BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — In the year of the little guy, the smallest of them all has punched its ticket to the Frozen Four.
Little Union College, with an enrollment of right around 2,200 and no scholarships for their student-athletes, came out of the East Regional on top with a 4-2 victory over another upstart club, Massachusetts-Lowell, in front of 5,328 at the Webster Bank Arena on Saturday.
“It means a lot, especially for the program and the steps we’ve taken,” said Union sophomore Josh Jooris, whose second-period tally held us as the game winner.
The Dutchmen had the better of the play throughout both of its regional games, but still had to hold off a pesky River Hawks team that capitalized on the limited Union mistakes and was within a goal and pressing through the final 15 minutes of the game.
It wasn’t until Union’s Kyle Bodie banked a shot off a Lowell defender and into a empty net with 40.6 seconds remaining that the team’s faithful that traveled in bulk from Schenectady, N.Y., could breathe a sigh of relief and burst into celebration knowing the next stop is Tampa, Fla.
The Frozen Four comes in what is just the second NCAA appearance for Union, having fallen 2-0 to eventual national champion Minnesota-Duluth in last year’s East Regional.
That loss, though, may have been the catalyst that this year’s Union team needed.
“In the summer, we realized we’d played the national champs pretty close [and] just didn’t score,” said junior Jeremy Welsh, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after potting a goal on Friday and adding a goal and an assist on Saturday. “It was a little motivation coming in here realizing you can play with anyone. It helps your psyche coming back.”
On Saturday, Union’s experience was notable. The team remained poised in most situations, particularly on the penalty kill where Lowell was unable to score in four chances, one of which was an extended 4-on-3 midway through the second.
“That [kill] was a big part of the game,” said Welsh. “They’ve got the ice out there and they’ve got some shooters. Guys were in lanes doing what they’re supposed to and that extra effort to get to the loose puck and get it down, that was huge.”
Lowell spotted the Dutchmen a 2-0 lead early in the second and looked to be down and out. Daniel Ciampini took advantage of a River Hawks’ turnover at 3:03 of the first to grab a 1-0 lead. Then, after holding an 18-9 advantage in shots in the first, Union expanded its lead in the second when Welsh was in perfect position at the right post to tip a Daniel Carr shot past Lowell netminder Doug Carr (35 saves).
Lowell didn’t quit, though.
Terrance Wallin got the River Hawks within a goal at 14:06 of the second when his centering feed hit off Mat Bodie’s skate and beat Troy Grosenick (19 saves), who earned All-Tournament Team honors.
Union regained the two-goal cushion when Jooris, a self-proclaimed player who is not known for his flashy goal scoring, netted his eighth of the season roofing a gorgeous backhander on the power play at 17:23 of the second.
“I got a little heat for that one,” laughed Jooris. “I just closed my eyes and it went in. That shot [a roofed backhander] is not my greatest asset.”
In the third, while Union maintained some semblance of control despite Lowell pressing, Welsh made what could have been a costly mistake. Turning the net with plenty of time and space, he lost control of the puck. It bounced to Lowell’s Matt Ferreira who fired it off Grosenick’s leg and into the net to cut the lead to 3-2 with 14:20 remaining.
That, though, was as close as the River Hawks could get, thanks in solid part to Grosenick. He turned aside two more Ferreira bids late in the game and then made a highlight reel blocker save from his back on Josh Holmstrom with 3:40 remaining.
Once Bodie added his empty-netter, Union realized its ticket had been punched.
It its first appearance by an ECAC team in the Frozen Four since 2003 (Cornell), should Union reach the final it will be the first ECAC team to a title game since 1990.
For Lowell, an unlikely season comes to an end short of what would have been that school’s first Frozen Four. The River Hawks’ turnaround is well-documented, having just five wins a year ago. Lowell finishes 24-13-1.
“Tonight, I didn’t feel we were sharp,” said Lowell coach Norm Bazin. “We didn’t hit any of our objectives.
“Just to get this experience with [the NCAA tournament] and to win your first game, hopefully we can build on this and get those two wins.”