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On brink of playoff run, RPI hockey's season ends

On brink of playoff run, RPI hockey's season ends

Engineers had been in high anticipation of hosting ECAC Hockey quarterfinals
On brink of playoff run, RPI hockey's season ends
RPI men's hockey head coach Dave Smith addresses the media last Sunday at Houston Field House.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

TROY — First, they barred the fans from the game.

Then, its opponent pulled out, sending the RPI men's hockey coaching staff into a mad scramble to assemble a new scouting report for the game.

Then, the game itself was gone.

Everything was gone.

The great season that was for the Engineers boiled down to the disappointing week that was, as RPI fell in line and canceled all of its spring sports and its remaining winter sport — men's hockey — early Thursday afternoon.

While the spring sports were just getting underway, the hockey team looking forward to finishing the best season the program has had in years, which began back in early October.

The red-hot Engineers were scheduled to host Colgate in the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals; instead, they'll be on the sideline with everybody else.

In light of the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, RPI head coach Dave Smith's only choice was to take a philosophical position.

"I'm not playing the what-if game yet, because the nation is swept up in this," he said. "It wouldn't be wise to put ourselves in front of that. I think it'll come out in time.

"Man, we were on a roll. Anything is possible. But right now, nothing is possible. So I'm not playing the what-if game, I'm playing the game of, 'Man, I hope this whole virus in our world right now, that we can get our hands around it and stop it.'"

Thus ends a postseason with so much promise for @RPI_Hockey (freshman D Louie Helsen exits Houston Field House): pic.twitter.com/4pXsuwtd9X

The Engineers were scheduled to host a best-of-three ECAC Hockey quarterfinal series at Houston Field House Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday, a tremendous accomplishment for a program that had fallen on hard times.

RPI finished on a hot streak, winning 10 of its last 13 conference games to move into fourth place on the last day of the regular season, giving them a bye in the first round.

It may have been hard to believe a week ago, but a 4-1 win at Dartmouth on Feb. 29 — and not an intriguing playoff run — turned out to be the end of the Engineers' season. On Thursday, that was hard to stomach.

"I don't feel it's unfair. I don't feel we got cheated," Smith said. "I feel we are caught up in something so big that we're like a pebble on the beach. We're just a small piece of a big thing.

"Anytime business is unfinished, it's uncomfortable. It's awkward. It's unique. And our guys have unfinished business that they can't tend to."

"I've been in this for over three decades and dealt with some significant issues, but never anything like this," RPI athletic director Lee McElroy said. "The level of change was almost on an hourly basis, and to try and stay in front of it was extremely challenging."

After last weekend's first round results, No. 4 seed RPI was scheduled to host Harvard in the quarterfinals.

Harvard and Yale pulled out of the ECACH playoffs early in the week, and under a re-seeded format, Colgate became RPI's opponent.

That didn't last long, as RPI decided to drop out on Thursday, followed shortly by the conference's decision to cancel its whole tournament, which was scheduled to conclude in Lake Placid next weekend.

McElroy said there are almost 300 athletes in RPI's spring programs.

"I just left our building after I let the coaches know we were canceling all these spring sports. ... My lacrosse team was there, 45 of them, some of them bigger than me, crying like babies," he said. "And the ones who were really emotional were the seniors."

Smith, who has seven seniors on his roster, informed his team around noon that the season was over.

Many of them, including captain Will Reilly, a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, have pro hockey aspirations. They're on their own now to figure out how to stay in shape for whenever there is a return to normalcy.

They were all headed home on Thursday and will complete coursework online like the rest of the RPI student body, who have been barred from campus and will continue their studies remotely.

"Last Sunday, there was some anger. We were the first to say no fans," Smith said. "That was quick to turn into focus. We were doing everything to play this game.

"This group has a story of the season. Our story is unfinished and will remain unfinished, but it will be written, and it'll be written in a positive way.

"They did everything in their power to make this a phenomenal story. And something grave, one of the biggest health situations in history, is part of the story. And it'll be remembered."

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

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