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Be your favorite college hockey team what it may, you probably have heard sports talk like the following:
"Maybe we're all wrong on this. Everyone I talk to ... 'ahhh, it'll be a blow out this weekend-- Union's gonna steam roll'm.' Ya never know," said Roger Wyland.
"That's why they play the games--ya don't play the games on paper," chimed Ken Schott.
"No, ya don't! You would think this would be two wins for Union, but you never know!" Wyland reiterated.(1)
These snippets are taken from an edition of Wyland's "Big Board Sportstalk" on Fox Sports 980 WOFX-AM, during which hockey columnist Schott discussed with Wyland the upcoming 2014-2015 home-and-home college hockey series between arch rivals Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
As I contend elsewhere, the RPI-Union hockey rivalry, from the early 20th century to the 2014 Mayors' Cup, has been fiercely competitive and bursting with exciting surprise, so that what has emerged as the Route 7 Rivalry in the last decade or so might be considered one of the greatest matches on today's US college hockey landscape. Now that RPI and Union have played their 2014-2015 home-and-home series, some questions spring to mind: What prompted the general consensus that Union would hammer RPI? What observations capture these games?
No college hockey team remains the same from one season to the next. But as the Route 7 Rivalry and the opening of the 2014-2015 ECACH campaign approached, who would ignore the recent feats of the Union College hockey program?
Union lost to RPI in the infamous 2014 Mayors' Cup, but the Dutchmen earned a win-loss-tie record of 9-1-1 in its last eleven visits to RPI's Houston Field House--a series of victories that enabled Union to bring its record against RPI as a Division I opponent to 30-30-9.(2) The Dutchmen skated into RPI's Houston Field House on Halloween 2014 as champion of the previous three ECACH tournaments and as the defending 2014 NCAA champion. Through the first month of the 2014-2015 season, the Dutchmen, considered by the USCHO.com poll/rankings to be the second-ranked US college hockey team behind the University of Minnesota(3), enjoyed perhaps its best start in its Division I history, outscoring its opponents 25-10, and producing a win-loss-tie record of 5-1-0.
Where Union's hockey team during the early 2014-2015 campaign looked something like Goliath, RPI's team looked as if it could not spell David. When RPI hosted Union in Troy, NY, for their seventieth Division I contest, the Engineers posted a dismal record of 1-5-0; and, in these six games, it had been outscored 21-6 and blanked three times! Furthermore, where Union's Rick Bennett was 10-1 against RPI since becoming head coach in 2011-2012, RPI's Seth Appert was 5-20-3 against Union since he took over as head coach in 2002(4). As Wyland put it, "RPI fans are not happy."(5)
On the morning of October 31, I received a telephone call from a friend who predicted Union would easily sweep RPI. "Compare their performances so far this season," my friend urged. "Look at their special teams stats, and Union's sixth leading scorer is defenseman Sebastian Gingras with 2 goals and 1 assist while RPI's leading scorer is forward Lou Nanne with 2 goals and 1 assist(6). A Union sweep is as indisputable as decapitation."
Oh dear! The series' outcome is captured well by local Sunday newspaper headlines. The Daily Gazette reports "Engineers Finish Sweep," while the Times Union reports "Engineers Complete Sweep."(7) RPI swept Union by scores of 6-1 and 2-1 (in overtime), its first league-series sweep since January 2004--a stunning sweep that propels RPI's command of the rivalry, with a 32-30-9 record.
So what had happened? As far as I can tell the answer probably cannot be extrapolated from the sentiments I overheard while visiting the Field House's men's room during the first game's second intermission where one fellow asked aloud, "What do we call those two periods?" to which someone else answered modestly, "a miracle." Nor do I count on the answer suggested during the middle of the third period (when a Dutchmen comeback appeared bleak) by an RPI crowd chanting: "Overrated, Overrated, Overrated!" After all, the US college hockey rankings are often useful, but (with a precious few exceptions) they are rarely excellent representations of the realities of who is better than whom and who can beat whom, until perhaps a season matures sometime in February. Maybe the stunning Halloween upset was not so much a case of the precarious rankings as it was the case of a struggle between two teams harboring divergent attitudes: one team absorbed by a sense of entitlement to reign supreme and the other team absorbed in the resolve to beat its biggest rival. Listen to snippets of coaches'post game interviews during which Bennett ruefully stated, "Are we a little bit chained to last year? It certainly feels like that ... like there's a little bit of entitlement," while Apart gibed, "it's what you expect, coming off a weekend we were not happy about, and playing our biggest rival who's the national champion."(8)
I attended both games (with my friend Kevin Kearns), and witnessed RPI on home ice clobber Union. In a post game remark, Bennett pronounced that RPI's performance was probably the best he had faced while coaching at Union(9). Meantime, it can be said, without too much exaggeration, that teams play only as well as their opponents allow them to play. As far as I discern, RPI skated with glaring surges of speed and playmaking poise and finish around the net but did so only because the Dutchmen lumbered uncharacteristically, as if its players were struggling against both RPI and a nasty flu.
