by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
It's been 15 years since Rensselaer last won an ECAC tournament championship — Dan Fridgen's first season as head coach. It's also the last time it made the NCAAs.
And it's been 25 years since RPI won a national championship.
In the mean time, it's been four years since fresh-faced Seth Appert left his post as assistant coach at Denver, where he helped the Pioneers win two national titles of their own, to take over the Engineers. He did so among questions about whether RPI, a scholarship hockey school but within a small Division III institution, was even capable of getting close to such lofty heights again.
Those questions have not been answered, but well into his fourth season, Appert has shown that RPI can at least put an entertaining and competitive product on the ice, and contend in the ECAC. Those are pretty good steps in and of themselves, because as of late last year, that was still a question.
RPI had shown little progress in the wins and losses department by the middle of last season, with seasons of 10 and 11 wins in Appert's first two years, followed by just seven wins headed into last year's postseason. Fridgen's teams were never that bad. They had regularly won 20 games, as maddening as some of those seasons had been, before tailing off dramatically in his last two years at the helm.
Then, it clicked.
Allen York, a freshman goalie from Wetaskiwin, Alberta, with only two wins in the regular season, played great in winning two straight at Dartmouth to take the first-round ECAC playoff series. York followed that up with a brilliant 32-save performance in a 1-0 win at dreaded Lynah Rink in Game 1 of the quarterfinal series. RPI went on to lose the next two games, but a turning point had been established.
This year, you could tell the difference early. A win at New Hampshire, a tie at Alaska — both NCAA-bound teams if the season ended today. Then, three straight league wins to open the season, followed by a win at Boston University, and then against Michigan at Joe Louis Arena in the Great Lakes Invitiational.
The ECAC season has had its ups and downs for sure for RPI. The team still finished sixth, after all. But progress has been established.
"We had a good run in the second half," Appert said. "I think we dropped some games that we should've won, but this kind of consistency and effort over six periods, on the road against some pretty good teams, I think is an indication we're ready for some playoff hockey."
Of course, it's been a combination of things. Appert tore down the roster, and re-built it again with his players. That took time to re-establish. He found his goalie in York, and he found his role players. And then he found his studs.
One of them is junior Chase Polacek, an Edina, Minn., native who has flourished this season after scoring 11 goals last year. Polacek has 25 goals, 50 points, and has shown no signs of slowing down; he is among the national leaders in all categories and a legitimate Hobey finalist contender.
Polacek's surge coincided with the arrival of Jerry D'Amigo, the most exciting recruit RPI landed in years. D'Amigo, a native of nearby Binghamton, N.Y., was a U.S. National Team product. He scored in his first game against Massachusetts, and fit in immediately. His first year has been up-and-down goal-scoring wise, but he has 10 goals and 32 points, and is already a key member of the penalty kill unit.
D'Amigo also gained invaluable experience — as well as rave reviews — during his time with the U.S. World Junior team, which won a gold medal in Regina, Saskatchewan in January, defeating Canada in the gold-medal game. D'Amigo was a key contributor on the team, and opened a lot of eyes.
"Playing for your country is just one of the best feelings in the World," said D'Amigo, the day before the U.S. Olympic team just missed matching the World Junior squad's feat. "Hopefully I can keep it going. That's one of my goals — making it to the NHL, and then hopefully one day the Olympics.
"It's great. I had fun with it. It's something some people don't get a lot of chance to do. And to do that at my age, feel the crowd, 15,000 against you — it's great. It makes you work harder."
When D'Amigo returned from the World Junior tournament, Appert decided to give him a little rest, similar to what the Buffalo Sabres did with Ryan Miller when he returned from the Olympics.
"It was a grueling two weeks. It's tough to come back and get back in the rhythm of things when you're mentally drained and physically also," D'Amigo said. "But I stuck with it, and coach gave me the right amount of time off to go back to my family — because I missed Christmas. He made the right decision to give me the time off, and I think it helped in the long run here."
Interestingly, it's harder for D'Amigo to be the stud scorer right now, than it was for Team USA, even though the skill level in that tournament is higher overall.
"You've got tougher guys in college hockey. They definitely have their eye out for me now," he said. "They saw when I can do. It's tough in the games, but I just have to keep battling through it, and it will make me stronger hopefully."
Said Appert, "That's a higher level of talent, but he's playing against 23-, 24-year old men back here. I think some people forget. And people underestimate the mental and physical grind. So we intentionally gave him a lot of time off after. But he's a great player. I have a tough time imagining a more complete freshman."
It doesn't end there, because fellow freshmen Brandon Pirri and Marty O'Grady have 10 and nine goals, respectively, as well.
But the most glaring difference between RPI of past years and now, is the intensity and discipline the team brings to each game. There have been ups and downs to be sure, but the difference is noticeable, as it was in last Saturday's regular-season finale, when RPI tied Cornell 1-1 at Lynah Rink.
"That's what we're striving for," Appert said. "It hasn't always been there for 60 minutes this year. But I think that's why you've seen us have little bumps up and down. But think some of that is due to maturity, and we've gained a lot of it. I think we're ready to take that next step. The upperclassmen I think have learned now what it takes to win, and the freshmen have already played in a lot of big moments."
In the game, RPI wound up needing a win to come in fifth instead of sixth. And even though the difference is not really a big deal, mentally, Appert thought it was something to go after.
"That's just the mentality I wanted to instill in the guys, that we wanted to win," Appert said. "I wanted them to play to win. It wasn't about the seedings or who we were going to play, it was about the mentality of wanting to attack.
"I thought about it ... and then when I really decided was going to overtime, I just really liked the way our guys were playing, and I decided we were going to go out and take a swing and try to win this thing."
So, what will happen against Brown this weekend, and thereafter ... who's to say? But the long-range hopes emanating from Troy are higher than they've been in a long time.