RPI Mid-Season Review
Taking a big picture look at the first half of the season
We’re halfway through the 2022-23 season, and it’s been an up-and-down season for RPI thus far. With plenty of highs and lows, let’s try to cover them all.
A Hot Start
RPI had a great beginning to the season with a 4-0 record in those non-conference games and a 5-2 record in October. The start of the season really gave a positive glimpse at what this team can be when it’s clicking. They scored 3 goals per game in that time and looked fast and skilled.
Since that time, the Engineers are 2-7-1 with the offense mostly struggling. It went from 3 goals per game in October to 2.3 goals per game since. An 8 goal weekend provides some hope in that department as RPI looked to be improved offensively in their most recent weekend. The power play in particular looked more explosive and was quite successful.
It’s impossible to know for sure, but I feel as though the weak schedule to start the year did not prepare RPI for the grind of the ECAC. The first 5 games were all against teams in the bottom 15 of the pairwise. That’s not going to do you any favors when better teams start showing up on the schedule.
The thing is I can understand the logic. With a really young team, I’m sure the thought process was to get a few wins under the belt and go into those games with confidence, which would make up for the opponents being better.
Additionally, both Army and Canisius were expected to be a lot better than they are. Both were pretty good teams in Atlantic Hockey last season, but they have been among the worst teams in the conference this season. That’s not something you can really predict prior to the season, and it made the strength of schedule even worse.
Hopefully in future years some tougher schedules will be made to prevent this problem. It prepares the team for conference play and gives some wiggle room if teams end up being worse than expected.
Returning Forwards Stepping Up
RPI’s best forwards have primarily been the returners. Ryan Mahshie, TJ Walsh and Jake Gagnon lead the way in the goals department. Halfway through the season, all 3 have more goals this season than they did all of last year. The lack of team offense really shows up in their assist numbers, specifically for Walsh who is one of the best passers on the team. All 3 have played well though and created offense.
John Beaton has been way better than his point totals, and he has been crazy unlucky this season. He is one of RPI’s top chance creators by the numbers and by the eye test. He has created numerous dangerous scoring chances over the course of the season and had numerous chances for himself as well. They’re simply not going in the net.
Jake Lee is tied for the team lead in points with Mahshie, and he has shown the ability to be a good top 6 center. He had an absolutely dynamite start to the season with 9 points in the first 5 games, but since then, he only has 3 points in the last 12 games.
Lastly, it’s unfortunate Jack Brackett has been injured most of the season because his speed is truly game-breaking. He’s the best play-driving forward on the team halfway into the season, and they have really missed him on the 3rd line.
I was pretty high on our recruiting class coming into the season, and even then, the freshmen as a whole have been surpassing my expectations.
Starting with Sutter Muzzatti, I never had any doubts about his talent and skill level. I just didn’t think he’d be ready to contribute at this level as a freshman since he was only playing in the NAHL last year. He started slowly points-wise, but he was making plays and mostly unlucky as one of the consistent offensive chance leaders on the team. Now, he’s been playing outstanding with 7 points in the last 4 games. Muzzatti’s readiness to contribute has basically given the Engineers 3 top 6 centers and solidified their depth at the position.
Max Smolinski was the player I was highest on coming into the season, and even he has been better than I expected. I thought he could be a good, top 4 defenseman right away. He’s been even better than that as arguably RPI’s best defenseman in the first half of the season. He leads the team in points from the back-end, and he also leads the defensemen in xG% according to Brendan’s tracking. He has had a high-level two-way impact and should only keep getting better.
John Evans has been what I expected by playing pretty well on the 3rd line, but I think he has looked better than I thought he would. I was worried about his size coming into the season and thought that he would start out in the bottom 6 because of it, but it has not been a problem for him. Like Beaton, he is owed more points from the way he has played and the chances he has generated, and he is 2nd behind Brackett for xG% among forwards. He might stay on the 3rd line this season, but he looks like he’ll be a top 6 mainstay in the future.
Nick Strom is a redshirt freshman after missing all of last year due to injury, but he has been just as good as I thought he would. He has stepped in right away as a reliable defensive presence due to his skating, IQ and passing ability. He rarely makes mistakes and is great at breaking out the puck successfully. He’s just one of those players who you don’t notice too much because he isn’t flashy, but at the end of the game, you start remembering all the small, subtle plays he made and realize how good of a game he had.
Those have been the primary freshmen impacting the team, but the others have shown flashes of good ability too.
