A New Season and a Clean Slate!

Okay, time to put away the swimsuits and get out the sweatshirts – especially the ones with the RPI logos! Hockey season is here again. The Engineers will take the ice against the University of Prince Edward Island in an exhibition game on Saturday. This will be our only look at the team at home for a while, since they’re heading to Notre Dame for the Icebreaker Tournament next weekend and to Denver for two games the weekend after that.

I’m just starting to get my mind in the hockey groove again, so let me just throw out a few random thoughts and observations for now.

RPI was picked 10th in the coaches poll and 9th in the media poll for this season. Ouch. Then again, they finished 7th last year and have inarguably lost some talent, especially at offense where we lost Ryan Haggerty and Brock Higgs, who brought 28 and 14 goals to the table respectively. In fact, four of RPI’s top six scorers are gone (Mike Zalewski and Matt Tinordi being the other two), leaving only Matt Neal (10 goals last season) and Jacob Laliberte (9) to carry on. We’ll need those guys to up their contribution this year, and some other guys to return to their earlier form as well. The sad truth is that every single senior and junior forward on the team this year had less point production in the 2013-14 season than they did in the season before. If they’re going to have a more successful season this year, we need to get that progression turned around.

I don’t know much about the incoming freshmen yet. I make it a point not to put too much stock into the numbers they put up with their junior teams because there’s so much variation in level of play among the leagues, and because it seems like early hype so rarely correlates with real success in the college game. That being said, I am hopeful and looking forward to seeing what our newbies can do – especially in the cases of Drew Melanson and Michael Prapavessis. Prapavessis, a defenseman, was drafted by the Dallas Stars this year, but it’s possible his 6’5″ size had something to do with that.

And of course we can’t ignore the possibly big factor of having Jason Kasdorf back and healthy for this season. He was stellar down the stretch in the 2012-13 season, when RPI went 12-4 to finish second in the ECAC. If Jason can put up numbers like that season’s .935 saves percentage and 1.62 GAA again, it could make the difference in some one-goal games. Scott Diebold did a more-than-admirable job in net after Jason was hurt, though, and I have to point out that RPI was shut out four times last year and scored two goals or fewer in 18 of their 37 games. Offense was the real problem and is the real key for this season.

It’s always nice to start a new season with a clean slate and high hopes. Polls are meaningless (well, except ours here on rpihockey.net, of course!) and this season can be a great one!

Let’s go, Red!

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Hockey Banquet Report, Part 2 – Senior Speeches

This year’s hockey banquet featured remarks from all five departing seniors even though Matt Tinordi was unable to attend. Matt was still in Cincinnati playing for the Cyclones in the ECHL playoffs, but he provided a speech that was read by Brock Higgs.

Guy Leboeuf was first up this year, so he was in charge of reading the long list of thank-yous on behalf of all the guys to everyone and anyone who supported the team, from the coaches to the RPI Pep Band and RPI-TV. This simplifies things for all the guys that follow since they can say, “I’d also like to thank all the people that Guy mentioned.” Saves time for everyone.

When he got to his personal thank-yous, Guy especially thanked the fans for their support “whether we’re winning or struggling” and commented on how much he loved hearing the shout of “Red!” during the National Anthem. He said when he was playing in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers after RPI’s season finished, he was always surprised not to hear that familiar yell until he recalled where he was.

Bo Dolan was next and, in addition to his thank-yous, he told a story – something he apparently is known for. The story was about a trip the boys took together across the border into Canada that included a visit to an over-18 club and a bit of an incident that saw one of the RPI players accosted by the bouncer. Bo assured us that it was a misunderstanding that ended with apologies from the bouncer, but what was noteworthy was the way every one of the 20-odd RPI guys there immediately jumped to stand with their teammate in a show of solidarity. This, Bo said, is typical of the brotherhood and camaraderie all the guys feel for each other.

I’ve always thought of Johnny Rogic as kind of a quiet guy, but apparently you just have to get him in the right place and the right mood. His speech was off the cuff, since he forgot his notes (or so he claimed – based on things I heard, I’m not sure there were any notes to forget!), but he was relaxed and talkative and downright funny. Even without notes, he told stories (shorter than Bo’s!) that illustrated his points – how strongly the alumni stay connected to the program, what a band of brothers he and his teammates are, and how helpful everyone around the team has been to him. He especially thanked assistant coach Nolan Graham, who was his head coach in junior hockey, for bringing him to the attention of Coach Appert.

