Questions, Intrigue at Denver, RPI
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Thanks to a fortuitous scheduling arrangement, former Denver assistant coach Seth Appert will return to his old stomping grounds this weekend with his new team, Rensselaer. Of course, these things are scheduled years in advance, but it is some good fortune if you're a writer looking for storylines.
But this is getting to be old hat for Denver coach George Gwozdecky. In the first two weeks of the season, he first faced another protege, Miami's Enrico Blasi, and last weekend he played another one-time assistant in St. Cloud State's Bob Motzko.
"I'm sick of them beating us," said Gwozdecky.
"I'm very proud of those guys. They're all really good coaches."
Appert is excited to be going back, but is also trying to concentrate on his team.
"It's a great opportunity for us as a program to get another gauge against a top 10 program in the nation," Appert said.
Both Denver and Rensselaer will come into the weekend with questions to answer, as most teams do at this point in the year.
Gwozdecky has been experimenting with his goaltending situation. After using a near-strict rotation of Glenn Fisher and Peter Mannino the last two years, he has opened it up this season, and is trying to give one of them an opportunity to win the job outright. Fisher appeared headed in that direction, until Saturday's loss to St. Cloud State, in which he was pulled after giving up four goals on 11 shots.
"One of the things I'm trying to establish is, what's the best situation for our team this year," Gwozdecky said. "Whether it's one guy, or whether it's platooning, whatever system that is.
"Fisher and Mannino, I believe, is the best 1-2 combo in the country. However, perhaps there might have been times last year, like our team, where our goaltending rotation became a little — I don't know if the word is too comfortable — but we didn't have depth so everyone knew they'd be in the lineup. We lost our edge as a team, and every position, including golatending, perhaps didn't have that edge."
So the question remains unanswered, but for now Gwozdecky will go with the hot hand, hoping there's at least always one.
But there are other questions. For one, the Pioneers just lost assistant captain J.D. Corbin for most of the season with a broken ankle and torn ligaments. And while some of the high-profile freshmen have fit in nicely so far, Denver is still waiting for the kind of production out of massive junior Geoff Paukovich that it got out of him his freshman year.
That season, Paukovich, a 2004 second-round NHL pick of Edmonton, had 12 goals, but his season ended when he checked North Dakota defenseman Robbie Bina from behind, breaking his neck. Paukovich was a pariah in visiting arenas, and while he won't attribute last season's slump (4 goals) to that, it did have some effect.
This year, Paukovich is pointless out of the gate, in four games, but Gwozdecky is not concerned. He said last Saturday's effort against the Huskies was Paukovich's best game he's played in a long while.
"He needs to be a physical presence on the ice and he was," Gwozdecky said. "He did a great job killing penalties. His offensive contributions aren't there yet, but that's only a part of his game. He brings to us so many other things — he won a lot of faceoffs, his leadership on the bench.
"Last year he put an awful lot of pressure on himself. He had really high expectations based on his freshman year. But the reason he had a great freshman year is because he didn't put expectations on himself. He played hard and tried to contribute any way he could.
"As a result [of the pressure sophomores put on themselves], it becomes a struggle for them because the attitude completely changes. So the challenge is to get back to the same mentality."
The question at RPI have more to do with how Appert will be as a coach. Some of that has already been answered, as he has unveiled a more offensive-oriented system than was previously at RPI.
Interesting that a former goaltender is choosing an offensive system, but anyone who saw the swashbuckling Appert play goal may understand; he was known to wander, which didn't always help his goaltending, but was indicative of his personality.
"He was a forward in goaltender's clothing," Gwozdecky said. "We teased him here; in pick-up games he would brag about his offensive skills. But he's always had that very aggressive mentality."
But that doesn't mean Appert's system is reckless. RPI was more defensive-minded, but former coach Dan Fridgen also employed, now and then, a player who would randomly dart up the ice for home run passes. When players like Matt Murley and Marc Cavosie were around, this sometimes worked. As the recruiting pool dried up for Fridgen, it didn't.
"We want to be what we want to be," Appert said. "We don't want to be a team that changes for the opponent. But we also want to be a tough, smart road team to play against. We don't want to play into an opponent's hands and get their crowd excited."
It's certainly been crowd-pleasing. The Houston Fieldhouse at RPI has been a place of ever-increasing apathy over the last decade, but last weekend in the opener against Boston University, it was sold out over 5,000 strong, and juiced up. RPI got out to an explosive start, but then BU rallied and it ended in a 4-4 tie.
"It was electric in there," Appert said. "It was a lot of fun. It was a fun game. It's what college hockey is all about. Students, bands, and both teams playing an aggressive style of hockey. It was physical with lots of scoring chances."
The game also marked the trimphant return of senior captain Kirk MacDonald. After missing all of last season recovering from testicular cancer, he had two assists in the game.
And if Appert was going to be intimidated as a rookie coach going against his mentor this weekend, that probably was out of his system already last week, when he started his career facing BU legend Jack Parker. In fact, there has been rumblings on the ever-entertaining on-line message boards this week about Appert refusing to trade tapes of the teams' exhibition games with each other. Speculation was that Appert was having a little gamesmanship with Parker, which would be ballsy move considering Parker has been head coach at BU as long as Appert has been alive.
"By the time coach Parker and I talked, it was already Tuesday afternoon," Appert said. "By the time we exchanged tapes, we wouldn't have had them until Friday.
"He didn't request it. He asked if we wanted to. If he wanted us to send it, we would've had it out the next day."
There will be little mystery this weekend, at least not for Appert. He probably doesn't need game film to know about the Pioneers.
"I have a good sense of their program and what they're about, but they have a young team so things will probably be different," Appert said. "Some things have changed, and some stayed the same."
And Gwozdecky is pretty sure what he'll see from Appert.
"I know Seth gets his teams very prepared," Gwozdecky said. "Not only emotionally, but X's and O's. He's a very strong strategist."