RPI puts up fight in holiday tourney

Rensselaer men’s hockey had its fair share of ups-and-downs over the past week. After rebounding from a tough loss at Niagara University last Wednesday, the Engineers came back for vengeance in the first round of RPI’s own Holiday Tournament this past Friday over Bentley University, who dealt the Institute an embarrassing overtime loss at home last season. However, despite a hard-fought overtime victory over Route 7 rival Union College earlier this season, Rensselaer could not pull the same feat as the Engineers fell 5-4 in the championship round of the tournament. Even with a late-game comeback—including the game-tying goal with a mere 0.4 second left on the board—RPI couldn’t pull out the win. Rensselaer now sits 8-6-1 overall and remains 3-1-0 in the ECAC, with the match against Union falling under the nonconference category.

The weekend marked the 59th Annual Rensselaer Holiday Tournament, the longest running in-season college hockey tournament in the nation. Returning to the lineup was junior Tyler Helfrich, who missed the previous eight games due to an ankle injury sustained in the Engineers’ win over American International College late in October. His presence was immediately felt as Helfrich assisted on two of four goals in Saturday night’s loss. Also back on the bench was freshman CJ Lee, who had also missed the last few games with injury.

Fueled off a rough loss from the hands of the Niagara Purple Eagles on November 18, the Engineers were determined to prove their dominance in college hockey with a 5-2 smack down of the Bentley Falcons, who now sit 4-6-2 overall on the year. Nine separate Engineers recorded at least a point in the match, the semifinal round of the tournament.

Junior center Chase Polacek continued on his impressive scoring streak, netting the game’s first goal at 8:03 of the first period. Freshman Jerry D’Amigo dished the puck over to Polacek, who ripped the one-timer past sophomore netminder Kyle Rank. Senior Paul Kerins earned the secondary assist, his first of two points on the night and five on the weekend.

Despite a break-out season after battling through the previous two with injuries, junior Joel Malchuk surprisingly netted his first goal of the year—and first of two in the game—late in the first frame. Classmate Scott Halpern, earning a spot in the lineup after filling in for a missing Helfrich in the previous weeks, rushed into the offensive zone and ripped a shot that ricocheted back toward the far circle. In an impressive effort mimicking that of the great Bobby Orr, Malchuk dove toward the loose puck and knocked it to the back of the cage before Rank could react. “I’ve really just been concentrating on playing the way I need too in order for us to be successful,” said Halpern, earning the first of two assists on the night. “It feels great to be out there and be able to do whatever I can to help the team get wins.”

Rensselaer would add two more in the second frame before Bentley even got on the board. D’Amigo made it a 3-0 advantage as he skated through the neutral zone and easily flipped up a backhand shot for his fifth goal of the year at 12:08. Nearly 50 seconds later, Malchuk added his second of the night to put RPI up by four. Linemates Halpern and senior Garett Vassel both had solid opportunities on net, but Malchuk was able to clean up the rebound at the edge of the crease. “Both my linemates, Malchuk and Vassel, really worked hard all night and in return we were able to create a good amount of scoring opportunities,” said Halpern of the play. “It was nice that we were able to contribute in a good win against Bentley.” Closing the period, Bentley senior Bobby Preece cut the deficit to three as his shot from the point navigated through a screen and past Rensselaer freshman goaltender Bryce Merriam at 15:31.

Falcon sophomore Jamie Nudy made the best of a shorthanded situation at 5:45 of the third period as he flipped the puck over Merriam’s shoulder for his third goal of the season. That would be the last of Bentley’s markers for the night as Merriam stood tall in net and kept the Falcons off the board.

After sitting out the previous game as a healthy scratch, sophomore Alex Angers-Goulet proved his worth to the team by tallying his first goal of the year at 7:36 off a redirected pass from Kerins.

Merriam, playing in his third game, earned the win with 15 stops, while Rank advances to the consolation game with 28 saves on the night.

The animosity from Union and RPI’s previous meeting at Messa Rink earlier this year was obvious from the puck drop as both squads battled through a physical match. Despite the Dutchmen’s top-four scorers sitting in the stands at the Houston Field House due to suspensions from their own coach, Rensselaer was unable to capitalize on the weakened offense, falling 5-4 in overtime. With the win, Union’s first championship in the tournament, the Dutchmen improve to 6-3-4 overall on the year.

