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Union, RPI hockey in much different positions

Union, RPI hockey in much different positions

With regular season almost done, Engineers shooting for first-round bye; Dutchmen trying to establish momentum
Union, RPI hockey in much different positions
RPI's Jake Johnson, left, and Union's Zach Emelifeonwu square off during the Mayor's Cup on Jan. 25.
Photographer: Erica Miller

One team doesn't know who it'll be playing in the first round.

The other team doesn't know if it'll be playing in the first round.

The first may not have a particular preference; the second clearly has a preference to sit out the first round and wait for the quarterfinals — on home ice, no less.

With one final two-game ECAC Hockey regular-season weekend on tap Friday and Saturday, the Union Dutchmen are pretty much stuck in place and know they'll be on the road, while the mystery is who their first-round opponent will be in the playoffs.

The RPI Engineers, meanwhile, have played well enough in the last four weeks to play themselves into a potential first-round bye, but they'll have some work to do this weekend to make that happen, starting with needing a victory at Harvard on Friday.

While the regular season is nearly over, both teams have much still to be decided — and profoundly different motivations — in games at Harvard and Dartmouth. The 10th-place Dutchmen (5-13-2 ECACH, 7-21-4 overall) are trying to get into a groove they can carry into the postseason, while the fifth-place Engineers (11-8-1, 15-15-2) can give themselves a valuable weekend off while waiting for the quarterfinals.

"It's not like we've won 15 in a row going into this and we can just take it easy," Union junior goalie Darion Hanson said. "We need to get things going in a positive direction.

"I guess there's a very slim chance we'll move up, but we're not looking at it in terms of that. We're looking at it as two games to set the tone going into playoffs. That's the season that matters most, and we've seen in years past that anything can happen from any team. We still believe if we play our best, we can play with anyone. Best-of-three series, anything can happen."

"There's still a lot to play for as far as finishing the season on the right foot," Union senior Zach Emelifeonwu said. "Last weekend, I thought we battled hard both games. Down the stretch, you want to make sure you're playing good hockey and not throwing any games away."

"It feels like we've been in playoff mode for over a month now, with every game being as important as it has been," RPI senior captain Will Reilly said.

"What we do know is Harvard's really good and Dartmouth's really good, and we're sandwiched between them in the standings," RPI third-year head coach Dave Smith said. "That says a lot about the interest we have in this weekend. Stay ahead, and catch teams, and let's do what we can do."

With the top four of the 12 ECACH teams getting a first-round bye, RPI's target to get into that group is to pass Harvard, which is two points ahead in fourth with four points available to each team this weekend.

The Engineers have to beat the Crimson on Friday, then at least match (in its game against Dartmouth) whatever Harvard does against Union on Saturday to get the bye.

There is still a slim chance that Union and RPI could see each other in the first round, but that scenario would require RPI to lose both games and be passed by Dartmouth and Yale to fall to seventh, while Union remains in 10th. (Yale plays Princeton and Quinnipiac this weekend.)

Harvard (10-5-5, 12-9-6) and Dartmouth (9-9-2, 12-11-4) are dangerous teams, but RPI is playing its best hockey of the season. Not counting two losses at Western Michigan of the NCHC and a non-conference tie with Union in the Mayor's Cup, the Engineers are 9-3-0 since the beginning of 2020, earning 18 of a possible 24 ECACH points.

"Since Christmas, we've been playing really good hockey, and I think it's just because we've been focusing on every game," Reilly said. "It doesn't matter what happened the last game.

"Before the season, the goal is to do as well as you can. So our goal is to be a top four. But as the season goes on, we're just trying to win the next game, we're not too worried about the standings."

"I think it's one of the reasons we are where we are in the standings, is because we play with a passion and a purpose every single night, and we try to practice with that passion and purpose," Smith said. "That's what playoff hockey is. You look at the top of the standings, and that's what those teams do. It's no nights off, no periods off, no moments off. We've stressed that, and the guys have really embraced that."

Most recently, RPI swept Quinnipiac and Princeton by a combined score of 11-1 in which senior Todd Burgess scored five goals, four against the Tigers.

That said, the Engineers' scoring has been fairly deep and balanced, with eight players in double digits in assists and seven with 17 to 22 total points.

"I'd be all right if there was a guy with 80, 90 points, just pulling everybody up, but, for us, we're a team that's built on depth, and it's really hard to score on a consistent basis, on a Friday and a Saturday, week after week after week," Smith said. "You can't focus on any one person, and that's the way we've been built."

Union played Dartmouth and Harvard just four weeks ago, getting throttled 8-5 as the Crimson cranked up what is by far the best-percentage power play in the country.

The Dutchmen followed up with a solid 4-3 win over the Big Green in which Dartmouth scored two unanswered goals in the third period to make it scary close.

Union is coming off a tie with Princeton and a disappointing 3-2 overtime loss on Senior Night to Quinnipiac in which Hanson made a single-game career-high 50 saves. The Tigers scored a fluky goal on the power play toward the end of overtime when Odeen Tufto centered the puck and it bounced in off the shaft of Union defenseman Ryan Sidorski's stick.

"I think it was good for me to have a performance like that," Hanson said. "I thought I played great. I had a lot of help from my team. It was a game where I saw a lot. They're a team that will shoot from everywhere, so it's easy to get those stat-stuffing games for goalies against teams that do that. Confidence-wise, it feels great for me, but in the same token, I think I've played harder games this year with less shots. Hey, I'll take it."

Union head coach Rick Bennett called for a 6 a.m. practice on Wednesday that Hanson and Emelifeonwu said was not fun to get out of bed for, but also was not punitive for any reason, as far as they knew. Bennett wasn't there for the weekly afternoon press availibility.

Despite the Dutchmen's record, Emelifeonwu said he's seen improvement in his freshman-heavy team since the beginning of the season.

"Yes. Yes. Oh, yeah, absolutely," he said. "Coming in with the amount of new guys we had, there was a period where we needed to adjust, and we've done that as the season has gone on. There's still areas to improve on, absolutely, but as a whole we've definitely improved, and moving into this weekend, we're kind of turning in the right direction."

Reach Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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