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January Skid Put RPI in Bad Position

By Ken Schott

Schenectady Daily Gazette, March 17, 2003

ITHACA - The Rensselaer hockey team watched Cornell conduct a little clinic on team hockey during their ECAC tournament quarterfinal-round series.

The Engineers saw what made the Big Red the conference regular-season champions and the second-ranked team in the country. Cornell works hard, plays unselfishly and keeps mistakes to a minimum.

That's what it will take next year for the Engineers to rebound from their difficult 2002-03 season. RPI's season came to an end Saturday when Cornell swept the series in two games.

The Engineers finished 12-25-3, which included a 4-15-3 ECAC record. Their 25 losses are the most in team history, breaking the record of 22 set in 1995-96. Their 11th-place finish was the lowest since the ECAC/Hockey East split in 1984.

"They stick to their game plan," RPI junior Ryan Shields said of Cornell. "They're a real disciplined hockey team. That's one thing we have to look for next year. We can't make those little mistakes that cost us."

The winning and unbeaten streaks were few and far between, but there were plenty of losing and winless skids.

The best streak RPI had came late in the season when it won three in a row. The Engineers won their regular-season finale against Vermont, then upset Union in two straight in the first round of the tournament.

The Engineers really struggled in the second half of the season. After beating Minnesota-Duluth, 5-2, on Jan. 3, the Engineers went on a nine-game winless streak (0-8-1).

A dramatic 4-3 overtime win on Big Red Freakout night Feb. 8 snapped the skid, but RPI then went 0-4-1 in its next five games.

RPI salvaged its season by playing well over its last five games. Even though the Engineers were swept by the Big Red, they weren't intimidated.

"One of the things I talked to them about is take this experience because this is the time of year where you can't afford to make mistakes against good teams," RPI coach Dan Fridgen said. "We were playing a good team this weekend. They'll capitalize on those opportunities. We've got to learn form it. We've got to take that to make us better next year."

Fridgen wishes the players would have learned that lesson sooner this season.

"We put ourselves into this hole through the regular season and got a low seed," Fridgen said. "Coming up against a team like [Cornell], you would much rather see then on a one-game basis in Albany than on a two-game basis in the quarterfinals."

A couple of bright spots this season were forwards Kevin Croxton and Ben Barr.

Croxton, a freshman, led the team in scoring with 15 goals and 15 assists. He became the first freshman to lead RPI in scoring since Joey Juneau in 1987-1988.

Barr, a junior who had just six goals and nine assists his first two seasons, collected 11 goals and 13 assists to finish second behind Croxton. Barr scored two short-handed goals on the same power play in last Saturday's 3-2 win over Union, which gave the Engineers the series sweep.

"I thought there were guys who stepped up to the plate, no question," Fridgen said.