SCHENECTADY -- Are they two ships passing in the night?
Or on a collision course?
How about both.
The RPI men's hockey team appears to be on a steady course forward in the early stages of Dave Smith's third season as head coach. Union, meanwhile, is in a substantial transition year, reflected in what is already the second-worst losing streak to start a season since the program moved to Division I in 1991-92.
They'll run into each other soon enough, as the Dutchmen and Engineers will open the ECAC Hockey season against each other on Friday night at Messa Rink and Saturday night at Houston Field House, with the Capital Skates Trophy on the line.
The teams find themselves in an unusual role reversal in 2019-20, as RPI's rising prospects stand in contrast to Union's early -- and likely season-long -- struggles. Although there is no consensus among interested parties, RPI looks like the favorite to Union's underdog.
"Are we the underdog? Yeah," Union head coach Rick Bennett said on Wednesday afternoon. "Of course we are, based on what our record is and what their record is. And I've got to tell you, from watching them, they look very good. Very good."
"Uhh ... if you say we're the favorite, then I guess we're the favorite," RPI senior forward Patrick Polino, drawing laughs from a group of media. "We don't look at it like that. We need to play our game, RPI hockey, and not stray away from that, if we're going to give ourselves a chance to win Friday night.
"I mean, college hockey is so close every night. Anyone can really beat anyone."
"That's a hard question to answer," Union junior defenseman Brandon Estes said, laughing. "I mean ... no [Union isn't the underdog]. As long as we're sticking to our process and progressing in practice, it should be just a hard-fought game between two good teams."
The Engineers are 2-2-0 after a 10-win season last year and have been pretty productive on offense, after averaging fewer than two goals a game last year.
Union is 0-6-0 and has been outscored 25-8 and outshot 211-107, after losing 6-1 and 5-0 at No.4 UMass last weekend.
Last year, the Dutchmen were 4-0-1 coming off two road wins against nationally ranked Northeastern when the winless Engineers swept two games, 5-3 at Houston and 4-2 at Messa.
It was the first time this year's senior class at both schools had experienced an RPI win over Union, after sweeps of the Capital Skates series and annual Mayor's Cup games the previous two seasons.
"No, I don't think any team is ever an underdog going into this weekend," Union junior goalie Darion Hanson said. "Look at us last year. We lost two games, and I'm pretty sure we were favored to win those by a lot."
"We know last year we were sort of the underdogs coming in, and we're preparing for their best and we're going to give them our best, for sure," RPI senior defenseman Will Reilly said.
"I don't look at it as a favorite; I look at it as a rivalry weekend," Smith said. "The experiences we had last year are part of it for both teams, but also the experiences that both teams have had up to now in this season help create the focus and the energy that's going to go into Friday night.
"The past is important, if you learn from it. I think we have recent experience and last year's experience to know that we've got to be ready."
Smith pointed to the fact that RPI beat UConn on the road 5-3 for the Engineers' first win this season, then played host to the Huskies six days later and lost 5-2 at Houston Field House.
Any sense of superiority over UConn vanished quickly.
"And that's a very recent experience that we can draw on, with the added knowledge that we do know what Union's done," Smith said. "We know who they've played, we know how close the scores have been. We know what's been happening, so let's learn from our experience against UConn and be ready."
No matter the result, the teams expect a fierce battle both nights.
Hanson called Friday "almost a must-win for us," and the Engineers are wary of a proud team that doesn't want a 0-6-0 start to keep heading south, especially to the benefit of a Capital Region rival with a trophy on the line.
"Playing these games is always fun, because it's such an intense rivalry, and the games are always a dogfight," Hanson said. "I don't care if we're the first team in the country or 60th, vice versa, wherever they are. It's always going to be a good game.
"I'm excited. It looks like that program has taken steps in the right direction. They've got some kids that can play, but at the same time, I think it's a very winnable game for us, and that's how we're looking at it."
"They could be really dangerous," Polino said of desperate teams in general. "They have nothing to lose, sometimes. They'll give you everything they have, and it's hard to keep up sometimes when they're just pressuring everywhere, taking risks. They're not really playing predictable."
"I don't know. I feel like you can never pick an underdog for a rivalry weekend like this," Union senior wing Anthony Rinaldi said. "Every time we play them, it doesn't matter where we are in the standings. Everyone's going to bring their best.
"I remember years where we were better ranked than them and they came out strong and won the game. So I don't think you can really choose an underdog team, especially on a weekend like this. Anything can happen."
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.