I will delve into that more in the offseason but first, Dartmouth, at Dartmouth. RPI gets sweeped in my book. USCHO does a nice breakdown of the series which I have reprinted below:
No. 11 Rensselaer @ No. 6 Dartmouth
The basics: Dartmouth swept the season series with two 5-2 wins. The Engineers are expected to be healthy, with the exception of the long-term injury to frosh defenseman Mike Bergin. Second-year forward Andrew Owsiak (8-9-17) and junior forward Josh Gillam (2-4-6) are probables for Dartmouth, but third-year striker Rob Smith has been out all year.
Rensselaer and head coach Seth Appert are still awaiting the high-energy, up-tempo offensive game that the coach prefers to orchestrate; this year’s team just doesn’t have the dynamic talent to make that vision a reality. The ‘Tute has topped three goals just four times all year, and enters the postseason having scored only five times in its last five games. Appert deigned his defense “one of the better — if not the best — D-corps in the league, with a top goalie tandem” before the season began, but the woes in the offensive end have led to team-wide pressing, which has in turn led to defensive lapses. Despite a depressing record, the Trojan six has turned it up in recent weeks with better energy and a more deliberate and physical game. Belittle the offense all you like; it won’t spare you any bruises.
Dartmouth would easily rate as this season’s most surprising team, if it weren’t for that Blue Man Group from New Haven. The pack jumped out to a 5-2 start and an 8-4 record by New Year’s, but like many young teams began to struggle as the season’s minutes accumulated. The Big Green went 3-3-3 in January, then stumbled to a 3-5-0 result in February. The Green are offensively loaded, with 11 players boasting double-digit points overall and 17 goal-scorers, but one of their most noteworthy members has got to be rookie netminder Jody O’Neill. The freshman has started 28 games already, has made the most saves in the league (698 against the ECAC), and ranks fifth in the conference with a .928 league save percentage. It may not be the most veteran bunch, but sometimes overestimating the unknown can prove more motivating than properly assessing a known quantity.
As always, RPI head coach Seth Appert is a quality source for solid quotes. He doesn’t beat around the bush, he sees the game in a creative but comprehensible way, and as much as anything else, he’s extremely high-energy.
“There’s three areas where they’ve been very good,” he said of Dartmouth, diving right in. “One is in goal, and obviously Jody O’Neill’s had an outstanding freshman year, so we need to try to get to him. He’s given up quite a few more goals in the last month than he probably did in any previous time in his freshman year, so we’re going to need to continue to get on him, get to the net, get traffic on him, and make the game difficult on a young goaltender.”
The rough patch Appert referenced was O’Neill’s dirty-dozen weekend in the North Country two weeks back. In a busy 27 hours, the goalie ushered five Clarkson goals twineward, then another seven for St. Lawrence the following night in his — and many of his teammates’ — first-ever trip to the northernmost reaches of ECAC Hockey.
“I think the (other) two other areas that they’re very dangerous and a very talented team is in transition and then also on their power play,” Appert continued in an efficient, effervescent clip. “In transition they’re a very good rush team, they create a lot of offense on the rush, they activate their defensemen on the rush, and they’re a very, very talented and dangerous team if you’re going to give them three-on-twos, and four-on-threes, and two-on-ones, et cetera. We need to make sure we stop their transition game by taking care of the puck and being in good defensive position against them.
“And then obviously on the power play … our special teams have not been good this year. We need them to be this weekend, but we also want this series to be a five-on-five series. We want to be physical, we want to be aggressive — that’s when we play our best, when we’re aggressive and we’re physical — but at the same time we want this to be a five-on-five series. That plays to our advantage, to our strengths, if the power plays for both teams are five or under (per game).”
The Engineers allowed 29 of their 75 total league goals against on the penalty kill. Their 79.6 percent PK figure was worst in the league, and only two teams averaged more penalty minutes per game than the ‘Tute.
