RPI’s non-conference schedule this season is certainly unique. First off, how can you not start with the 4 game road trip at Alaska? Most road trips in college hockey are a 2 game series over one weekend, but RPI will head to Alaska for an entire week and 4 games in 6 days. Second, this is the first time in recent years that RPI does not have an in-season tournament. In the years past, they always had one whether it was the Friendship Four in 2017-18, the Catamount Cup in 2018-19, or the Turkey Leg Classic in 2019-20. Third, this year they have a whopping 16 non-conference games. Usually, it is 12, but playing games in Alaska do not count against the total 34 game limit, which allows them to play the extra 4 games. Finally, this year they will play against 2 independent programs. There are only 3 independent programs total in the country (Long Island, Arizona State, and Alaska), so playing 2 of them in the same year is pretty uncommon. These aspects of RPI’s schedule are cool to think about, but let’s get into the meat and potatoes of this preview.
RPI opens their regular season with a 2 game home series vs Bowling Green. Bowling Green is a great program that has been a top 20 team for the past 3 seasons in a row. Last season, they just barely missed the NCAA tournament and finished 18th in the USCHO rankings. Bowling Green is a team that is sustaining many losses from their team. They lose their top 5 scorers, and return only 4 out of their 13 players who had 10 points last season. They likely will have some sort of drop-off, but with how strong their program is, they likely have a very good recruiting class and will once against be a good team. This will be a tough test right out of the gate for the Engineers. Luckily, they will have had the exhibition game the week before. That will be very important because most of the team has not played a competitive game in over a year and a half. That game will help them get their skating legs under them. This was key for RPI in their season opener against UMass in 2019-20 as they came out strong in the first period of that game, while UMass struggled since they did not have an exhibition game prior. Bowling Green currently does not have any games on the schedule before they play RPI, so the Engineers will look to take advantage of that and come out hot to start the first game. Overall, this is a good challenge to start with, and splitting the series would be a good result to start the season. Doing better than a split would be fantastic, while doing worse wouldn’t be ideal, but it wouldn’t be a killer for the pairwise, and they could recover from it.
RPI will remember Canisius from their series in 2019-20 where the Engineers dominated the first game 7-2 and pulled out a tough second game 3-2 for the sweep. Many people would think based on that series and the fact that Canisius plays in Atlantic Hockey that they will be an easy win. Anyone who thinks that is sadly mistaken. Canisius is a good team. I don’t care that they play in Atlantic Hockey; they are going to be a tough team to play against. Last year, Canisius was 11-6 and one game away from the NCAA tournament when they lost the Atlantic Hockey championship to AIC. They had a high-powered offense, scoring 3.47 goals per game. Their defense was solid with 2.71 goals against per game, but their top goalie Jacob Barczewski put up a 2.30 GAA and 0.926 SV%. He’s a great goalie and will make scoring tough. To top it off, they barely lose any players of note. They return 7 out of their top 10 scorers, and they also return pretty much all their depth as 14 out of the top 17 scorers will be back. That’s not all though, as Canisius brings in a whopping 7 transfers (including former RPI Engineer Danny DiGrande). The top transfer is former Robert Morris forward Randy Hernandez, who was the Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year and made 2nd Team All-League in his freshman season while scoring over a point per game (11-14-25 in 24 games). Canisius’s returning players along with the experience they bring in through the transfer portal will make them one of the top teams in Atlantic Hockey. Overall, Canisius is going to be a tough opponent, and I would expect a split. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal scenario because losing to Atlantic Hockey teams often is bad for the pairwise. However, if Canisius is a top team in the conference as predicted, they will hopefully be high enough in the pairwise where a loss wouldn’t hurt too much.
Vermont is another repeat matchup from 2019-20, and since then, they have changed quite a bit. They underwent a coaching change and hired Todd Woodcroft. Last season was his first as head coach, and they had only 1 win with a 1-11-2 record overall. They scored only 1.54 goals per game and allowed 3.23. They were a very bad team, no doubt about it. Next year though, they should be competitive on a nightly basis even though they probably won’t be good in the wins and losses column, which is what usually occurs in the 2nd year of a new coach. There is significant roster turnover with this team as 12 players entered the transfer portal, and they added 4 new players from it (including former RPI defenseman Cory Babichuk) who will all contribute right away. This is a series that RPI will be expected to sweep, but UVM is going to compete hard. It won’t be easy to sweep them, and even if they drop a game, they would be okay in the pairwise because UVM is in Hockey East. Getting swept, however, would be a killer.
