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Union Assumes Role of Favorite

Tenth-place Engineers Clear Underdog Tonight at Achilles Rink

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, January 16, 2002

TROY - It's a rare occurrence.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute an underdog entering a game with rival Union. Make that a clear underdog.

That's the case tonight when the two teams collide at Achilles Rink.

The Engineers (2-5-2 in ECAC play, 7-8-2 overall) are winless in their past four games, and if they lose tonight, they will have the ECAC's worst record.

And Rensselaer has won only one of its last five games with the Dutchmen after going 10-2-2 in the previous 14.

Since the Dutchmen and Engineer played a 1-1 tie at Houston Field House on Dec. 1, the Engineers have gone 3-4-1 overall, 1-4-1 in league play. They lost to Princeton and St. Lawrence and tied Brown.

Union, meanwhile, beat all three of those teams and is 4-3-0 since the tie at RPI.

The Dutchmen are 3-5-1 within the ECAC, 7-7-3 overall and poised to move up in the standings.

Since Union elevated to Division I and joined the ECAC in 1991-1992, the Dutchmen had never been ahead of RPI in the conference standings this late in the season.

Following their 5-2 loss to last-place St. Lawrence, during which the Engineers counteracted their own efforts with foolish penalties and mental breakdowns, RPI coach Dan Fridgen told his team that the adversity that's gripping them, the frustration that's engulfing them, is to "do it yourselves, each and every one of you."

The eighth-year coach challenged his team. Not directly, but certainly between the lines.

"It's gut-check time, character time," he said.

Captain Steve Munn admits the Engineers - collectively and individually - have had their confidence shaken in recent weekends.

"We're rebuilding it," Munn said Tuesday. "We're going to focus on helping each other out, encouraging each other. We know as upperclassmen, we let the team down (last weekend), myself included. And we're going to make up for it and re-establish ourselves as leaders on this team.

"I still think we're a very good hockey team," Munn added. "I know we haven't played our best hockey yet, but we're not about to quit, give up and say we're a mediocre team. I'm not going to accept that and I don't think anybody else in that (locker) room is going to accept it either."

"I've got all the confidence in the world in this team," Fridgen said. "I like this team. Hey, we've just got to continue to work hard, work for those bounces and compete real hard.

"Sooner or late," Fridgen believes, "that bubble's going to burst. It's not all lost yet, we're not even to the halfway point in the league season yet."

Back to confidence.

"I've found confidence to be a personal thing," Fridgen said, "and sometimes you have to be mentally tough about it."

The Engineers must show whatever mental toughness they have - now.

The Dutchmen have been doing it with an efficient offense, a tight-checking style and Brandon Snee's sharp goaltending.

Left winger Jeff Hutchins (five goals, five assists, 10 points) and right winger Doug Christiansen (5-2-7) are the leading goal scorers for the Dutchmen, and just two other players - junior right winger Jason Kean (4-5-9) and left winger Jeff Wilson (4-3-7) - have more than three.

The Engineers have actually increased the scoring chances they've created since early in the season while they've struggled to find the net.

Junior center Nolan Graham has five goals, but none in the last eight games. He missed on two golden chances at St. Lawrence.

"It would be more frustrating if we weren't getting the chances, not getting shots," Graham said. "We had chances all last weekend, we just didn't bury them."

Fridgen agrees the Dutchmen are the favorites.

"They've got the better record, they're at home, they had success against some teams we didn't have..."