After a dismal first period in which Union netted three unanswered goals—including two on the power play—the Engineers stepped up their game to come back for the tie. The Dutchmen’s first of the night came at 9:01 of the first off a two-man advantage, followed by another less than two minutes later from freshman Jeremy Welsh. With just over five minutes remaining in the frame, sophomore goaltender Allen York could not stop a Union rush into the zone, placing RPI three goals behind.

Despite a shaky first period in which York stopped only five of eight shots on net, he returned for the second period with a stronger effort. Just as it looked like Rensselaer would be heading to the second intermission scoreless in the match, sophomore Josh Rabbani pulled through with his second of the year at 17:09. Receiving a pass from Polacek, Rabbani was able to send a wrist shot from the left circle past Union freshman goaltender Keith Kinkaid.

Pulling that momentum into the third period, it suddenly became a one-goal game as freshman Brandon Pirri rifled a slap shot from the right circle through Kinkaid. Just as soon as RPI cut the deficit, however, Union came back to increase its lead to two again off a slap shot from the point. Again, that lead would not stand for long as a mere 45 seconds later, Kerins buried a wrap-around attempt from Angers-Goulet for his first of two on the night. Kerins finished the weekend with five points over two games. “Getting five points in a weekend is a proud accomplishment of mine and it’s something I’ve never done in college hockey,” explained the center. “I must say that the points I did get are because of our great work by our power play, as a group.  [Polacek], [Pirri], [D’Amigo], [senior] Christian [Jensen] and [junior] Bryan [Brutlag] did good work on the power play this weekend and all I did was benefit from their great play.”

Just as fans started to stream out of the arena, Rensselaer came back to tie the game with a literal last-ditch effort. After a scramble around Union’s net and with Rensselaer on a 6-on-4 advantage, the puck squirted out to Kerins at the right of the net, where he was able to lift the puck up and over Kinkaid with less than a second on the scoreboard. “It always feels good to contribute especially after I took the penalty that led to the power play goal Union scored late in the game to put them up 4-2,” explained Kerins. “At that moment I felt like I had cost us a chance at winning the game, so scoring those late goals definitely helped me get over that penalty.”

However, despite the effort to reach overtime, the Engineers could not find the back of the net as Dutchman senior Jason Walters tallied his second goal of the game at 3:39 of the extra frame for the game-winner. “Watching them celebrate on our ice was very hard for our team,” said Kerins. “I know that image will stick with us for a long time.” Halpern agreed, noting that “Anytime you lose to your rival it’s really tough but at the same time, in the locker room we all know we have to learn from it and put it behind us. We will have many more big games in our future starting with this weekend that we need to starting getting better for.”

Walters was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, and joined teammates sophomore Kelly Zajac, senior Mike Schreiber, and Kinkaid on the All-Tournament team. Also named to the squad were Rensselaer’s Kerins and Polacek, along with Lake Superior State University sophomore Simon Gysbers.

Kerins, who has stepped up his game significantly since last season, took much pride in the tournament selection. “Being a little stronger and playing with great players has allowed me to have success, and now the goal is to be consistent throughout the entire season.  It feels good to be playing well and that feeling is what drives me to continue getting better every day at practice.”

RPI returns to action this weekend in a series jam-packed with events. Friday night is the annual Whiteout game against No. 7 Cornell University at 7 pm, in which fans are encouraged to ditch the usual red attire in favor of white garments. In a rare afternoon matchup, the Engineers tackle No. 20 Colgate University on Saturday, beginning at 4 pm. During the game will be the Teddy Bear Toss and the RPI United Toys for Tots Holiday Drive, where fans are encouraged to make cash or toy donations to the Toys for Tots fundraiser. Following the game is the annual Skate with the Engineers, giving spectators a chance to interact with their favorite players. “This weekend is huge for us.  These two games set us up for league play going into the second half of the season and we have every intention of taking two wins this upcoming weekend,” said Kerins. “These might be the most difficult travel partners in our league so we have our work cut out for us. Cornell is always a fun game and we haven’t forgotten that they were the ones that ended our season last year.  The Whiteout should be a great party and we can’t wait to get the puck dropped.”

With a tough loss to Union under its belt, watch for Rensselaer to rebound with two hard-fought games as the Engineers return to league play and a chance at second place in the league and national rankings.