In goal, Appert has a critical decision to make. Senior Mathias Lange has had flashes of brilliance and even dependability this year, but has fallen on hard times in the second half. First-year challenger Allen York has provided some quality minutes since Lange began to falter, and both have demonstrated postseason know-how before.
“I’m not sure (who to start), I’m torn on that still. Mathias Lange obviously is a senior and he’s got a lot of experience for us, and he played well in the playoffs last season at Yale, and I think he had his best game of the second half against St. Lawrence on Saturday night. But at the same time, Allen York, a freshman, has played very good down the stretch for us, and has had extensive runs deep in the playoffs. He’s won two Alberta championships in a row, two Doyle Cups in a row, and taken his team to the Canadian Royal Bank Championships (all with the Camrose Kodiaks) two years in a row. He’s not only played well down the stretch this year, but he’s also had a lot of postseason success in his career. So I think we have two good options, and it’s possible that both could go this weekend.”
Overall, Appert just hopes that his charges have their heads on straight and their eyes set dead-ahead.
“It doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past, we can’t change that, no one was happy with the regular season that we had. But that has no bearing and no effect on our performance Friday night unless we let it. So we’ve put that away, we’ve learned some hard lessons, and now we’ve got to get re-energized and excited about playing playoff hockey because these are the opportunities that you dream about as a young kid.”
On the Dartmouth side, head coach Bob Gaudet has been around too long to dare overlook an underdog like Rensselaer.
“They’re a really good team. They’re a team that’s good in goal, it’s a well-coached team that’s very skilled,” he began. “They do a lot of creative things offensively: they get a lot of people involved in the rush, they get a lot of people involved in the offensive zone, defensemen coming down and interchanging with forwards. They’re a very creative team, and they’re a team that’s actually quite physical too. They’re a team that finishes a lot of checks.”
Looking at his own roster, Gaudet can’t be blamed for feeling proud of his boys’ results thus far.
“The interesting thing about our team is that we were picked 11th, and some picked us 12th (in the preseason polls), and our kids are a pretty humble group. They’re pretty confident in what they can do, but we feel that we have to be at our best. We have to have our A-game to be successful, and it doesn’t matter who we play against.”
Even Gaudet is surprised at the prolific youth of his club.
“We have a very young team. For the last few weeks, basically, we’ve been playing four or five combination juniors and seniors on our team, so the rest of our team has been freshmen and sophomores. So there’s a lot of times — a surprising amount of times, and it’s not by design — that I watch video (and notice) that there’s six freshmen on the ice for us: two defensemen, a goalie and three forwards. And any combination of units that we have is really young.
“With that, we have guys (for whom) it’s a brand new experience. And so when we go into the playoffs, we have a bunch of guys that have never been in college playoffs. So these guys are going to be working their hardest to be at their best, because that’s what they know they have to do.”
A former goaltender himself, Gaudet knows his way around a crease … and how tough it really is to weather the strains of a full season’s work, both physically and mentally. That’s why he’s so impressed with O’Neill, for whom the coach seems to have a genuine admiration.
“Jody is an unbelievable strong kid. Fundamentally, he’s got great technical attributes. But what I like most about him is his mental toughness and his ability to battle, and that’s something that you really can’t teach. He’s a guy that can let in a goal that he thinks he should have, and come back and make huge saves. He’s been really consistent.
“In my 20-whatever it’s been, 25, 26 years, he is the best young goaltender that I’ve ever coached in terms of what he brings to the table. He has pretty good size … he plays big too, he’s upright quite a bit, and he has good technical abilities, but he’s unbelievably tough mentally. He’s been without question our biggest factor in our games.”
Like all his players, the coach and his staff have watched for tell-tale signs of fatigue as the goalie’s first collegiate season wore on. Weight loss, diminished performance in practice, games, or the weight room, or any number of other indications can tell you that a player needs a rest, but apparently O’Neill is as good to go as ever.
“We’ve tried to keep our goalie sessions short and to the point. The physical fatigue works toward mental fatigue. He’s actually surprisingly fresh, which is encouraging for me.”
Time to see if the rest of the Big Green can play as fresh as they did in the fall.