Engineering a Fix
RPI Looks For Answers After Staggering Out of Gate
by Joshua Seguin/Staff Writer
For long stretches last season, Rensselaer was near the top of the ECAC standings. Many thought its progression upwards would continue into this year and that the offensive pieces it had would continue to develop.
Early in the year, that concept has taken a serious hit, and the trend turned in the other direction. The Engineers are off to one of the worst starts in program history. At 3-12-1 overall and 1-5-0 in the ECAC, the season is teetering on an unexpected disaster.
But there is time left to save it.
"Confidence plays into it (struggles) but you also earn your confidence," RPI coach Seth Appert said. "We haven't on a consistent basis wanted to play with enough tenacity and grit and toughness to be successful night in, night out. Then you lose some games because of that and you aren't a very confident team."
The Engineers haven't finished with single digit wins in three and a half decades, with a low mark of nine in 1981-82 when they went 9-18-2. RPI's worst overall mark in the ECAC era was a 3-19-0 record in 1965-66. It probably won't finish with a worse winning percentage than that but nearly halfway through the season, single-digit wins suddenly seems possible.
Last week may have been rock bottom. After losing, 5-0, to New Hampshire on Tuesday, the Engineers went out to Arizona and dropped a 5-3 decision to struggling Arizona State. It picked up a 2-0 win the next night to salvage the 2,000-mile trip to Arizona.
What possibly could be going wrong for a team that had some hope coming into the year?
The underlying problem has been an issue for some time now. Although the defense was strong, the offensive zone time has been less than the average. For each of the past three seasons, the Engineers have experienced less than 45 percent Corsi For. This season, that is right where they are again.
"Last year we generated a ton in the offensive zone, because we were relentless and hard on the forecheck," said Appert. "We haven't been that yet, we haven't been that relentless forechecking team. We are also not creating enough."
In the game against New Hampshire, RPI had just five shots on goal in the first 35 minutes of the game. Its shots on goal margin per game is 51st in the country and worst among ECAC teams. RPI has scored on average just twice per game. It is ranked 56th in total offense. The 2 goals/game is nearly a half goal less than it had last year.
"In the Friday game against Ohio State (Nov. 18), we probably executed systematically as good as we could," Appert said. "We generated 10 odd-man rushes, which on most we didn't get shots on. That is a confidence thing. We are gripping our sticks a bit tight and we trying to force things. We have good offensive players that are fighting confidence right now."
One of RPI's saving graces over the past few seasons, has been its goaltending and defense. Although it struggled to score and produce offense, it had backup if the puck went the other way.
The defense had masterful games at many points last season, but this year that has hardly been the case. RPI lost only two defenders to graduation, with many key pieces returning, so the sudden drop has been surprising.
"It is no secret that some of our key, older players are not performing up to their abilities," said Appert. "That is on them, that is on me and that is on everyone. We need to get out of the funk we are in and need good performances."
Jason Kasdorf, who manned the pipes last season and was the heart and soul of the Engineers, left for the Buffalo Sabres. This season, Chase Perry and Cam Hackett have split time, with Perry getting the majority of the starts. Hackett is a reigning ECAC All-Rookie member, while Perry is a drafted transfer who started his career at Colorado College. Both have seen struggles this year; Perry has a 3.67 GAA with a .899 save percentage in 11 starts, while Hackett has 2.71 GAA and .913 save percentage.
"The problem isn't our goaltending, we are just not playing well enough in front of them," Appert said. "Our goaltending, so far, has been fine. Both of them are elite talents but most nights they seem to give up one they shouldn't, not because of ability but because the confidence isn't all the way there yet. I have belief in them, but at the end of the day they aren't there yet."
Scoring is probably the least of RPI's worries this year, becase if they are able to tighten up its own end it will probably make all the difference. The weekend at Arizona State could have been a good opportunity to gain confidence and head back into ECAC play on a good note.
"We need strong performances right now," Appert said. "We need to take some momentum back into league play and to earn some points in those two weekends in December, so we are in position to make a run in January/February. That is the ECAC, a team always does make a run."
Last year, Clarkson was 0-5-2 at the Christmas break. The Golden Knights finished fifth in the league going 11-3-1 in January and February. In 2012-13, RPI was in a similar position at 1-5-2 at the break. That season, the Engineers went 11-2-1 in the last two months of the year to finish in second.
"We were in a miserable spot in 2012-2013," said Appert. "But we weren't so far out that we couldn't make a run. We did and we finished in second place. This team has a run it, from a talent perspective.
"We have to decide we are getting tired of losing. We have to start fighting and having a little more bite to us. I don't think, right now, we have that. Too often we aren't as difficult to play against as we need to be. But we will change that and we I am sure we will make a run."