Matt Tinordi, as mentioned, was unable to attend but he provided a short speech that was read by Brock Higgs. After thanking his coaches and family, Matt commented on how close he is to all his teammates and especially to the other seniors – his classmates and roommates. He said that, as much as he’s enjoying his pro experience, he can’t wait to be back with them. And he said that playing professionally has shown him more than ever how special the fan support at RPI is and what a special place this is to play.

Brock Higgs was last but certainly not least. He too spoke about how lucky he was to have played at RPI, how supported he felt there, and how close he is to his teammates. Though all the guys mentioned their parents and families, Brock went to much greater lengths about his, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows the Higgses. I don’t believe they ever missed a game, near or far, fair weather or foul, and it was always very clear how close Brock is to his parents. Just as is always the case with our hockey boys, quality parents and parenting gave us a quality young man.

Usually there is someone, or several someones, among the senior speakers who struggles to keep it together and gives in to tears or at least gets choked up. Several years ago Jon Ornelas was a soggy mess trying to get through his speech, and Bryce Merriam was a close second last year – I think his speech may have actually dissolved in his hand. I usually try to guess in advance who the emotional guy will be, but I had to admit that there were no safe bets this year. Sure enough, though their remarks were heartfelt and touching, this group of guys had it all together and were much more inclined toward laughter than tears. It was very clear, though, how much they all value and appreciate their RPI hockey experience and the support they have felt here.

I may shed a tear or two myself when we finally say goodbye at graduation, but at the hockey banquet it was smiles all around as we celebrated another terrific group of guys – the RPI hockey class of 2014!

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Hockey Banquet Report, Part 1 – Awards

The annual RPI Men’s Hockey Banquet was held tonight and, as usual, I have some facts and thoughts to share.

The evening opened with remarks from Dr. Tim Sams, RPI’s Vice President for Student Life, and Athletic Director Jim Knowlton. Colonel Knowlton reminded everyone that, as NCAA Hockey Committee Chair, it was his somewhat onerous task to hand Union their Frozen Four Championship trophy. He asked if viewers noticed his reluctance to let go of the trophy, resulting in a bit of a tug-of-war with Union coach Rick Bennett. (I suspect he was funning us on this!) He also commented on this year’s RPI senior class, pointing out how well they represented their school and their program on and off the ice – a common theme throughout the evening.

After dinner, head coach Seth Appert spoke about the past season, the team, and especially the departing seniors. Four of the five seniors were present – RPI captain Matt Tinordi is still playing professionally for the ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones. Coach Appert praised the seniors for their accomplishments and contributions on and off the ice, including their combined GPA of 3.45, even more impressive than the entire team’s combined GPA of 3.31.

Each of the seniors had an opportunity to give a speech, and interspersed among the speeches were seven individual awards for the 2013-14 season.

The Most Outstanding Freshman award was first up and was presented by Kirk MacDonald, current RPI volunteer coach and former RPI standout player. The recipient was Jimmy DeVito who played in 25 games, including 19 of the last 20 regular season games, and contributed a goal and 3 assists.

The Community Service award was presented by MacDonald’s 2007 RPI classmate Kevin Broad, and went to Travis Fulton. Travis has been involved in numerous charitable and fund-raising activities, including The American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, the Troy-Albany Youth Hockey Association (TAYHA), and Swinburne Park’s Learn to Play Hockey Program for kids.

The Top Scholar Athlete award, which always goes to the player with the highest GPA, went to Craig Bokenfohr who posted an impressive 3.92 GPA while majoring in civil engineering and competing on both the hockey and golf teams. The award was presented by Student Advisor Bob Conway and Kurt Colling ’09. Craig wasn’t present because RPI’s golf team was playing for the Liberty League championship this evening.

Bokenfohr was also the recipient of the Most Improved Player award, presented by assistant coaches Nolan Graham and Bryan Vines. After playing in only five games in his freshman year, Craig played in all of the last 15 games of this season and was a strong contributing factor in the Engineers’ defense.

