The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute hockey team had plenty time to reflect on a tough 2011-12 season.
The Engineers want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
The Engineers open the season tonight, when they host NCAA tournament Frozen Four finalist and 11th-ranked Ferris State at 7 at Houston Field House. The teams play again at 7 p.m. Saturday at the field house.
RPI got off to a rough start last year, being shut out in three of its first four games — including twice at Ferris State — and five of the first 10 contests. The Engineers scored more than two goals in a game only three times in their first 19 games and lost 16 of those games.
The second half was a little better. The Engineers went 3-2-1 in their final six regular-season games to finish 10th in ECAC Hockey. They upset seventh-seeded Clarkson in the first round of the ECACH tournament, and then gave Union two tough games in the quarterfinals before getting swept by the eventual tournament champion.
While the second half was better, it didn’t ease the pain of a rough season. RPI was 12-24-3, including 7-12-3 in ECACH play.
“It’s been too long an offseason,” RPI coach Seth Appert said. “We certainly did not have the season, especially in the first half last year, that we wanted to have. So, the offseason is a little more bitter. It was a little longer. It’s not something we’re really happy about.”
Avoiding another rough start to the season would help RPI.
“It’s important to get a good start for many reasons, especially just confidence level,” said senior defenseman Nick Bailen, who was the team’s second-leading scorer with seven goals and 15 assists. “But mainly, it’s just figuring out how to play with each other and sticking to the core principles that we have. You can’t focus on the weekend. You have to focus on Friday night, and then going out on Saturday night. If you’re able to do that, then success will come.”
The Engineers return 18 players, but what they don’t have coming back is anyone who hit double digits in goals. Junior forward Brock Higgs was the leading point producer with 23, but he had only three goals.
Senior CJ Lee is the top returning goal scorer with eight, and he was third in points with 18. Sophomore forward Ryan Haggerty was fourth with seven goals and 15 assists.
RPI has some potential offensive punch coming in. Andrew Commers had 23 goals and 23 assists in 31 games for St. Thomas Academy in Edina, Minn., last season. Mike Zalewski was the leading scorer for the British Columbia Junior Hockey League’s Vernon Vipers with 38 goals and 37 assists.
Appert doesn’t want to depend on one player to carry the offensive load. He wants scoring by committee.
“We’ve got a good group of freshmen forwards coming in,” said Lee, who will be the team captain. “Our sophomore forwards have made great strides this summer. They look strong. The goals are going to come. We just need to play the way we need to play to win games. If winning games is only winning 2-1, so be it.”
Bailen anchors the defense. He is joined by juniors Bo Dolan and Guy Leboeuf, and sophomores Luke Curadi and Curtis Leonard. Newcomers are Craig Bokenfohr (Camrose Kodiaks), Chris Bardley (Youngstown Phantoms) and Phil Hampton (Oakville Blades).
Bryce Merriam and Scott Diebold return in goal. Merriam, a senior, was 10-19-2 with a 2.36 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. Diebold, a sophomore, was 2-5-1 with a 3.22 GAA and an .897 save percentage.
Freshman Jason Kasdorf, a Winnipeg Jets draft pick, will compete for playing time with Merriam and Diebold. Kasdorf was 10-16-3 with a 2.75 GAA and a .913 save percentage for the U.S. Hockey League’s Des Moines Buccaneers last season.
Appert is encouraged because of what happened in the summer.
“We had a good offseason,” Appert said. “Our guys did a good job in the weight room with our strength coach Kyle Sutton. We followed that up with a good month of September. Now, it starts for real.”