back with a real determination in his eyes. He seems very focused on proving himself to be the elite goaltender in the ECAC. And I believe he should be."

Freshman Allen York, who is a draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets, will compete with Lange for playing time. York was 47-9-3 with a 2.21 GAA the last two seasons with the Camrose Kodiaks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

"We think we should have the best goaltending in the league," Appert said.