Defense Fueling RIT's Resurgence
Tigers Battling Air Force in Atlantic Race
by Joe Venniro/Special to CHN
Waiting in O’Hare Airport on Oct. 25, less than 24 hours after the Tigers suffered their fifth straight loss of the season, and surely most devastating — 3-2 with one second left in overtime, to arch-rival Air Force — RIT Head Coach Wayne Wilson did not seem like a man whose team was 0-5 to start the season. In fact, you would have thought his team was 3-2 or 4-1.
“In all honesty, we played very well to start the season,” said Wilson, the all-time leader in coaching wins at RIT. “The Colgate game, in front of over 7,400 fans at Blue Cross Arena easily could have gone our way. We then go up to the North Country, and play by far our two best games there. We out-shoot St. Lawrence 43-20 and run into a hot goaltender. The next night in Clarkson, we put 45 shots on net. Then we go to Air Force, and outshoot them two nights in a row at their place. We just were not getting the bounces, and were starting to press a bit.
“Even the day after the Air Force series, I knew if we kept giving the effort we gave to start the season, and got a few bounces here and there, we would be okay as the season moved on. It’s a long season, no question, and to lose five straight to start, wasn’t ideal, but we also knew there was plenty of hockey to play.”
Fast-forward nearly 50 days to Dec. 10. RIT is one of the hottest teams in the nation, having gone 10 straight games without a loss (9-0-1). RIT is tied for first in Atlantic Hockey with Air Force, each with 19 points in 12 conference games. RIT, which has always been known as an up-tempo, high scoring team, is still putting the puck in the net, averaging 3.8 goals per game during the streak. In addition, RIT is enjoying an unparalleled run defensively, allowing just 15 goals during the 10-game streak, by far the fewest allowed in a 10-game span since they moved to Division I in 2005. Overall, RIT is ninth defensively in Division I.
There are many signs that point to the defensive transformation. Senior goaltender Jared DeMichiel, who split time with Louis Menard last season, became the undisputed No. 1 this season, after Menard graduated, and is playing the best hockey of his career. DeMichiel has played in nine of the 10 games, and has an 8-0-1 mark, 1.34 goals against average, and .947 save percentage during the current streak. He is ninth in the nation with a 2.14 goals against average.
“Our strong defensive play starts with Jared,” said Wilson. “He is on top of his game right now, and with that, the whole team has bought into playing stronger defensively.”
On defense, seniors Dan Ringwald, and Alan Mazur, who have been mainstays on the ice since day one as freshmen, have contributed mightily on both ends of the ice. In fact, both defensemen kicked off the unbeaten streak with back-to-back hat tricks against Connecticut on Oct. 30-31. Mazur set a team record with three power-play goals for his hat trick, while Ringwald followed up the next night, by recording RIT’s first natural hat trick. Mazur has six goals and 11 points, while Ringwald, who had identical 34-point campaigns in 2007-08 and 2008-09, is off to a great start with 14 points (5-9-14) in 15 games this season. Earlier in the year, he became just the second RIT player to record 100 career points since the squad moved to Division I in 2005.
Ringwald, a captain this season along with Stevan Matic, and Mazur have helped groom sophomores Chris Haltigin, Daniel Spivak, and freshmen Chris Tanev, and Chris Saracino into one of the top defensive units in the country. Tanev already has five goals and 10 points, while leading the team with a plus-12. Haltigin and Saracino also have eight, and seven points respectively. Spivak stepped in after the loss of fellow sophomore Trevor Eckenswiller to a season-ending knee injury, and has provided grit and intensity.
DeMichiel believes that the defense jelled early, and the mix of veteran leadership and youth has served RIT well.
“We have a strong defensive core, with the senior leadership of Ringer (Dan Ringwald), and (Alan) Mazur,” said DeMichiel, who has 21 wins over the last two seasons. “The younger guys have stepped up this season. Haltigin, Saracino, and Tanev are eager to learn and get better. Our whole team has taken pride in being strong defensively, top to bottom. The penalty-killing has been really good as well. It starts in practice and has translated into success during the games.”
Offensively, the Tigers have five players averaging a point per game during the streak. The power play is clicking well over 20 percent, and the penalty-killing unit has hovered around 85 percent. Much like last season, when RIT rattled off an 11-game winning streak, there seems to be a new hero every night.
Mazur and Ringwald’s consecutive hat-tricks led the way in 6-1 and 7-0 wins over Connecticut to start the streak on Oct. 30-31. The next weekend, Scott Knowles rattled off his first career three-point game in a 6-1 win over Army on the first night, then DeMichiel stole the win on the second night, making several point-blank saves to keep RIT in the game. Andrew Favot recorded points on all five goals in 2-1 and 3-2 wins at Mercyhurst on Nov. 13-14. Sophomore Tyler Brenner, who had missed the seven previous games due to injury, came back to score goals in back-to-back nights to lead RIT to a sweep over Sacred Heart the next weekend. After taking Thanksgiving weekend off, RIT returned to see its winning streak snapped in a 1-1 tie against Holy Cross on Dec. 4, but the next night, Cameron Burt scored in overtime to keep the streak alive.
Wilson attributes the streak not only to great play, but bounces the team was not receiving early in the year.
“We are getting the bounces now, and are playing really calm and composed in the tight games,” said Wilson, who is just three wins shy of 200 at RIT, and has led the Tigers to a 72-41-11 mark since the start of the 2006-07 season. “We haven’t deviated from the game plan in those situations, and have been able to come out with some big wins. We need to continue to play well, because every game is tough from here on out.”
RIT hosts future Atlantic Hockey foe Niagara on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. in what is sure to be a sellout at Ritter Arena to close out the 2009 calendar year. A true test on a national basis will be a pair of games at Minnesota State on Jan. 1-2, before the Tigers play their final 16 games against Atlantic Hockey foes.
Joe Venniro is the sports information director at RIT.
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