In what is sure the be the most grueling part of its 2018-19 schedule, the RPI hockey team is set to begin a stretch in which 11 of its next 12 games will be played away from the friendly confines of Houston Field House.
First on tap for RPI (4-7-0, 3-3-0) this weekend is No. 8-ranked Notre Dame in a pair of games in South Bend, Ind., the first two of seven in a row on the road before the Engineers return home to face Army on Jan. 5.
RPI, which faced the Fighting Irish twice last season, dropping both games in Troy, including a 1-0 overtime loss, left Troy on Tuesday to embark on the road trip.
“We’re going to catch an NHL game in Buffalo (Tuesday night), we’re staying in Erie, we’ll practice at Mercyhurst,” RPI coach Dave Smith said. “We’re going to visit a couple of people in Cleveland on the way and then we’ll get to South Bend.”
Smith was planning on taking all of his eligible players on the trip.
“Notre Dame, as an institution, is a wonderful place to visit,” Smith said. “It will give us a chance to get some bonding in. We like to play really good teams and they are a really good team. We continue to be a work in progress and our guys are coachable. Now, let’s see where we stack up against Notre Dame.”
The series is another challenging weekend against a highly ranked opponent for RPI, which lost a pair of games to open the season to third-ranked Massachusetts and swept a pair from 11th-ranked Union in late October.
“Our schedule has been challenging, that’s what we want,” Smith said. “We want these guys to have to learn to drive when there is chaos all around us.”
RPI was bolstered in last weekend’s two-game split with Massachusetts-Lowell by the return from injury of junior defenseman Will Reilly and freshman winger Jakub Lacka.
Reilly’s return after a three-game absence helped bolster the Engineers’ defense and give it a veteran presence on the blue line.
“We have a huge weekend coming up against Notre Dame,” Reilly said. “They are a really good team. They lost in the national championship game last year, so they are going to be really hungry for sure. Last year, we played them really well. We took them to overtime in that one game and felt like we could have won that game.”
Lacka, who missed nine games following the season’s opening two games, picked up where he left off Friday with his third goal in as many games and added an assist in RPI’s 5-2 loss to UMass-Lowell Sunday.
Lacka’s return should help bolster the offense and he skated well over the weekend with junior center Jacob Hayhurst and freshman winger Ottoville Leppanen.
“They are two really good players, two very intelligent, heads up players,” Hayhurst said. “They do a lot of the little things well like getting in on the forecheck and causing havoc. When one of us is open, we just try to get it to each other and create space. The more we play together, the better we’re going to get.”
Sean Martin, a local freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to the Times Union