Dec. 2, 2010

By Jen Gunnels

NCAA

The Engineers of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) made their season debut this week in the USA TODAY/USA Hockey men’s poll, premiering in the No. 15 spot and defying preseason critics. The Engineers are hitting the road this weekend for a pair of ECAC contests, matching wits with No. 2 Yale on Friday and Brown on Saturday.

When RPI lost forwards Jerry D’Amigo and Brandon Pirri to the NHL in August, many wondered how the Engineers would fare without them. Despite a 2010-11 lineup that includes eight seniors and six juniors, D’Amigo and Pirri tallied a combined 77 points last season. But this year’s squad has assembled a 7-3-3 record so far this season, made more impressive by the fact that each loss has been by a margin of just one goal.

“I like how physical we’ve been,” reflected RPI head coach Seth Appert, currently in his fifth season behind the Engineer bench. “We’ve given ourselves a chance to win every night.”

Offensively the team is led by last year’s ECAC Hockey Player of the Year, senior forward Chase Polacek, who has accumulated seven goals and 16 points on the season. But RPI is perhaps better known for its defense, featuring junior Allen York between the pipes, who currently ranks seventh in the nation in goals against average at 1.80. Sophomore defenseman Nick Bailen is third in the nation for points per game among defensemen with 1.15.

This weekend’s opponents are no strangers to the Engineers, who are familiar with the challenges they will face in New Haven and Providence this weekend. RPI swept Yale in the two meetings between the teams last season, including a 4-0 shutout at Yale on Jan. 30, but the No. 2 Bulldogs are currently sitting at the highest national ranking in program history and averaging a nation-leading 5.22 goals per game.

“Yale is one of the best teams in the country, if not the best, so it’s going to be really important that we’re physical, that we take care of the puck, and that we backcheck really hard,” Appert said. “They’re a strong offensive team, and if you’re not careful, Yale will score four of five goals on you in a hurry.”

Meanwhile, the Brown Bears are on a bit of a streak, unbeaten in their last four games including overtime ties against nationally-ranked Boston University and New Hampshire. Despite a regular-season split with Brown last season, the Bears handed the Engineers a season-ending 2-1 series loss in the opening round of the ECAC Men’s Hockey Championship in March. Appert says the experience motivated returning players, especially a senior class that has experienced steady improvement with each new season. The team improved from a 10-27-2 record in 2008-09 to 18-17-4 in 2009-10. Appert says the squad is setting their sights even higher this year.

“We’ve been driven by what happened at the end of last season, but more than that it’s been a gradual building of this program over the past few years,” Appert said. “This senior class was recruited by us to change the face of this program. They’ve moved it forward and made great strides, but there’s a lot left that we want to accomplish and that’s really what is driving this group.”

Looking Ahead to Other Weekend Action

After facing RPI on Friday, Yale will take on No. 13 Union in a Sunday afternoon game. Union will face Brown in its Friday matchup. While conference-leading Dartmouth is inactive this weekend, Princeton will attempt to take over the top spot in league standings with home games against Clarkson and St. Lawrence. The Tigers have won five of their last six games but trail in the all-time series against both upcoming opponents, 26-70-5 and 18-59-9, respectively.

In WCHA action, No. 1 Minnesota-Duluth will say goodbye to the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (DECC), which has been its home for 45 seasons, when it hosts No. 10 Denver in a weekend series. The Denver Pioneers boast the nation’s current longest unbeaten streak, having won their last six consecutive games, and currently sit just two points behind Minnesota-Duluth at second place in league standings. The Bulldogs are a perfect 6-0-0 at home so far this season and will christen their new home ice at the AMSOIL Arena on Dec. 30. The No. 4 Mavericks of Nebraska-Omaha head to Bemidji State while the No. 7 North Dakota Fighting Sioux host St. Cloud State in other WCHA action.

Currently locked in a tie for first place in Hockey East standings, cross-town rivals No. 3 Boston University and No. 8 Boston College will meet for the first time this season when they face off in a home-and-home series this weekend. The teams are led by the top two active coaches in career victories—BC’s Jerry York has 859 wins and BU’s Jack Parker has 839. BU will host the Friday contest and BC will host on Saturday; BU leads the storied all-time series 125-108-17. Elsewhere in the Hockey East conference, No. 5 New Hampshire will travel to UMass-Lowell for a single game tonight before hosting Vermont on Sunday. New Hampshire senior forward Paul Thompson was recently named the Hockey East Athletic Republic Player of the Month for November on the merits of a 13-point month that included two game-winning goals. The Wildcats will look to extend a seven-game December winning streak, which spans back to 2007. No. 9 Maine will travel to Providence for a pair of conference contests.

The weekend will also pit the top two teams in the CCHA against one another for a weekend series. No. 6 Miami (Ohio), currently leading the conference by one point, will host No. 12 Notre Dame. Miami has won six consecutive games against Notre Dame and allowed the Irish just four goals during that stretch. Miami senior forward Carter Camper continues to lead the nation offensively with 32 points on the season, averaging two per game. The series will complete a long stretch of traveling for Notre Dame in which the Irish will have been on the road for nine of 11 games. Elsewhere in the CCHA, No. 11 will travel to Ohio State for a weekend series.

And in Atlantic Hockey action, Robert Morris will have a chance to reclaim the top spot in league standings this weekend as conference-leading Canisius is idle until Dec. 17. The Colonials will host Bentley for a two-game series and will lean on a strong defense that is allowing a league-low 2.50 goals per game.