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Plenty to Play For

All Four Tourney Teams Look to Not Only Win, But Also Improve

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, December 27, 2002

When the Princeton Tigers left the ice with a 4-3 victory over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Nov. 16, an observer remarked, "Princeton may not win again until they come to RPI."

It's unclear whether the observer meant the Tigers' Feb. 14 ECAC rematch with RPI, or this weekend's RPI Holiday Tournament. And while the statement certainly was insulting to the Tigers, they come into the four-team event with just that one win.

The 1-13-0 Tigers, Wayne State (Mich.) and Merrimack join the Engineers at Houston Field House Saturday and Sunday for the 52nd Annual Rensselaer Holiday Tournament.

It's the oldest holiday event in college hockey.

Princeton and Wayne State kick off Saturday's 4 p.m. twin bill, then the Engineers and Merrimack face off at 7.

The championship game is slated for 7 p.m. Sunday following the 4 p.m. consolation game.

The tournament can't claim its field is glamorous; none of the teams has a winning record.

At 5-6-3, Merrimack has the best record among the field. And the Warriors, of the tough Hockey East, have a rugged schedule.

The Engineers are 7-9-1, Wayne State is 5-10-0 and in last place in College Hockey America.

Rensselaer coach Dan Fridgen says the Engineers will use the tournament "as a springboard into the second two-thirds of the (ECAC) season."

The Engineers will have four more games (two with Minnesota-Duluth on Jan. 3-4) before returning to conference action.

"We're still developing as a team and these games are nearly as important as they'd be if they were league games," Fridgen said. "We're looking to these (four) games as fine-tuning for when we get back into league play."

Princeton has lost several games by one goal since the win over RPI, including a heart-breaker (4-3) in overtime to UMass in its last outing.

Prior to that, though, the Tigers were outscored in their four most recent ECAC losses, 24-7.

"We did some good things in that (RPI) game," Princeton coach Les Quesnelle said.

The Tigers have been scoring more goals in recent games but are allowing nearly five goals per game (4.8) and have permitted six or more four times.

Wayne State has several quality wins among its record, including a 5-4 eye-popper at nationally-ranked Ferris State.

But the Warriors were blown out 8-3 by Vermont and lost a pair to Alaska-Fairbanks.

Since opening the season with a pair of victories over the ECAC's St. Lawrence, the Warriors have dropped 10 of 13, including their last four.

They nearly ended the slide in their last outing, through, dropping a 3-2 toughie to Notre Dame.

Senior left winger Dustin Kingston leads the Wayne State attack with four goals and eight assists for 12 points.

Not much was expected from Merrimack in Hockey East circles this season but a number of freshmen, including leading scorer Brent Gough (4-5-9) have developed early.

And senior goalie Joe Exter is having a solid season, allowing just 2.85 goals per game and stopping 91.7 percent of the shots he's faced.

Exter, whom Merrimack coach Chris Serino says is "everything a Merrimack player should be on and off the ice," has allowed just one goal in his last two wins over Providence and Northeastern.

He was thus named Defensive Player of the Week by US College Hockey Online.

"Joe is the backbone of our team," Serino says of Exter. "He's our leader and the team will follow him. That's why (as captain) he wears the 'C'."

Merrimack can claim a pair of decisions over Providence, and a 5-3 triumph over Boston University, among its quality victories.

Rensselaer will be seeking its second straight Holiday Tournament title and 17th overall.

This year, though - if one excludes teams from the weaker Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference - the Engineers have yet to win two straight games.

Rensselaer goalie Kevin Kurk, who was the Holiday Tournament's MVP last year, is also having a strong year. He has a pair of shutouts, a 2.50 goals against average and a 90.9 saves percentage.

NOTES: Some RPI players had flights delayed or canceled on Wednesday night and Thursday. ... RPI's 5-4 victory over Quinnipiac in the first round last year was the longest game (90 minutes, 50 seconds) in the 50-year history of the tournament. ... RPI freshman winger Greg Kemp, who had had minimal playing time and was scoreless, has left the team and returned to junior hockey. ... Ryan Shields scored the tying and game-winning goals in the title-game, overtime win over UMass. He, Kurk, and defenseman Danny Eberly made the All-Tournament team. ... Fridgen has three Holiday Tournament titles in his eight years and three title-game losses. His overall tourney record is 10-6. ... Rensselaer freshman right winger Kevin Croxton has 13 points (6-7-13) in his last nine games.