Union, RPI pose next ECAC test for men’s hockey

Porous Bears defense figures to struggle with Union’s power plays, RPI’s trigger-happy offense

Sports Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2014

The men’s hockey team will take on conference foes Union and Rensselaer this weekend. Brown has failed to secure a single win in the ECAC this season, though these games could pose tough challenges to Bruno.

After a weekend in which the men’s hockey team was able to notch its second win of the season against Connecticut, Bruno will look to finally take the next step and do what Head Coach Brendan Whittet ’94 has been striving for all season: get conference points.

The Bears’ (2-7, 0-6 ECAC) opponents this weekend are Union (7-6-1, 1-4-1) and Rensselaer (6-9-1, 4-2), two teams that are used to conference success. RPI has hovered around the top of the ECAC all year — its only conference losses were to No. 15 Quinnipiac and No. 9 Harvard — but Union has struggled in ECAC play from the start. One explanation for the Dutchmen’s slow start is their opening conference strength of schedule: losses to RPI (twice) and Quinnipiac — both top teams — hurt Union, but it was able to tie Harvard and beat lowly Princeton to gain some ECAC momentum.

Up first for the Bears this weekend are the defending national champions, who come into Providence after a non-conference weekend similar to Brown’s — the Dutchmen beat Notre Dame but got demolished by a struggling Western Michigan team, while Bruno beat UConn but fell badly to Holy Cross. Led by impressive freshman Spencer Foo — who leads the team in goals, with seven — Union features a balanced front line, with 13 players who have registered four or more points this season. Accompanying Foo are a pair of sophomores, Mike Vecchione and Jeff Taylor, who are one-two in the ECAC assists column. Vecchione is second in the nation in points behind Boston University superstar Jack Eichel, who figures to be a top pick in next year’s NHL draft.

“They are so good because they have that experience of winning. They have returning players that have held trophies,” Whittet said. “They always play hard and are aggressive, and they are well coached. I know they have struggled a little bit, but when I watch them on film, I see that they have a lot of the traits of prior teams.”

One of the biggest problems for the Dutchmen has been between the pipes, where — similarly to the Bears — two goalies have contributed to the second-worst save percentage in the ECAC. (Brown has the worst.) Collin Stevens has started all 11 games he has played in, but has been pulled in three of those games in favor of sophomore Alex Sakellaropolous. Stevens has been the goaltender of choice for the last two years, but Sakellaropolous has had his share of impressive starts in that time, including a 31-save effort against the Crimson this year.

If the Bears have any chance at topping Union, they must stop its potent power play: The Dutchmen have a 20.9 percent conversion rate, the 15th-highest in the nation — for reference, Bruno’s overall conversion rate is 7.7 percent — and Union’s conversion rate is a whopping 26.4 percent in the ECAC. Brown averages a little over 10 penalty minutes per game, which means Union should score one or two power-play goals in that time, but if Brown can stop the Dutchmen, it might just be the tide shift it needs.

“I think getting (Matt Lorito ’15) back from injury will help our power play because he’s an elite offensive player,” Whittet said. “We just need to cycle pucks in front of the net and not overcomplicate things. As for the penalty kill, I thought it showed a lot of improvement last weekend, and hopefully that will continue.”

Unfortunately for the Bears, the squad will be without Dane Cooper ’18 and Zack Pryzbek ’17 this weekend, as Cooper suffered a concussion against Colgate and Pryzbek was injured in the same game as Lorito but has not experienced a similarly speedy recovery.

After the Dutchmen, the Bears welcome the Engineers, who come into Providence after a two-loss weekend against Michigan. For all RPI’s conference success this year, its statistics are not as gaudy as Union’s: Rensselaer has only scored 1.56 goals per game this year, third-worst in the ECAC. Riley Bourbonnais and Lou Nanne lead the Engineers with four goals apiece, with Drew Melanson and Mark Miller heading the assist tally.

In goal, Jason Kasdorf has started 12 games this year, going 6-6, while Scott Diebold has filled in and performed poorly, losing three of his only four starts. What the Engineers do well is find ways to attack the net, as they lead the ECAC in shots per game. And with Brown last in the league in save percentage, that could prove to be a recipe for disaster Saturday.

“Rensselaer has had great goaltending this season and is always a fundamentally sound defensive team,” Whittet said. “They have good special teams, and we know it’s going to be a tough matchup.”

Both matchups for Brown will likely prove difficult, as the Bears lost all four games against RPI and Union last year. And if Bruno’s conference record this season is any indication, playing two consistent games this weekend would be the first time that has happened all season. But playing consistent hockey was one of the team’s goals this year, Whittet said, and if the Bears can do that, they have a good chance to achieve their main goal: getting conference points.

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