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Route 7 hockey teams heading different ways

Route 7 hockey teams heading different ways

Route 7 hockey teams heading different ways
RPI head coach Seth Appert (left) and Union head coach Rick Bennett pose with the Mayor’s Cup Tuesday at Times Union Center.
Photographer: Lindsay Dieterich/For The Daily Gazette

ALBANY — The RPI men’s hockey team is looking for a springboard.

Anything to propel them out of the basement and turn this miserable season around.

At this point, though, it would take a trampoline made out of Flubber.

Nevertheless, the Engineers will be provided with a juicy opportunity to find a glimmer of life next Thursday when they face their Route 7 rival Union in the fifth annual Mayor’s Cup game at the Times Union Center.

The 14-5-2 Dutchmen, meanwhile, are the anti-Engineers, having lost two straight non-conference games, but hungry for the second half of the ECAC Hockey season to get cranking now that they’re in first place.

Despite the fact that RPI is 3-19-1 and has been spectacularly bad since the beginning of December, losing seven straight while giving up at least five goals in each of their last six, they’ll look at the Mayor’s Cup game as a potential momentum-builder before the end of the season.

“As a staff, we never talk about who’s doing what and this and that,” Union head coach Rick Bennett said at a promotional press conference on Tuesday morning. “We just worry about what’s in front of us. As far as Seth’s team, they play tremendously hard, which makes them a dangerous matchup whether they’re 30-0 or 0-30.”

RPI head coach Seth Appert pointed to two instances in the short history of the Mayor’s Cup in which the game served as a useful fulcrum for the winning team.

In the inaugural game, in 2013, RPI was under .500, played well in the Mayor’s Cup despite losing 3-2 on Matt Wilkins’ power-play goal with 36.8 seconds left and used that wakeup call to push all the way to second place in the ECAC, the Engineers’ best finish in over two decades.

“Then Union used it [in 2014] and lost only one more game in winning the national championship that year,” Appert said. “In two of the last four years, one of the two programs has used it as a springboard to not a pretty good second half, but to a huge second half. There is a momentum to this game.”

There is also a ferocity to it, since it’s two ECAC rivals separated by 17 miles.

That boiled to a head at the end of the 2014 game, a 2-1 Engineers win that still served a purpose for the Dutchmen. A brawl broke out, and Bennett was suspended for two games for his role, but Union came out of it with laser focus and went on to win the national championship.

“All of it’s good unless it crosses the line,” Appert said. “I don’t think we’ll ever have that again. If anything, as a coach, you’re worried about guys being too fired up and running out of control in a game like this instead of having to give a win-one-for-the-Gipper speech.”

“It’s always a game about passion, as Seth said, and I think it’s a game about pride and how we feel about our community in Schenectady, and I know how they feel about their community in Troy,” Bennett said. “And that’s what makes it so fun.”

Before they square off next Thursday, Union and RPI will host Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend.

The Mayor’s Cup series is tied 2-2, but Union has turned the tables on RPI after being swept in the two home-and-home ECAC games and the Mayor’s Cup last season.

The Dutchmen beat the Engineers by scores of 4-1 and 3-2 in overtime in October and appear to be poised to go 3-0 this season as RPI did last year.

Despite losing to defending national champion North Dakota 3-1 and at Boston University 5-4 in overtime last Saturday, Union has the top scoring line in the country in Mike Vecchione, Spencer Foo and Sebastian Vidmar, and is getting strong goalie play from senior Alex Sakellaropoulos.

RPI is coming off a 6-1 loss to Clarkson at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid that would’ve been 6-0 if Lou Nanne hadn’t scored with 11 seconds left in the game.

“One, we have to be more physically engaged to win puck battles,” Appert said. “That’s been the strength of our program. Rick talked to the media about that last year. Nasty, tenacious . . . in the years we had good years, they were just relentless on the puck, dog-on-a-bone mentality. That leads to second, third and fourth chances. Right now, we’re not meeting our standard on that.”

In his 11th season as the RPI head coach, Appert, who signed a contract extension in 2013 that takes him through the 2020-21 season, is on pace for his worst season, too.

He said he doesn’t think about whether his job is in jeopardy, especially while trying to find answers in the midst of a season.

“It’s part of the business that, when you win, it’s the players, and when you lose, it’s the coaches,” he said. “I’m a big boy. I can handle that.

“Last year, everybody’s telling you how great of a job you did, having a top-15 year with an unbelievable amount of injuries. This year, it’s not going how we want. Nobody’s happy about it. At the end of the day, I’m the head coach and I should be the one that takes responsibility and criticism for it. But I don’t sit around worrying about those things at night, I worry about how to get our team to play better hockey.”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 395-3146 or mikemac@dailygazette.com. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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