Speaking of defense, the Best Defensive Player for this season was sophomore Chris Bradley, whose +/- of +18 was the best on the team by a wide margin and the best of any ECAC team other than national champion Union. His three goals and three assists were also the most of any RPI defenseman. Chris received his award from another standout defenseman, Scott Basiuk ’04.

The Ben Mayo Most Inspirational Player award, presented by 16-year-old cancer survivor and unofficial team member Ben Mayo, went to senior assistant captain Brock Higgs, who survived having his throat accidentally slashed by a skate in his freshman year and overcame several other injuries to have a standout senior year that saw him tally 14 goals and 16 assists, win the prestigious national Senior CLASS award, and start his pro career with the AHL Worcester Sharks where he had three goals and three assists in 16 games.

The final award of the evening was the Most Valuable Player award, presented by former RPI player and coach Garry Kearns and his son Ken, also an RPI alum. To no one’s surprise, the award went to junior forward Ryan Haggerty, whose 28 goals and 43 points led the team. Ryan was named to the All-ECAC First Team and the National All-America Second Team.

Both Haggerty and sophomore forward Mike Zalewski were in attendance tonight even though both have signed NHL contracts (with the NY Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, respectively) and won’t be returning to RPI next season. Though neither spoke, it was terrific to have them there and be able to congratulate them and wish them well since, of course, this is the last time they will appear publicly with the team.

Coming soon – a report on the speeches of the five departing seniors!

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Brock Higgs Looks Good on AHL Ice

Brock Higgs of the Worcester Sharks

We went to the Times Union Center on Saturday to see Brock Higgs and the Worcester Sharks take on the Albany Devils. My family and I were very pleased and impressed with what we saw from Brock. He had time on both the power play and the penalty kill and looked every bit as good as anyone else out there.

He had a key assist on one of Worcester’s goals, putting a nice shot on net that was deflected in by a teammate. He also had two other strong shots on goal and now has a 3-3-6 line in 9 games with a +4, 24 shots on goal and no penalty minutes. A very good pro start, I’d say! There are a few pictures available on our website.

We plan to get down to the TU again on Friday to see Guy Leboeuf take the ice for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Stay tuned.

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Another Post-season Postmortem

I wish I could say a week of thinking about it has given me insights to share on yet another playoff let-down for the Engineers , but that’s not really the case.

I will just say this – given the number and level of pro signings in the past week, it doesn’t seem like the talent level on the team can be the issue. Ryan Haggerty (not unexpectedly) got an NHL offer and is gone to the NY Rangers. Mike Zalewski also has gone pro (that one took me by surprise), giving up his last two years at RPI, and will join the Vancouver Canucks. And Brock Higgs and Guy Leboeuf have both signed AHL tryout contracts and are with the Worcester Sharks and Bridgeport Sound Tigers, respectively. It’s not unusual for seniors to play professionally right away, especially since RPI has an unfortunate tendency to finish early when a lot of other players aren’t available yet, but it’s not always at a level as high as the AHL.

I will also point out to those who might be inclined to blame RPI’s struggles this season on the early loss of Jason Kasdorf that the Engineers lost a playoff series at home last year with Jason in net. In fact, Scott Diebold’s .917 saves percentage in this year’s three playoff games against Dartmouth was quite a bit better than Jason’s .893 in last year’s three playoff games with Brown. That’s not intended as a criticism of Jason Kasdorf, who had a great season for the Engineers last year. It’s just more evidence, I think, that the talent level is not our problem. “Playoff mentality” is a rather vague term, but that’s the best I can suggest – RPI doesn’t seem to have the same fire in the playoffs that their opponents do, especially when that opponent is the underdog as they are when RPI plays at home.

There’s always next year, I guess. For now we’ll have to settle for rooting for the Engineers who are starting their pro careers. Best of luck to Brock, Guy, Ryan and Mike, and a big thank you to them and to Matt Tinordi, Johnny Rogic and Bo Dolan.

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Cancelling hotel reservations for the second year in a row sucks.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Let me ponder a bit.

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Our Own Version of March Madness!

It wasn’t exactly a high note that RPI went out on, losing to Yale 5-0 to finish the regular season, but what’s done is done and it’s time to look forward. (Well, after a quick nod backward to acknowledge the tremendous effort of Scott Diebold and all the Engineers in shutting out Brown 3-0 the night before!)

