For a young coach coming from the WCHA, seeing success in the ECAC has been a learning experience. Although the last few seasons haven’t been the best the Engineers have played, this year, Head Coach Seth Appert and his roster of highly-talented players finally rounded that curve, and proved to be a dominant force in the league. Coming off a two-game winless streak in the Big Red Freakout! after winning 17 straight contests of one of America’s most beloved traditions, Rensselaer is ready to take back its most popular game of the year.
Posting a 16-13-3 overall record—already more impressive than last season’s 10-27-2 (which included three playoff victories)—it’s clear that the Engineers have finally found their groove and what it takes to be reckoned with in the league. As far as what’s changed from last year, Appert notes, “We have matured a lot from last year and we are starting to gain an understanding of how hard it is to win. We still need to improve on that, but we have gotten better. We have more juniors and seniors playing in critical roles for us and our freshman class have added talent and competitiveness to our lineup.”
A talented freshman class indeed has graced this team, including the likes of Jerry D’Amigo, who recently won a gold medal for Team USA at the World Junior Championships, where he was named one of the top-players in the tournament. Additionally, Brandon Pirri, a second round NHL draft pick, Marty O’Grady and C.J. Lee, have also added depth to the lineup. But it’s not just the freshman class that has changed the Engineers; the upperclassmen have stepped up their game as well to compete with the gifted new players who joined the squad. “We have received very consistent and tough play from our captains, [junior] John Kennedy, [senior] Peter Merth and [junior] Bryan Brutlag and from our seniors as well,” said Appert. “I think our best performer has been [junior] Chase Polacek, who currently leads the NCAA in points and goals. [Sophomore] Allen York has had a very strong sophomore season, especially in the second half of the season and [D’Amigo] and [Pirri] have had strong freshman seasons.”
Polacek has led the Engineers in an exceptional season; his 23 goals leads all players in the NCAA, as do his 43 total points. Polacek ranks 14th in assists, is third in power play goals, and is tied for seventh in short-handed goals. With the exception of assists (in which he trails Pirri), Polacek leads the ECAC in all categories. The Hobey Baker nominee—an award given to the best male collegiate hockey player—recently netted his 100th career point, becoming only the 60th RPI player to do so.
The Engineers have posted several memorable games over the year, although three in particular stick out in Appert’s memory. “I don’t know if I would call them my favorite games, but I think our 3-1 win versus [the University of] New Hampshire, our 4-0 win at Yale [University] and our 4-1 win at Princeton [University] would be our best games of the season.” He continued, explaining “Those are the three games that stick in my head as our most complete combinations of physical play and mental execution.”
Currently, the Engineers stand in a tie for fourth place in the league with St. Lawrence University, with 20 points. Ahead of RPI sits Yale in first place with 26 points, and Cornell University and Union College tied for second with 24 points each. Holding a top-four position in the ECAC is crucial come playoffs; the top four teams in the league are granted a first-round bye from the playoffs, giving the team an extra week to rest and prepare for postseason play. Regardless, Rensselaer can still finish in the fifth through eighth spot in the league, giving the team home field advantage in the playoffs. “Our goal is to be in the top four of the ECAC in regular season play. If we can do that, it puts us in the best position to get to the ECAC finals and to the NCAA tournament,” explained Appert. RPI has not hosted the ECAC tournament since the 2005–06 season, in which the Engineers lost in a two-game series to the Quinnipiac University Bobcats.
Despite the success the team has seen so far this year, Appert still believes that there are several areas for improvement, such as the “consistency of being hard to play against.” Should the ECAC playoffs begin today, RPI would face off against Clarkson University, the worst team in the league. Although the Engineers have swept the Golden Knights this season, both games were hard-fought, an example of how the team must stay mentally strong to come away with the win regardless of who they are playing.
With the season coming to an end, Appert expects much of his team. “We need total commitment to playing winning hockey and being a hard team to play against. Each player has to perform their role to their best. This time of the year isn’t about personal statistics or getting to play a certain way, it is about doing whatever it takes to help your team win.”