February 15, 2012

ECAC Journal: Union poised for tournament success

By Dan Guttenplan

The Union College hockey team has been the best team in ECAC Hockey since the start of 2012, posting an 8-1-2 record against league foes. 

Union goalie Troy Grosenick is 14-4-3 with a microscopic 1.58 goals-against average this season. (Photo courtesy of Union College Athletics)

It’s almost as if the defending regular-season champion Dutchmen (17-6-7, 11-3-4 ECAC) feel they have something to prove after failing to win in the league tournament last season. The top-seeded Dutchmen fell in three games to 12th-seeded Colgate.

First-year Union coach Rick Bennett, who served as an assistant on last year’s staff, dismissed the idea that this year’s team is motivated to make amends for last year’s postseason disappointment.

“That was last year,” Bennett said. “As far as our team, we haven’t talked about last year. Is it in the back of our minds? Maybe, but we haven’t talked about it.”

It could have gone in several directions for Union following last year’s early exit from the ECAC tournament. The Dutchmen could have deemed this year’s regular season irrelevant, knowing full well another regular-season title would only call into question their postseason struggles. Or the Dutchmen could use last year’s experience as motivation, using the regular season to set themselves up for tournament success this season.

The Dutchmen have chosen the latter option. After playing the toughest nonleague schedule among ECAC teams – with games at Niagara, at New Hampshire, at Michigan, at Merrimack, at Denver and at Colorado College – they have been dominant in ECAC play.

“Union has to be the odds-on favorite,” says Colgate coach Don Vaughan. “They’re solid at home (6-2-4). They compete in all zones well. They have great goaltending. I think they’ll be tough to beat this year.”

But is that toughness the result of last year’s postseason?

“Having been knocked out by us, it probably has something to do with it,” Vaughan said. “They want to prove they’re the best team in March.”

This is the first time all season every ECAC team had the same number of league games played, with the same number of games remaining. Each team will play four games before the conclusion of the season – two at home and two on the road.

Union sits two points ahead of Cornell (13-6-6, 10-3-5 ECAC) in pursuit of its second regular-season title in a row. Of course, that title would come with the top seed in the postseason tournament, a first-round bye and home-ice advantage until the tournament moves to Atlantic City, N.J.

“A regular-season title is one of our goals here at Union,” Bennett said. “It seems like the million dollar question: Do we want home ice? A couple of years ago, it worked for us against Quinnipiac. Last year, it didn’t work out for us.

“It’s nice not to travel. It’s nice to play in front of your own fans. On the other hand, the other teams have momentum from playing the previous weekend. If you ask me if I want a bye or not, I’ll take the bye every time.”

Game of the Week

Colgate at Clarkson, Saturday

Clarkson (14-13-5, 8-7-3 ECAC) sits in fifth place, one spot behind Harvard in the quest for a first-round bye in the league tournament.

The Golden Knights are 9-3-1 at home, but are coming off a 7-6 home loss to Quinnipiac Saturday night. Clarkson led in that game 2-0 and 6-4, but failed to hold on for the win.

Colgate (17-10-3, 11-6-1 ECAC), a team on a three-game winning streak, can lock up a top-four seed in the tournament with a weekend sweep at St. Lawrence and Clarkson.

ECAC Hockey power rankings

1. Union (17-6-7, 11-3-4): The Dutchmen are 4-0-1 in their last five games, and they have yet to show a chink in the armor this semester. However, they would be wise to pick up four points this weekend in a home set against Princeton and Quinnipiac for the purposes of locking up the league title. A season-ending road set at Cornell and Colgate will offer the most difficult weekend series in the ECAC.

2. Cornell (13-6-6, 10-3-5): The Big Red aren’t dead yet. After going 2-0-3 in the five games leading into last weekend, they picked up four points by outscoring Brown and Yale by a combined score of 9-4. Mark your calendars: The Feb. 24 showdown with Union at Lynah Rink will be the biggest ECAC contest of the year.

3. Colgate (17-10-3, 11-6-1): Raiders forward Austin Smith’s Hobey Baker Award hopes took a hit last weekend when he only recorded two points in wins against Yale and Brown. Opponents’ defensive attention is finding Smith, which is to be expected after netting 32 goals in 30 games.

4. Harvard (8-7-10, 6-4-8): The Crimson did the ECAC proud by beating Northeastern in the consolation game of the Beanpot. If you’re wondering when Harvard might finally return to the Beanpot championship, consider this: Junior forward Marshall Everson and freshman forward Colin Blackwell were named semifinalists for the Walter Brown Award, presented to the best U.S.-born college hockey player in New England. The future is bright for the Crimson.

5. RPI (8-19-3, 5-10-3): The Engineers are 5-3-3 in their last 11 games, and 10 of those are against ECAC foes. Here’s a guarantee: No team will want to play RPI in the ECAC tournament, particularly in the opening round. The Engineers will likely draw a No. 10 or No. 11 seed and make plenty of noise.

6. Quinnipiac (15-10-5, 7-7-4): The Bobcats haven’t won two games in a row since early December. Discipline in their own defensive zone is their weakness. They have allowed at least four goals in four of their last five games, and at least six in three of those contests.

7. St. Lawrence (12-15-3, 8-9-1): I ranked St. Lawrence as the 11th-best team in the ECAC last week and, after going 0-6-1 in their previous seven games, they swept a road set at Yale and Brown. Time to jump a few spots.

8. Clarkson (14-13-5, 8-7-3): Points will be hard to come by down the stretch for the Golden Knights. They play home games against Cornell and Colgate this weekend before wrapping up the regular season with games Dartmouth and Harvard. Say they go 1-2-1 in those games because Harvard’s always up for a tie. That will put them in the sixth or seventh spot in the ECAC.

9. Yale (10-13-2, 7-10-1): There are signs that the bottom is falling out on the Elis, who were seeded as a top-10 team in the nation in some preseason rankings. They trailed Cornell 4-0 after two periods of a 4-2 loss Saturday. With a loss at Colgate Friday night, it marked Yale’s third winless weekend since Jan. 15.

10. Dartmouth (9-12-4, 6-9-3): The Big Green have not won a game since Jan. 27, and they are 0-4-2 in their last six games. What happened to the team that took Cornell and Colgate to overtime – on the road – on the same weekend Jan. 20 and 21?

11. Princeton (7-12-6, 5-10-3): The Tigers are at Union and RPI this weekend, so points will be hard to come by. If I’m Princeton, I’m marking the season-finale against Brown as a momentum-builder for the ECAC tournament. The Tigers are 4-3-3 at home, but they will not be hosting a series in the tournament.

12. Brown (8-14-3, 5-11-2): The Bears have lost six in a row. They are in last place in the league standings. A No. 5 seed in the ECAC tournament and a first-round matchup with Brown is looking pretty safe for opponents right now.

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.