RPI will host Dartmouth in a best-of-three series for the first round of the ECAC playoffs beginning on Friday, March 7th. I really like Dartmouth as a match for the Engineers, more than any of the other teams below us who were possible opponents. Even Princeton, who struggled mightily and won only four games all season, took one of those wins from RPI. We swept Dartmouth, though, outscoring them 11 to 3 over the two regular-season games. In fact, they were one of only two teams that we swept. The other was Brown, and we know from multiple experiences that Brown can be a tough playoff opponent.

Coach Appert and his brand of RPI Engineers, on the other hand, have already won a playoff series against the Big Green once – and that one was at Dartmouth!

The ECAC is a league known for its surprises and upsets so anything can happen anywhere along the line, but just to give everyone something to consider for the future: if there are no upsets in the first round of playoffs, RPI will travel to Colgate for the second round (also not a bad matchup – the Engineers took three of four points in the regular season).

If Harvard were to upset Yale or Princeton upset Clarkson, RPI would go to Quinnipiac (I don’t like that prospect as well – they took three points from RPI this year). And in the unlikely event that BOTH Harvard and Princeton upset, RPI would have to go to Cornell. I really dislike that prospect because Cornell’s Coach Schafer upsets everybody, including the referees, especially during the playoffs!

But for now we have at least two more games at Houston Field House to look forward to this season with this year’s seniors, and in my mind that’s something to celebrate. Let’s go, Red!

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After the Brawl is Over (takeoff on VERY old song title!)

Ah, RPI-Union hockey – you gotta love it. Or maybe you don’t. But you sure have to talk about it after this past weekend! There have been more news stories, videos, blogs, tweets, posts and other sorts of conversations about Saturday’s post-game brawl at the TU Center than about anything else that happened to either team this year, and that’s sort of a shame.

I have mixed feelings about adding to the noise with comments of my own, but it doesn’t seem right to ignore this whole mess either. There’s little point in me giving my two-cents worth about who was to blame. Surprise, surprise – all the Union fans think RPI’s players and coaches were the bad guys and all the RPI fans think Union’s players and coaches were the bad guys. (Of course the difference is that we RPI fans are right.)

Seriously, though – I root for RPI. I know the boys on RPI’s team and in many cases their parents and families as well. I’ve had conversations with Seth Appert and with most of his assistants. I do not believe any of these people are goons, thugs, hotheads, bullies or anything less than honorable. I am confident that they are all good people and that the players in particular are terrific young men. They’re polite, appreciative, goodhearted young people who work hard to be good students and good hockey players, who give back to the community in many ways, and who want passionately to give their fans and their school a team to be proud of. They are, without exception, quality people. This I can attest to.

That being said, if I were (horrors!) a Union fan I might very well say the same things about their coaches and players. But that’s someone else’s job – I’ll just take care of our boys and Union can go get their own overly-protective extra mom-type if they’re so inclined. Frankly, you’d have your work cut out for you trying to make me see Coach Rick Bennett in a good light right now, since I don’t take kindly to people throwing punches at one of our boys. And it seems like since Saturday he’s apologized to everybody under the sun EXCEPT Coach Appert or anyone connected with the RPI program.

What unfortunately got lost in the scuffle… er, I mean shuffle… is that RPI played a terrific game against Union that day, and had a terrific weekend overall. Scott Diebold is the ECAC Goalie of the Week, and deservedly so since he allowed only three goals on 56 shots for the weekend. And RPI finally beat Union after ten straight losses – that’s something they can’t take away from us! Congratulations, Engineers!

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Back on the Roller Coaster

This looks like another roller-coaster weekend for sure, with RPI facing so-bad-it’s-sad Dartmouth tonight and a seemingly unstoppable Union team tomorrow.

It’s tempting to suggest that tonight will be an easy warm-up for tomorrow for the Engineers, but that kind of thinking has proven to be premature in the past. There are only five teams in the country with lower winning percentages than Dartmouth’s .237, but one of those is Princeton, whom RPI lost to two weeks ago. That being said, RPI has had two weeks to rest, heal and prepare for tonight’s match-up, and they are certainly aware of their underachievement at Princeton, so let’s see if they’re up to the challenge.

