ALBANY, N.Y. — Every fan gets most excited to see his or her own team play. But for the casual hockey observer — in all maybe 15 of the 5,703 that made it out to the Times Union Center Friday — the second ECAC Hockey semifinal was by far the better hockey game. Not just due to the closeness of the final score, but also to the intensity that both teams played with and the dramatic increase in scoring chances from the afternoon affair taken by Cornell.
After being the only coach of the four at the championship not to announce his starting goaltender after the public team practices on Thursday, Union bench boss Nate Leaman gave the nod to ECAC All-Rookie backstop Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid worked hard to earn a 3-1 victory over St. Lawrence, which did not come easily as the Saints outshot the Dutchmen 30-19.
“The decision to go with Corey [Milan] last Sunday was based upon Corey’s strengths as a goaltender compared to Keith’s strengths,” Leaman explained of his decisions. “Then going into tonight, Keith had been fortunate enough to beat St. Lawrence twice this year and his strengths kind of match up a little bit better against St. Lawrence. He didn’t give up many rebounds tonight. I thought he did a good job of holding pucks and he did a good job of fighting through traffic.”
The shots on goal did not tell the whole story, though, as the game was played cleanly and evenly throughout. Special teams did not play a factor in the decision at all, as only five penalties were called, and neither side recorded a shot while up a man. The shot attempts were even, but the Dutchmen missed the cage on some of their best chances.
“We fought the puck a little bit tonight and that was part of it, we were missing the net,” agreed Leaman. “We had some good opportunities, especially in the second period I thought we missed on some of our best opportunities. It will be something that we’re going to have to play with a little more poise tomorrow night and make sure that our chances are getting on the net.”
Union took the lead 11 seconds after the end of its first power play when Stephane Boileau fired a pass from the left corner behind the goal line to Luke Cain in the slot, who hit his mark in the top right corner past the glove of Kain Tisi.
Tisi came up big to keep it a 1-0 game just over a minute later when he made two stops on Kelly Zajac, one initially on his shot from the left wing as he drove the net and then again on the rebound as Zajac followed his shot and tried to go around Kinkaid to the right on the follow.
Union lost Zajac for what was initially reported as the rest of the game shortly thereafter when he took a slash on the right wrist during a two-on-one that was not called. But he would return to the game early in the second period.
“Zaj is battling a couple bumps and he’s a warrior,” Leaman explained. “He got bumped up in the third period of our last game against Quinnipiac. I think the bottom line is at this time of year, a coach can’t replicate the type of team building that’s going on within the team. When a guy like Kelly Zajac is hurting pretty good and he comes out and plays, he’s sending a message to the rest of his teammates. He laid it on the line for his teammates and he’s a winner.”
The Dutchmen almost went up two a little over midway through the second as a Jeremy Welsh shot from the left wing circle handcuffed the glove hand of Tisi, leaving a juicy rebound as the goaltender continued to slide away from the net. The defense was there to knock away the loose puck.
SLU finally got even with 25 seconds remaining in the second period after some sustained even strength possession in the Union end. Derek Keller, one of the best defensemen in the ECAC at jumping up to the net, did just that as he took a pass back to the point from Jeff Caister, stepped around a defenseman, and beat Kinkaid with a rocket wrister through a Brandon Bollig screen.
“He really came into his zone probably last year I think in terms of the offensive part. He was a really high-end guy in junior offensively,” said SLU coach Joe Marsh, who spent his postgame news conference heaping praise on his soon-to-be-graduating seniors. “The poise he has with the puck, the decisions he makes. He’s had an unbelievable year for us with some of the goals he has had for us. He’s a great skater. It looks effortless. He’s one of those guys that has an almost indiscernible change of pace so he’s very difficult to defend against.”
That set things up for a classic third period back-and-forth battle.
Peter Child hit the far post with his shot from the left point nine minutes into the third. Not 30 seconds later, the Dutchmen retook the lead, 2-1. A turnaround shot by Jason Walters from the left wing half wall found its way between Tisi and the near post off a deflection in front of the crease by Adam Presizniuk. The assist for Walters gave him sole possession of the Union all-time career scoring lead with 115 points, though he is just one ahead of teammate Mario Valery-Trabucco.
“I’ve been well told [of the record],” Walters smiled. “It’s something you try to get over with as soon as possible. It’s a credit to the coaching staff and their recruiting. We got Adam Presizniuk who is right behind us who will probably smash it, so Mario and I will enjoy it while we can, but the coaching staff has done a great job bringing in players. It shows the talent that this school is able to bring in even on a financial aid package.”
Valery-Trabucco added an empty-netter to make it a 3-1 final score. A Union clear attempt got passed Keller on the far boards and squirted into the neutral zone, where Valery-Trabucco picked it up and found the back of the net from just inside the blue line.
The ECAC finally will get what it has been waiting for since the move to Albany — a final between the league’s largest fan base in Cornell and one of the local favorites in Union. It is dubiously ironic that it came in the final year before the championship moves to Atlantic City in 2011. It will be the second year in a row that a team will make its first appearance in the ECAC Tournament championship game, both against the Big Red, who lost 5-0 to Yale in last year’s title game.
“For us, it’s a game,” said Leaman. “But I think for the people that have gone before in this program and have had some struggles and taken some lumps to get us to this point, it’s a little bit more than a game. I think the building is going to be hopping tomorrow.”