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Engineers Cranked for Monster Cornell

By Matt Graves

Albany Times Union, March 10, 2003

SCHENECTADY - Usually when you win something, there's a reward that follows. But if a trip to Ithaca to face the second-ranked team in the country is RPI's reward for eliminating Union College, then maybe the Engineers would be happier with a consolation prize.

Not these Engineers. They left Achilles Rink Saturday night with a new-found confidence that has them believing they actually have a chance to upset Eastern Conference Athletic Conference champion Cornell in their best-of-three quarterfinal series at Lynah Rink this weekend.

"We've got a tough road ahead of us, but we're playing outstanding hockey right now," said RPI coach Dan Fridgen. "We're playing playoff hockey and we're up for the challenge. We're looking forward to it."

There is some precedent for Fridgen's optimism. Back in 1992, the Engineers came into the playoffs seeded 10th when only 10 of 12 teams made the playoffs. Despite a 6-12-4 record in the regular season, they knocked off top-seeded Harvard in the quarterfinals. That RPI team then lost in overtime to eventual champion St. Lawrence in the semis.

This RPI team (12-23-3) has floundered for much of the season, but has now won three consecutive games for the first time all year. They were winless on the road, including a 5-0 whipping at Cornell on Feb. 21, until the back-to-back victories at Union.

"It helps because I think the second-to-last weekend before the season closed we were just there," said Fridgen, whose club lost by only a goal (3-2) to Cornell in Troy. "Let's face it, they're a heck of a hockey team, and this is the kind of hockey we're gonna have to play if we're gonna give ourselves a chance."

Cornell was 13-0-0 at home and lost only two games all season in the ECAC (19-2-1), outscoring its opponents by a staggering 86-29 margin in the process. Cornell knocked the Engineers out of last year's ECAC semifinals at Lake Placid.

And unlike 1992 when the teams played single-elimination hockey in the playoffs, this is a best-of-three series, which would seem to play into Cornell's favor.

"We know what it's gonna take," said junior Ben Barr, whose two short-handed goals within 50 seconds gave RPI the 3-2 clincher over Union. "We're gonna have to play better than we've played all year."

RPI certainly can't afford to give Cornell as many man-advantage situations as they gave Union in their two games over the weekend (14) because Cornell has the best power play in the ECAC (24.1 percent).

"We're gonna have to play with a lot more discipline than I thought we played in this series," Fridgen said.

Cornell also has the top goaltender in the nation in David LeNeveu, who posted a 22-2-1 record and a miniscule 1.16 GAA that included seven shutouts.

Cornell's overall defense is first nationally, giving up only 1.34 goals per game and the Big Red is second in the NCAA in penalty-killing at 89.7 percent.

Statistically the series is a mismatch, but Fridgen is hoping that RPI is peaking at the right time.

"We've had some struggles along the way with the process," he said. "The time to come together is now, and that's what I think we've done."

Of RPI's school-record 23 losses, eight were by a single goal and 11 were on the road. The goaltending was at times erratic, but it has come around.

And despite a nine-game winless streak, RPI hung on.

"We never gave up all year," Barr said.