Union will be another story. They’re at the other end of the spectrum, with the best winning percentage in the ECAC and fourth-best in the nation at .750. (On a side note, it’s really nice to see two ECAC teams ranked in the top four in the nation and FIVE among the top 13 – I just wish we were one of them! Okay, and that Union wasn’t.) And most everyone is aware of RPI’s dismal record against them in the recent past. A win at the TU Center tomorrow night would take a lot of heart, a lot of hustle, and a certain amount of .. well, we won’t call it luck, but a certain amount of getting the bounces and taking advantage of them.

One thing RPI will almost certainly have going for them tomorrow night is a large fan contingent cheering and rooting them on. You gotta give RPI fans credit – they don’t give up easily! Let’s go, Red!

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Mid-winter Thoughts

Happy New Year everyone!

Here we are, heading into the second half of the season already – wow! I use the term “second half” somewhat loosely, since we’re a game past the halfway point in overall games and two games short of the halfway point in ECAC play, but since we’re close on both counts and just coming off the semester break, this is as good a halfway point as any. In honor of my arbitrary halfway point and a new year of fresh beginnings, here are a few random and mostly unrelated midway-point observations. To be honest, many of them are not entirely my own, but drawn from conversations with friends and fellow fans.

- Why, many of us wonder, did it take so long to give Jake Soffer a chance in net? Scott Diebold has been great, and really outstanding at times, but with Jason Kasdorf unquestionably out of the lineup for the remainder of the season following his shoulder surgery, it’s worrisome to say the least when your second-string netminder has never seen the ice in a college game. We all breathed a sigh of relief when Jake got the start in the exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 Team, and a bigger sigh of relief when he proved himself more than up to the challenge, allowing only one early goal and posting a .955 saves percentage. Way to go, Jake! Now we’re waiting for him to see a little action in a game that actually counts.

- Speaking of the U-18 Team, some of us came away from that game feeling that they played like a bunch of thugs and wondering if it was a even a good idea to play them and chance injuries in a game that doesn’t count for anything. Matt Neal left the game midway through the first period with an apparent injury and never returned and other guys appeared to get banged up as the game went on too. On the other hand, if you’re going to play a rough game like that, I guess heading into the semester break with 18 days to heal is the time to do it!

- As I was working on the pictures from the U-18 game and noticing how many photos I had of fights and altercations, it got me thinking and I went back and looked at other recent game pictures. Sure enough, I have multiple fight photos from quite a few other games too – both Denver games, Colgate, Cornell, and of course Union (but then, how can you not fight with Union?). It’s unquestionably a good thing to play with an edge and to be ready to defend yourself and your teammates when necessary. And I know beyond a doubt that our players are NOT goons, not taking cheap shots or looking for fights unnecessarily. I just hope that’s still clear to outsiders looking in and to the officials in the league. A reputation for being tough is good; a reputation for being dirty is not.

- Ryan Haggerty – wow! There aren’t enough good things to say about how he played in the first half of the season. ECAC Player of the Week twice and Player of the Month once. Leading the nation in multiple categories including goals scored (18), goals per game (1.06), power-play goals (8), and game-winning goals (4). And of course, he’s the team’s leading scorer, although Brock Higgs, Matt Neal and Jacob Laliberte are all putting up a point per game or better, with 20, 18 and 17 points respectively. Ryan will undoubtedly be a huge factor in RPI’s performance the rest of the way. There is one small concern that I’m waiting to see put to rest however – how will he fare in second meetings with each team? There are only two ECAC teams that RPI has played twice already this year – Harvard and Union – and in both cases Ryan was held scoreless. And though it wasn’t a league game, he was held to one assist in the second game against Denver (and in the first, for that matter). That’s one of RPI’s big tasks for the second half – find ways to keep Ryan open and get him to the net. If we can do that, we’ll make a run for the ECAC top four for sure.

– And one more thought, on the topic of ECAC standings. Tied for 6th is not where we hoped to be heading into the second half and not, I assume, where others expected RPI to be based on the preseason polls. But this is the ECAC, after all, and this particular tied-for-sixth comes with being only two points out of fourth place and three points out of third – in other words, just one good weekend away from being solidly in the top four. After getting warmed up in the Mariucci Classic this weekend, RPI will return to league play against Princeton and Quinnipiac, two teams that they took three points from at Houston Field House earlier this season. It looks to me like their task is clear and do-able. Maybe not easy, but do-able, and I believe they can do it. Let’s go, Red!

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