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Secret Weapon

Unheralded Defensive Unit Key to RPI's Turnaround This Season

By Ken Schott

Schenectady Daily Gazette, January 9, 2004

TROY - Unless you're a diehard fan of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute men's hockey team, chances are that most of the names of the players who make up its defensive unit are unrecognizable.

"They should know them," RPI senior goalie Nathan Marsters said. "These guys have been playing very well this year. They're a big reason why we're winning most of our games. They've given us a chance to win in almost every game we've played this year. We owe much of our success to them."

Led by senior cocaptain Scott Basiuk, the Engineers' defense has been much improved over last season. They will look to continue their fine play when they face Capital Region rival Union College in a home-and-home series this weekend.

RPI (4-3-1 ECAC, 9-8-2 overall) hosts the first game tonight at 7 at Houston Field House. Union (2-5-1, 7-9-3) will host Saturday's 7 p.m. game at Frank L. Messa Rink at Achilles Center.

Basiuk, who is tied for second on the team in scoring with four goals and nine assists, believes his defensive teammates are just a blue-collar bunch that doesn't mind being out of the spotlight.

"It's got a lot of guys who do their jobs really well," Basiuk said. "They don't get a lot of credit for it. The guys who get most of the [fame] are the guys who score the goals and get the points. We have a lot of guys that play really well defensively. Matt McNeely plays on the power play, but he plays really well defensively. So does Blake [Pickett]."

"We've got guys that surprise other teams. Nobody can key one or two guys. Brad [Farynuk] and I have some points, but it's not that much compared to other teams. Other teams, you can see who their D-men are and their big guns. We don't have any of those."

It's the first meeting between the teams since their ECAC tournament first-round series last March. RPI, which won just 10 games during the regular season, spoiled Union's first home-ice advantage in the postseason at the Division I level by sweeping the series in two games.

The biggest reason the Engineers struggled last season was an inexperienced defense.

Of the nine defensemen, five were freshmen and two were sophomores. It took time for the freshmen, like Farynuk, Scott Romfo and Alexander Valentin, to adjust from junior hockey to the college game.

The inexperience showed. The Engineers allowed an average of 30.4 shots per game last season, and surrendered 3.35 goals per game.

"What they learned was that if you take good care of your own end, you're going to give yourself an opportunity to be successful, game in and game out," RPI coach Dan Fridgen said. "They also learned that there's a very fine line between winning and losing. That might be a blocked shot, failure to clear the zone, failure to clear the front of the net. When you know how fine that line is, everything you do is important from that first pass, to the angling, to the defensive position and blocking those shots."

The lesson has certainly been learned.

"Definitely, last year was a big learning experience for our freshman class," Farynuk said. "It's been a steppingstone. As long as you keep moving forward, it's pretty hard to get any worse. We tweaked our systems a little bit. The guys are buying into it better this year."

Through 19 games, RPI has cut down on the goals and shots allowed. The Engineers are giving up 2.68 goals and 25.6 shots per game.

"We were really young last year," Fridgen said. "These guys have really evolved, as far as the valuable experience that they gained last year with some of the injuries we had. They're doing a great job for us this year. You don't have one that's going to stand out above the others."

"It's just like anything else. When you have a group that quietly goes about their work and knows what they need to do, sometimes it's easy for them to fly underneath the radar."

Union coach Nate Leaman has noticed the difference.

"They're playing a much different system than they've played in the past," Leaman said. "They're making sure that they have men back all the time. They're making sure that they're solid defensively before they go on offense. Obviously, it's paying off for them sometimes."

Fridgen sees not only a confident defensive unit, but a consistent one.

"That's what you have when you have youth - you have some nights that they're on, and some nights that they're off," Fridgen said. "They're playing with more of an attitude this year. They're denying the offensive players the real estate they're trying to earn."

Union slumping

The Dutchmen will try to snap an eight-game winless skid (0-7-1). They have lost their last seven games.

"Anytime you lose, your confidence is going to be shaken," Leaman said. "We just have to concentrate on doing our job right now. When you lose confidence, you start to run around and do other people's jobs, and that's kind of what we were doing a little bit. We have to get back to doing our job and playing hard."

"But I've been happy. The guys have played four games in a row hard."