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Study in Contrast

Union Has Superior Record, But RPI Has Experience, History on Its Side

By Ken Schott

Schenectady Daily Gazette, March 7, 2003

Even though it had a miserable regular season season that produced an 11th-place finish, Rensselaer will have one thing in its favor when it meets Union in their ECAC tournament first-round series - a history of postseason success.

RPI has plenty of players who have tasted victory in ECAC playoff battles.

Sixteen Engineers who played on last year's final five squad are on the roster this season. Seniors Carson Butterwick, Eric Cavosie, Danny Eberly and Nolan Graham were also on the 2000 team that reached the tournament final against St. Lawrence.

Union, on the other hand, has no such experience to call upon. The Dutchmen have qualified for the ECAC tournament five times in their 11 years as a Division I program and have yet to win a series. They last played in the tournament in 2001 and suffered playoff losses to RPI in 1994 and 1997.

The Dutchmen (10-10-2 ECAC, 14-16-4 overall) host the Engineers (4-15-3, 10-23-3) at Achilles Rink in the best-of-three series, starting tonight at 7. Game 2 will be Saturday at 7. If necessary, Game 3 will be Sunday at 7.

Union is hosting a playoff series at the Division I level for the first time after finishing sixth in the regular season.

Union coach Kevin Sneddon doesn't believe the playoff experience is a major factor, but he admits it is important.

"A lot of our team hasn't had the experience of playing in a playoff environment," Sneddon said. "At the same time, our players are confident right now. They know we're playing well, and they know what we need to do in order to give ourselves a chance to win. That's ultimately what it comes down to."

"The fact is that some of their guys, despite having somewhat of a difficult regular season, should have confidence in that they've been in that playoff situation before. It's a new season, and they know what they need to do in the postseason."

RPI has won three ECAC titles (1984, 1985 and 1995), and reached the final four/five 11 other times in 30 tournament appearances. The Engineers have also won two NCAA titles, but Graham believes the playoff experience will carry a team only so far.

"It counts a little bit," Graham said. "There's only four of us who have been there. In games like this, especially when you're playing travel partners, it comes down to who's playing well. One team catches a hot goalie, and one team catches a hot forward who has everything go in for him, it's little things like that in which all 20 guys on each team are going to have to pick it up."

RPI coach Dan Fridgen doesn't believe playoff experience will be enough for his team to eliminate the Dutchmen.

"You can throw it out the window," Fridgen said. "I happen to think that they're a more experienced team than we are right now. Look at the season. They've had a very good season."

The Dutchmen were picked to finish 10th in the coaches poll, and 12th in the media poll. RPI was picked seventh in the media poll and eighth in the coaches poll.

Union had an outstanding offensive season, scoring 102 goals. Four players have over 30 points. Four players have 10 or more goals.

The Dutchmen's top line of center Joel Beal, left wing Nathan Gillies and right wing Jordan Webb have combined for 42 goals and 66 assists.

"You have to try to keep them off the board," Graham said. "They're playing really well right now. They're probably one of the better lines in the league. You have to keep it simple against those guys. You can't make turnovers, which they're going to get and [skate] down the ice quickly. You have to get it deep and try to pin them in their own zone."

RPI's offense has struggled, scoring 87 goals. Freshman forward Kevin Croxton, with 14 goals, is the only player with over 10.

"If we worry about our defensive zone first, goals are going to come to us," Gillies said. "We can't give them goals like we have in this past year. If they earn their goals, then it's going to be a really good game and we shouldn't have a problem. But if we give them goals, it's going to be tougher on us."

Despite their struggles this year, the Engineers won the season series from the Dutchmen for the first time since 1999-00, when they went 2-1. RPI beat Union, 4-2, on Dec. 7 at Houston Field House, and the teams played to a 3-3 tie Jan. 10 at Achilles.

"I don't think they really have the psychological edge," said Gillies, who stirred things up before the second game when he guaranteed a Union win. "We're in our home barn right now. We know what we have to do to win. We're not scared of them. Even though they won the season series, it really doesn't play into our heads. We just know we have to come out victorious. Three games doesn't seem like an option to us right now."

Union has a fair home record, going 7-6-2. But the Dutchmen will be facing an RPI team that was 3-11-2 on the road, including 0-9-2 in ECAC play.

"If it does matter, I'm going to pretend like it doesn't," Butterwick said. "We've played some good games on the road. We're capable of playing well. We just weren't capable of putting any [ECAC road] wins together this season. Hopefully, we can change that around."

Both sides are looking forward to this series.

"I always want to play RPI," Union defensman Randy Dagenais said. "Why not let the rivalry grow even more. The games are always fun, the crowds are into it and they're always close games. They're the types of games that you remember after your career is over."