SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — With 5:25 left in the third period and trailing seventh-ranked Cornell by a goal, Union clinched sixth place in the ECACHL standings. What happened after that didn’t matter.
Even though the Dutchmen dropped a 2-1 decision to the Big Red on Saturday at Messa Rink, there was reason for them to celebrate. The teams that were battling them for sixth place, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Clarkson, both lost. RPI dropped a 2-1 decision to Colgate, while Clarkson lost to Harvard by the same score.
The Dutchmen (9-9-4 ECACHL, 16-14-6 overall) finished in a tie for sixth with the Engineers, but earned the sixth seed because they won the season series, 1-0-1. Clarkson finished eighth, two points back.
Union, which lost its last two home games, will host 11th-seeded Yale in the first round of the ECACHL tournament next weekend at Messa. The best-of-three series will start Friday at 7 p.m. It is the first postseason meeting between the two teams.
“It was a good season overall, we’re happy about that,” Union co-captain Scott Seney said. “We worked hard to get where we got. But we’re disappointed with the weekend not getting any points. We had a shot at a bye, and we blew that. We wanted to come away with a win tonight.
“All in all, we played well. We’re looking forward to this upcoming weekend.”
The Dutchmen finished sixth for the second time in four years. It was also four years ago that they last ended the league season with a .500 record, going 10-10-2 in 2002-03.
Union finished the regular season with a winning record for the first time since 1996-97, when it was 18-11-3. The last time the Dutchmen had a non-losing season was 2001-02, when they were 13-13-6. But they missed the playoffs that year, the final season of the league’s 10-team playoff format.
“What I’m most happy about is the way this team has improved throughout the year,” Union coach Nate Leaman said. “The last time we played Cornell and Colgate, we beat Cornell, but they carried the play for most of the game. I thought tonight’s game was a very, very even game. I thought there were momentum swings both ways.
“I thought [Friday] night’s game, the last time we played Colgate, they smoked us. And I thought we carried the play for most of the night [Friday] night. I’m happy with the way our team has come along, I’m happy with the way the team is playing and I think we’re going into the playoffs playing good hockey. I’m happy with the direction we’re going.”
Union and Cornell (12-6-3, 17-7-4), which finished third, traded short-handed goals in the second period. Cam Abbott scored one for the Big Red at 4:20, knocking in a pass from Daniel Pegoraro past goalie Kris Mayotte.
Less than seven minutes later, A.J. Palkovich stripped Byron Bitz of the puck at the Union blue line. Palkovich broke in alone on goalie David McKee, and beat him with a wrist shot to the stick side.
“I kind of dropped my shoulder, and tried to get him to go down,” Palkovich said. “He lifted up his [right] arm a little bit, and I tried to tuck it underneath.”
Matt Moulson scored the game-winner just over 5 minutes into the third. Three seconds after Union’s Bryan Campbell left the penalty box, Moulson skated untouched from the right point to the right circle. He fired a wrist shot past Mayotte.
“We gave Moulson too much time,” Leaman said. “The kid is an All-America player, and he buried it.”
But, in the end, it didn’t matter for Union. It held on to sixth.
Ken Schott covers college hockey for The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, N.Y.