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RPI Season Painful to Watch at Times

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, March 18, 2003

TROY - They fooled us.

With their season-opening, 5-1 victory at the University of Wisconsin, how they totally dominated one of the top programs in the nation for two periods, the 2002-03 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers had us believing that this rebuilding season wouldn't be so bad after all.

Sure, Wisconsin was one of the least experienced teams in the nation that went on to lose 26 games. But 5-1!

They reinforced those optimistic hopes three weeks later when, one night after being shut out at St. Cloud State, the Engineers beat the Huskies on their own ice.

That left their record at 4-4-0 and seemed to alleviate some of the major concerns of a blowout loss to a mediocre UMass-Lowell team and a 4-3 loss to UMass in which RPI twice led.

The offense seemed to be scoring enough goals to be competitive, the defense, loaded with freshmen and sophomores, was doing just well enough.

Reserving the top three spots in the ECAC to Cornell, Harvard and Dartmouth, the Engineers seemed able to be a part of a wide-open race for fourth place, and the final first-round bye in the ECAC playoffs.

It never happened. Nothing could have been further from the truth. That victory at St. Cloud - on Nov. 2 - was the last win away from home until the postseason.

The offense began to have problems. The young defense began making more mistakes than early in the season.

Goaltenders Nathan Marsters and Kevin Kurk, who had taken the No. 1 role away from Marsters, both slipped badly. Each gave up too many bad rebounds, too many long-range goals. Each began to lack confidence in himself and the young defense. Each fought the puck.

Communication breakdowns in the defensive zone became as common as the frequent mistakes of judgment.

The offense, after the first eight games, lacked cohesiveness and head coach Dan Fridgen was forced to juggle forward lines even more than he likes to do.

The losses added up and RPI quickly became a much worse team than it actually was. The Engineers won their final game of the regular season over Vermont but it was just their fourth conference win in 22 games (4-15-2). They finished 11th and had an 0-2-1 record against 12th-place Princeton (3-26-1 overall).

Had the ECAC not moved from a 10-team playoff format to including all 12 teams this season, the Engineers would have missed the postseason altogether.

"Yeah, at times we had troubles with every facet of the game," Fridgen said. "The guys battled and fought back, but it was a long ordeal."

The Engineers fooled many in the postseason, too. After a 2-9 regular-season record in one-goal games, they posted a pair of hard-fought close victories (2-1, 3-2) at Union in the opening round of the playoffs.

They nearly beat top-seeded Cornell in Game 1 of the quarterfinals in a 3-2 loss and the series was in no way the total blowout many predicted.

After the finale, Fridgen said, "I was hoping we'd get to this point a little sooner than we did, as far as everybody pitching in and knowing what it takes to win game in and game out."

"A lot of guys had difficulty with the (learning) process, for a variety of reasons," he continued. "Then, at times, doubts set in and you have problems with confidence."

Still, Fridgen never felt like he had a poor team.

"I never thought that it was (a second-division team)," he said. "And not once was I frustrated to the point where it wasn't fun to come to work in the morning."

Bright spots on the season? Many, including:

  • Freshman right winger Kevin Croxton, who scored 15 goals and led the team in scoring, delighted the Houston Field House faithful with his long arms and stick-handling around the net.
  • Junior right winger Ben Barr, moved to center almost fulltime, piloted the 'A' line most of the year and stepped up his scoring with 11 goals and 13 assists, second on the team in scoring with his 23-point total. He had three goals in the playoffs, including a pair of shorthanded tallies that won Game 2 at Union.
  • Freshman defenseman Brad Farynuk, who despite long slumps at both ends of the ice, showed unquestionably that he'll be a top man in the defensive zone and can handle the point on the power play.
  • In addition to Farynuk, freshmen defensemen Keith MCWilliams, Scott Romfo, Alexander Valentin - while each made his share of mistakes - came on late in the season to the tune that defense shouldn't be the weakness it was at times this year. Romfo even filled in at left wing and Fridgen can use that option next year perhaps, if he plays left winger at Ryan Shields on the right fulltime.
  • Marsters regained his previous form and was brilliant in the playoffs.
  • Defenseman Scott Basiuk gave the team added blue line scoring and helped captain Danny Eberly in the leadership department when an injury sidelined Eberly for eight games.
  • Sophomore Nick Economakos, with perhaps the quickest release on the team, developed into a good scorer (8-10-18), worked well with Barr and showed promise of some bigger numbers next year.

"The emergence and maturity Ben Barr and Nick Economakos showed as the season progressed was tremendous," Fridgen said. "It was line where that you could depend on in any situation."

Next season should almost certainly be better.

Fridgen said the team will need more scoring - "what team doesn't," he said - and that he's confident they'll have it.

Right winger Kevin Broad and center Oren Eizerman figure to step in and contribute right away.

Other than that, Fridgen said, "the experience we gained from (the playoffs) will be valuable for next season."

Barr says beating Union and playing tough "against the No. 2 team in the nation in one of the toughest barns to play in will definitely help us for next season. I'm excited."