Danny Ciccarello has looked really good when he plays on the 4th line with his speed, size, strength and compete. He has been good on the penalty kill and already looks like a pretty good defensive 4th line center. As he keeps developing his offensive game to use his strength, speed and outstanding shot more to his advantage, he should only keep looking better.
Nick Ardanaz is the opposite as he has shown great flashes of high-end offensive ability with his skating, hands and passing. His play in his own end has struggled though, which is keeping him from being able to change those flashes into consistent high-level play. Long term though, Ardanaz looks like that game-breaking offensive defenseman that every team wants to have.
Finn Brown has shown similar flashes on the 4th line as Ciccarello. He has more size but still has the skating to go with it, and his aggressive forechecking has helped him make an impact when he plays.
A Veteran Presence
Kyle Hallbauer is among the oldest players in college hockey and accordingly has earned the nicknames “grandpa” and “the godfather”. Hallbauer has always shown a lot of potential on the ice with his great skating and smooth hands. This year, it seems like he’s put it together.
Brendan’s tracking has him 2nd among defenseman in xG%, and he has just looked really good all season. He consistently breaks up plays in his own end, and he has really cut out most mistakes from his game. He is doing all this while still being able to produce offensively with a solid 7 points in 17 games from the blue line.
Hallbauer’s play on the ice has been quite good, and when you combine that with his clear leadership abilities that led to him being the captain, it’s easy to see that RPI is very lucky he came back for a 5th year.
The last note I’ll leave you all with is this. The Engineers have shown a real knack for comebacks this season, even if some of them have ultimately fallen short.
It started with the second Alaska game. They went down 3-0 in the 3rd period and ended up coming back to tie the game. Two of the goals were with the net empty, and ultimately RPI won in a shootout.
The very next game against UVM, RPI went down 3-1 in the second period. Once again, they fought back to tie the game and send it into OT. Unfortunately, UVM took the game in OT, but it was another game coming back from a multi-goal deficit to send it to OT.
Lastly, against Princeton, they went down 5-2 in the 3rd period and were able to score 3 goals in the last 6 minutes. Two were with the net empty, but Princeton was able to get an empty netter to win by a goal despite the RPI onslaught at the end of the game.
Normal teams are not coming back from 3 goals down in the third period multiple times. That’s usually reserved for elite teams or teams with high octane offenses. RPI is neither of those this season, but their fight and ability to come back in those situations shows a determination beyond a typical team.
To use a football comparable, LSU football was expected to be either 6-6 or 7-5 in the beginning of a rebuild as Brian Kelly took over as a new head coach. They exceeded all expectations by going 9-3, beating Alabama and winning the SEC West division, widely considered the toughest college football division.
Whenever asked how he knew the team would be that good or if he could tell early on that they would exceed expectations, Brian Kelly always referred back to the first game of the season. LSU was down 24-10 against Florida State with 9 minutes left but came back. They drove 99 yards down the field in a minute and 20 seconds to score a buzzer beater TD that should have sent the game to OT. The extra point was blocked though, and LSU still went home with the loss.
Kelly knew then the team would be good simply because of the fight and grit they showed that night. They weren’t a good team that night, but he knew come the end of the season, they’d be playing their best and would be a good team then. He was right.
Football is not the same as hockey, but that theme carries over. Having a team with resilience and a good locker room isn’t just coach speak, it’s something that matters a lot. Ask any coach about talented teams they have had but got derailed by bad locker rooms with a lack of camaraderie and resilience.
On the other side, you can look no further than RPI’s playoff run last season to see why it matters. They lose in the first round if they didn’t have a good locker room with good people. They had to withstand losing the first game against Dartmouth, then they had to come back in the 3rd period down 3-1 to win game 3 and the series. Against Harvard, they would have lost easily in game 2 after the heartbreaking game 1 loss. They would have given up after going down 2-0, rather than coming back to win it in a grueling 2OT game. They even scored a goal with the goalie pulled in game 3 to cut that deficit. At the end of that series, everyone saw a resilient team that was extremely close to going to Lake Placid. They saw a team that went toe-to-toe with one of the most talented teams in the country and refused to go away.
If you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic after a rough stretch, this is by far the biggest one. Normal teams do not make two separate 3 goal comebacks within weeks of each other. This is not a normal team; it’s one with clearly a tight, close-knit and strong locker room, resilience, and determination. And those qualities have proven to lead to better results the deeper seasons get.
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