Engineers Looking to Catch Fire With 'Red Out'
by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer
It's not a new look for the RPI Engineers, but definitely one they haven't seen in Troy in quite some time.
Sure, they started the season at a rather mediocre 10-10-1 overall, and 3-4-2 in what's proving to be a deep ECAC. Coming into the season, they were expected to finish anywhere from 8th to 10th, depending on which poll you put more stock in, and while they were on pace to do slightly better than that, no one could have predicted what turning the page on a new calendar would have done for the Engineers.
Since 2010 began, the Engineers are 6-3-2. Their goal scoring is up, and their goals against is down. They have two players in the top-10 nationally in scoring — including the top point-getter across the NCAA. They've won all-important games at Quinnipiac, Princeton, and swept the season series with Yale. And, most importantly, the Engineers have risen to fourth in the league, their highest position since finishing there in 2003-04.
But don't say they're on fire. At least not yet, anyways.
"I wouldn't classify us as on fire, I'd say we're better," RPI coach Seth Appert says. "I believed we were going to be good. [In December] we beat BU, beat Michigan; we're playing pretty good. We're capable of going on a run. The older guys on this team hadn't had a chance to win."
There are numerous reasons for the recent turnaround. Appert cites a consistent power play, and a penalty kill that's coming into it's own.
"The power play has been good all season, but the penalty kill is much better," he says. "It took a while for everyone to get on the same page and getting everyone to buy in. There was a drastic change — they're more aggressive. It took time, but we stayed the course. The goals-per-game being down is better due to the PK."
While they're letting up just 2.27 goals against since January began, there's been an uptick in scoring as well. That stems from a youth infusion on a roster that is over half freshmen and sophomores, including first-year players Brandon Pirri, a 2009 Chicago Blackhawks draft pick currently tied for eighth in national scoring (9-30-39), and Jerry D'Amigo, a point-per-game man (9-19-28), drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs. They're aiding the campaign from junior Chase Polacek — the nation's top point-getter (23-23—46) — and senior Paul Kerins.
"[Having the young guys] has helped at lot," Polacek says. "We were expected to be just one line, but now we have a second and a third line. They give us scoring punch, and give other teams a hard time and we can do a little damage. When they go after one, the other line dominates."
And the coach agrees.
"D'Amigo and Pirri are deserving of all the accolades," he says. "The team is driven by Polacek and Kerins. Chase is a legitimate Hobey Baker candidate, without question. He's made the next step in his evolution as a player. He made that step to a real, real hard player to play against. He attacks the goal, he's aggresive. You can score 10-15 goals from the perimeter as a skill player, but to score 20-25 goals, you need to get to the front of the net."
And that's just how they've been attacking their goals: aggressive and physically. And the only ones not surprised by their recent success is the Engineers themselves. They'll get a chance to show the rest of the ECAC over the next two weekends, with mettle-testing rematches with Quinnipiac, Princeton and Cornell, which could vault them as high as first in the league, but could also see them drop all the way to 10th. In their favor is the Princeton matchup on Saturday, which will showcase the annual Big Red Freakout, in which RPI goes all red — jerseys, helmets, socks, fans and more. First, though, they must get through Friday, and without sophomore goalie Allen York, who's played almost 85 percent of the team's minutes this season, lost to an ankle injury for at least the weekend.
"It's good and bad," Appert says. "I love the tradition [of the Freakout], but you worry, as a coach, that there's too much emphasis on one game. First, we have to win on Friday. In the last few seasons, our record pre-Freakout has been poor. We want them not-so-amped-up and playing hyper-tense hockey. We have to use it to our advantage and turn it into a huge home-ice advantage."
Don't think his player's don't know the score, either. A top-four finish in league play garners the team a first-round bye, and home ice in the second round of the playoffs.
"While the Freakout is a big deal, you cant let the emotions be any different," Polacek says. "We're going into it knowing that we have a task at hand, and it's to get two points."
While it's clear they get the big picture, the even bigger one isn't lost on anyone either.
"We've paid attention to [the standings], sure," Appert says. "This is the first time in years that we've had an opportunity to play meaningful games in February."
"We're expected to finish eighth and even beyond," Polacek says. "That's what we've shown people over the last two, three, four seasons, and it's people have come to expect a similar finish. We've been working on the little things, working on being the best at our game. Being more aggressive and assertive. We're not a powerhouse, but we're doing what we wanted to do, what we wanted to accomplish, and what we're about."
The next few weekends will sharpen and solidify that definition, and could put Polacek, Appert, and the rest of the Engineers in position to finally be 'on fire,' and maybe even some national attention.