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Attack Biggest Concern

By Ken Schott

Schenectady Daily Gazette, October 8, 2009

TROY - For the last two years, scoring goals has been a problem for the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute men hockey's team.

Two seasons ago, the Engineers scored only 79 goals, and last year, they had 76. And the Engineers' power play has been awful, a combined 29-for-365 (7.9 percent). The offensive struggles have contributed to RPI going 12-28-4 in ECAC Hockey play and 21-50-6 overall the last two years, including 6-15-1 in the league and 10-27-2 overall last season.

RPI coach Seth Appert has addressed these needs by bringing in highly touted recruits Jerry D'Amigo and Brandon Pirri.

But when the Engineers open the 2009-10 season tonight at 7 at Massachusetts, Appert doesn't want his team's focus to be just on the offense.

"First and foremost, we have to be good defensively," said Appert, who begins his fourth year as RPI's head coach. "Our offense is going to come through being good defensively. We always want to be an attacking team. We want to be a team that plays aggressive, plays with speed and that hasn't changed. But I don't think that being a good offensive team precludes you from being a good defensive team. I think you can have both."

The Engineers have a veteran defensive unit returning. Junior John Kennedy will serve as the team captain and seniors Erik Burgdoerfer (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and assistant captain Peter Merth (6-3, 225) bring size and strength. Burgdoerfer also has a mean streak; he led the team with 106 penalty minutes.

Junior Bryan Brutlag brings offense to the blue line. He was the team's top scoring defenseman with three goals and 11 assists. Fellow junior Jeff Foss was next with two goals and nine assists.

Junior Mark Zarbo, senior Christian Jensen and sophomore Mike Bergin round out the defensive unit. Bergin and Jensen had their seasons cut short by injuries.

"We have a lot of juniors and seniors back there," Appert said. "We need those guys to be the anchor of our team, and not to do anything special because they're not a lot of flashy guys. They need to be tough to play against, they need to have good habits and they need to get the puck to our forwards, either directly or off the glass, to put our forwards out into space and give our forwards opportunities for success."

Still, there is a lot of anticipation with the arrivals of D'Amigo and Pirri. Both players were selected in the NHL draft in June.

Pirri, who played for the Georgetown Raiders of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League last season and had 46 goals and 48 assists, was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round. D'Amigo, who had 23 goals and 33 assists for U.S. national under-18 team last season, was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the sixth round.

The pair did well in Saturday's 3-3 exhibition tie against Prince Edward Island. D'Amigo scored a power-play goal, and assisted on a Pirri power-play tally.

"I don't feel I have to prove anything," D'Amigo said. "I just have to set the bar high for myself to get to that next level for me. Obviously, this is another step for me in the process of my hockey career. There's going to be a lot of pressure on me, but I am going to factor that out when I play, and just play relaxed out there."

Said Pirri: "It's a team game. Obviously, Jerry and I want to produce. If we're going to do well, it's going to be a team thing. Jerry and I are just going to have to do our part, and play the best we can."

Appert doesn't want to put pressure on D'Amigo and Pirri to carry the offensive load right away.

"I don't think it's fair, nor do I think anyone of us are going to ask Brandon and Jerry to put a cape on and go out there and be Superman, and try to push the program back where we want it to be," Appert said. "It's going to take all 29 guys in the locker room to do that. Brandon and Jerry have big roles in that. We recruited them here to be go-to players. They want that. They are young men that are going to thrive under that pressure. But they are going to have a lot of help."

That help will come from forwards Chase Polacek, Patrick Cullen and Tyler Helfrich. Polacek, a junior, led the Engineers in scoring last season with 11 goals and 21 assists. Cullen, a sophomore, had 10 goals and 14 assists. Helfrich, a junior, collected five goals and 18 assists.

"The past few years, we've been struggling," said sophomore goalie Allen York, who was 5-10 with a 3.02 goals-against average, a .901 save percentage and one shutout. "It'll be good to get some goals."