RPI's admirable achievement in Troy was likely enhanced by Union's attitude of commingled overconfidence and unreadiness to compete against RPI. The next night at Union's Messa Rink the arch rivals played an opponent who was now more fully created by themselves--RPI was now more confident, Union was now less presumptuous and more prepared. On this night in Schenectady, NY, the game, aggressively contested all over the ice, was in constant transition as pucks moved fast from stick to stick and team to team and end to end. Appert called this game a "dogfight,"(10) which is the brand of ice hockey this rivalry's fans expect to see.
On Messa ice, Union outworked RPI, controlling face offs (40 of 53), shooting more pucks (35 to 27), and creating more good plays and quality scoring chances. Some very significant numbers favored not RPI but rather Union. But this game (like all hockey games do) comprised an unpredictable mix of the ebb and flow of quirky moments and critical moments when the game can be said to have swung for good or bad. It is hard, then, to overlook several rhetorical questions. Did Union fail to orchestrate on all six of its power play opportunities (one of them a two man advantage) because of bouts of momentary ineptitude or did RPI's penalty killers defend masterfully, with aggressive cohesion? Did Union turnover too many pucks or did RPI anticipate Union's passing strategy well enough until Mark McGowan intercepted the right puck in the right place at the right time and ably buried the tying goal? Did Union fire enough pucks on goal with surprise and precision or did RPI's unflappable goaltender Jason Kasdorf provide his team with what it needed when it needed it--particularly by blocking a blast from the slot in the closing minutes of regulation time--and thereby infuse his teammates with enough confidence and energy needed to create the dramatic, congested goalmouth scenario in overtime where Viktor Lillegren jammed home the winning number?
Fiercely competitive and bursting with surprise? Probably it depends on whom you ask. As for me, I agree with the aforementioned view expressed by Schott and Wyland, and I maintain RPI and Union are excellent opponents who continuously define each other in one of the greatest college hockey rivalries on the US college hockey landscape.
(1) Ken Schott, "Parting Schotts, 'Slap Shots' podcast, with Reale and Unger," The Daily Gazette, 30 Oct 2014, http://www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/schott/2014/oct/30/slap-schotts-podcast-reale-unger-now-available/.
(2) Engineers Ice Hockey program, 31 October 2014; and Union College Dutchmen Game Day program, 31 October 2014. While these hockey programs split 69 games as Div I opponents since 1991-92, RPI held an all-time 46-32-10 record. See Union College Dutchmen Game Day program, 1 November 2014, 14.
(3) USCHO Div. I Men's Hockey, Div. I Men's Polls/Rankings, 13 Oct 2014-27 Oct 2014, http://www.uscho.com/.
(4) Ken Schott, "ECAC: No need for extra precautions,"Daily Gazette, 31 October 2014, B-2.
(5) Ken Schott, "Parting Schotts, 'Slap Shots' podcast, with Reale and Unger," The Daily Gazette, 30 Oct 2014, http://www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/schott/2014/oct/30/slap-schotts-podcast-reale-unger-now-available/. (See also, http:/ /www.foxsports980.com/onair/rodger-wyland-1777/ken-schott-college-hockey-the-daily-12918267/).
(6) During this call, I did not know these specific statistics, but my friend's statistical commentary was accurate, as my subsequent fact check confirmed: RPI's pp was 7.7% and Union's 17.2%, while RPI's pk was 71% and Union's 87%. See, Engineers Ice Hockey program, 31 October 2014; and Union College Dutchmen Game Day program, 1 November 2014.
(7) Ken Schott, "Engineers finish sweep," Sunday Gazette," 2 Nov 2014; Sean Martin, "Engineers complete sweep," Times Union, 2 Nov 2014, B-1.
(8) For Bennett, see Ryan Fay, "Rick Bennett post game 10/31/14," in Engineers throttle Dutchmen, 6-1," Union Hockey Blog: Audio/Video, http://unionhockeyblog.blogspot.com/.
For Appert, see: Ryan Fay, "Seth Appert postgame 10/31/14," in "Engineers throttle Dutchmen, 6-1," Union Hockey Blog: Audio/Video, http://unionhockeyblog.blogspot.com/.
(9) "Rick Bennett post game 10/31/14," Union Hockey Blog: Audio/Video, http://unionhockeyblog.blogspot.com/.
(10) Ken Schott, "Appert's interview," Union-RPI postgame report: Saturday edition (with 4 videos), The Daily Gazette, http://www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/schott/2014/nov/02/union-rpi-postgame-report-saturday-edition-4-video/.
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