LIU is only in their second season of existence after their debut in D1 hockey last season. They put together a roster (which included former RPI Engineer Mat Harris) in mere months and fielded a team by the start of the season. They went 3-10, but only one of those wins was in regulation. They even lost to a club team when they played Liberty. LIU has tried to load up in the transfer portal and has secured 8 commitments, including one from another former RPI Engineer Billy Jerry. This will definitely help them for next year, but they are still expected to be among the worst teams in the country. It’s tough to see them being remotely competitive. This is a series that RPI needs to sweep. One loss would be a big blow in the pairwise, and the Engineers really need to take care of business for this series.
Northeastern is likely going to be the best opponent RPI plays in non-conference this season. They are going to be extremely gifted offensively as they averaged 3.29 goals per game last season, and they return 8 out of their top 10 scorers. Additionally, they have one of the best recruiting classes in the country with a couple high scoring USHL players and a couple NTDP players to go along with a high level transfer in Jakov Novak (7-10-17 in 15 games). This team has crazy good scoring depth, and they will have no problems putting the puck in the net. While Northeastern wasn’t good defensively last season, they were missing Buffalo goalie prospect Devon Levi all season, who put up record breaking numbers at the World Junior Championships last year. He could be one of the best goaltenders in the country. This Northeastern team looks like it is without a doubt destined for the NCAA tournament as a top 10 or top 15 team, and it is going to be a real challenge for RPI. Getting swept is likely the expectation, but if RPI can manage a split, that would be a great result in this series.
Alaska is a tough team to pin down because they didn’t play last season like RPI. In 2019-20, they had a similar record to RPI with a 16-15-5 overall record. They lose all top 9 scorers from that team though, and the majority of their recruits are from the NAHL and will not really move the needle to replace what they lost. While I don’t expect Alaska to be a very good team, traveling that far away is always a challenge. You have to adjust to the new timezone and also shake off the long plane ride to be ready to play. Once RPI adjusts though, I expect them to be the better team in this series. The expectation for this series is probably winning 3 out of the 4 games. Sweeping all 4 games would be excellent, but it is very difficult to beat the same team 4 times in a row. If they split, that would be okay, but this is a series RPI should be able to win.
Army is another Atlantic Hockey team that will be a challenge as they were one of the top teams in the league in each of the past 2 seasons. Last year, they went 15-5-1 and were an NCAA tournament bubble team. They were a high scoring team with 3.23 goals per game and return 8 out of their top 10 scorers, so they should be a strong team offensively once again. They were equally strong defensively, only allowing 2.18 goals per game. However, their starting goaltender graduated, so they likely won’t be as strong there. Army should still be a very good team once again this season, and what I wrote about Canisius basically applies to Army as well. They should not be underestimated because of their conference. This will be a tough test for the Engineers, and since it is only a single game, it truly could go either way. One game won’t make or break RPI’s season by any means, but this will be a good challenge as they get into the heart of ECAC play in the second half of the season.
Overall, I think the schedule for non-conference games is a bit weaker than usual, but there are still some challenges on it for sure. Northeastern and Bowling Green are top 20 programs although BGSU lost a lot and might not be as good this season. Army and Canisius are among the top teams in their conference and will be tough opponents. The schedule does not have a lot of middle ground since after those teams, the other opponents are expected to be weak. UVM, LIU and Alaska are all expected to be poor teams this season. I think UVM will be more challenging than they appear because I expect a leap in their second season. Alaska will be tough because of the long trip to get there, but a week spent there should dampen that effect. LIU should not be a challenge, but hockey can be a crazy sport. I predicted a 9-6-1 record in the season preview article, and I am sticking with that. For specific opponents, my predictions would be a split with Bowling Green, Canisius, and UVM, sweeping LIU and Army (one game), getting swept by Northeastern, and going 2-1-1 against Alaska. The other game is the Mayor’s Cup that I think RPI will win, but Union is a conference opponent, so I didn’t include them in this breakdown. As I said in the season preview, with a lot of roster turnover for the Engineers, they likely won’t be as good at the beginning of the season since it will take them time to click as a team. With most of their non-conference games taking place towards the beginning of the season, my prediction is a bit harsher because I chose to factor that in. The ceiling is absolutely higher than a 9-6-1 record in these games if RPI clicks earlier on in the season. We’re less than 2 months from puck drop, and we cannot wait to see how it all plays out! Let’s Go Red!