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RPI Has Had Its Share of Ups and Downs

By Ed Weaver

Troy Record, January 5, 2004

TROY - The midpoint of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute hockey season has come, meaning it's time to grade the Engineers on the first half of the campaign.

Even though they've lost four of their previous five games, the Engineers' 9-8-2 record is far better than their 8-11-1 mark at the midpoint of last season.

Their grades, done on a 4.0 system most colleges use - D-1, C-2, B-3, A-4 - may have slipped some during the slide but are still fairly good.

Here goes.

Offensive production: Plain old goal-scoring. It was a big worry in preseason and hasn't been great, but the Engineers are 5-2-1 when scoring three goals, which of course is a testament to the team's defense. But until a recent falloff - three goals in two games in the recent Rensselaer Holiday Tournament - RPI had scored four or more goals in seven of eight games. That was better than Engineers fans could have hoped for.

Kevin Croxton has not been bothered by a sophomore slump. Though his goals total (6) is down from last season, he's again leading the team in scoring (7-11-18).

Nick Economakos (5-8-13), Kirk MacDonald (8-5-13) and C.J. Hanafin (3-3-6 in 12 games) have stepped up their productivity. Ben Barr (4-7-11) has been as consistent as ever and Conrad Barnes - 0-2-2 in 27 games last season - is again contributing at 5-5-10.

Defensemen Scott Basiuk (5-8-13), Alexander Valentin (2-7-9), Brad Farynuk (3-5-8) and Matt McNeely (3-2-5) have helped out immensely - more so than anyone could have anticipated.

Freshmen have contributed. Oren Eizenman (2-4-6) has been a disappointment because he's capable of more. Tommy Green has six goals and two assists in 11 games and should get more ice time. Kevin Broad (1-1-2) shows some promise.

Last season, the Engineers scored 0 or 1 goal in six of their first 18 and averaged just 2.4 per game.

This year, they've been blanked once (at St. Lawrence) and scored one goal twice. They are averaging 3.0 per game - and that mark was 3.4 before the low output in the Rensselaer Tournament.

The increase in production has been significant. Grade - B.

Transition game: A major problem last season, and early in this campaign. The Engineers handed out odd-man breakouts to opponents like a big lottery winner hands out $20 bills. After the first few games, that bad habit subsided.

Rensselaer is a quicker team than one year ago, but still among the slower on its schedule. The Engineers are a much stronger team in the neutral zone, however, although their high volume of neutral-zone icing violations gets to be annoying. It cost them goals in losses to Providence and St. Lawrence.

The Engineers still have problems against a strong forecheck and sometimes have trouble skating out of their own zone. Their transition game has been better in previous years, though. Grade - B.

Forechecking: The Engineers don't have any big guns in this department. Barr, Barnes and Cody Wojdyla work their tails off, though, Croxton can fool opponents with his long reach and Economakos and Green can be effective, too.

The forecheck hasn't produced many goals but if the Engineers keep the effort as strong as it's been, that could change. Grade - B.

Faceoffs: Another major problem for most of last season, a more focused Barnes certainly has helped here. Green is also fairly good and C.J. Hanafin and Barr have improved. Having said all that, RPI loses too many faceoffs in its own zone with regularity and that needs to continue improving. Grade - C.

Defense and backchecking: Again, after the first three games and a dismal outing at SLU, the defense has been outstanding. After allowing 14 goals to Boston U., Providence and UConn, the team has permitted 2.5 goals per game. That's a winning number. Add in that they allowed five to Yale when the Engineers were ravaged by the flu and four to Princeton after they took a snooze with a big lead.

Most veteran defensemen have positive numbers in their plus-minus ratings. Glaring decision-making errors have produced a number of opposing goals but the Engineers defensemen have put forth quality efforts on a nightly basis.

The Engineers give up size to most teams on their slate but their backchecking has been solid. They protect their goaltenders by tying up opposing sticks and attempt to block shots consistently - though both were sorely lacking in the defeat to Yale.

After the dismal loss at St. Lawrence, the Engineers allowed a total of just five goals in their next four games (3-0-1).

Lapses have been notable but if the Engineers continue to play as effectively in their own end as they have, a winning season looms ahead. Grade - B+.

Power play: The man-advantage unit causes many a coach repeated aggravation. Rensselaer head coach Dan Fridgen has watched his power play production ride a roller-coaster all season.

The Engineers have succeeded 18.2 percent of the time (18-of-99) but that mark includes three 5-on-3 goals.

Fridgen's only complaint is that "we need to shoot the puck more often and be in position for rebounds."

Too often, RPI power play skaters look to pass without much thought of a shot.

With five PP goals, MacDonald has been most effective, with a nice wrist shot and Basiuk's slapshot from the point is big league. Croxton's long arms have been effective on the off wing and Economakos has a fine one-timer.

The power play has lacked one of the Engineers most skilled players, Eizenman, who needs to improve his play. It would be more dangerous with an effective Eizenman but, even though they're not a powerful offensive team, the Engineers have the ability to get the power play efficiency up around 20.5 or 21 percent. Grade - C+.

Penalty killing: The Engineers have shined brightly here. Fridgen has given most players a shot on the penalty kill as long as they exhibit a willingness for hard work.

An efficiency mark of 85.9 (73 of 85) isn't among the nation's leaders but it's better than average. The penalty killers went nearly four games without allowing one, totally shut down a solid St. Cloud State power play and have been the team's leading category this season. Grade - A.

Goaltending: Early on, it had RPI fans worried about another season with well over 20 losses. But then again, so did several other categories above.

Senior Nathan Marsters shook off a shaky start of his own and some awful defensive breakdowns to get his numbers down toward the 'very good' range. He sports a 2.75 goals against average and stops 89.6 percent of the shots he's faced.

He still allows far too many rebounds, permits soft goals here and there but he's also capable of carrying the Engineers.

In just two games, junior transfer (Fairfield) Andrew Martin has been more than solid. He came within a couple minutes of blanking UMass-Lowell on its own ice and held high-scoring Colgate to two goals, one of which wouldn't have occurred had an obvious icing infraction been called.

His GAA (1.52) and saves percentage (93.5) are outstanding, even though they're compiled in just 119 minutes.

Senior Kevin Kurk has inflated numbers (83.3, 4.35) in just 124 minutes. Grade - B.

Physical play: The Engineers lacked sorely in this column during the tournament but they've been quite effective most of the season. As mentioned, they're not a big team and don't have any obvious enforcer or enticer types. They're not intimidating but they can be effective. One thing is impressive; when the Engineers play the body consistently, they've done so without streaming to the penalty box.

Some RPI teams in recent seasons could not make the same claim.

The Engineers were quite effective playing the body in the tie with Dartmouth and in narrow victories over Vermont, St. Cloud State (the first meeting) and UMass-Lowell, as well as the narrow loss to New Hampshire. Grade - C+.

Motivation and intensity: Many players, and Fridgen as well, have said they want to keep things at an even keel; not get too far up, or too far down.

It's impossible for teams to maintain a high intensity level in this day and age, but the Engineers have done well with three obvious exceptions.

Their intensity against UConn, SLU and Colgate.

And there's one stat of note. After being outscored widely during the first periods of last season's games, the Engineers have jumped on foes 15-10 this year. Grade - B.

Overall grade: 29.5, or just under a B, which is better than last year's midseason C+ (25.0) or end of season D+.