To outsiders, it was a statement weekend. Internally, there was satisfaction, but not much else.
“Apparently, we did two things over the last few weeks that this program had never done,” said Union coach Nate Leaman, wondering aloud about the accuracy of what he was about to say. “I heard we had never beaten a ranked opponent until we beat St. Lawrence. And we had never swept Rensselaer in a season.”
The next word out of the coach’s mouth said it all about the new-found attitude of his first-place Dutchmen (5-5-0, 4-0-0).
“When you expect it, you’re not surprised when it happens.”
Leaman also offered a wise reality check.
“The [ECACHL] season is 22 games long, not four. When you see our locker room or are on the bus, you see that we’re not overly excited.”
Perhaps not, but Union fans sure are … and for good reason.
After starting the season with four straight losses, the Dutchmen are 5-1-0, including a four-game winning streak in which they’ve tallied 18 goals. Last weekend, they defeated travel partner RPI in Troy on Friday and again at home on Saturday, going a combined 4-10 on the power play.
“Their top line really held them in the first game,” said Leaman about the Engineers’ trio of Kevin Croxton, Nick Economakos and Kirk MacDonald, who accounted for two goals and three assists. “We talked about that before the second game.
“That first night we dressed seven freshmen. The second night we had eight. On defense, we had one senior, one junior, two freshmen and two sophomores. They did a great job and eventually Fridge (RPI coach Dan Fridgen) split up his top line, which was good for us.
“The second night I thought we were really taking it to them and their goalie kept them in them game. Then came the orange incident.”
Ah yes, Citrusgate.
When fans threw oranges onto the ice for the second time after a Union goal, the Dutchmen were whistled for delay of game. The Engineers scored on the ensuing power play then tallied again to make it 3-2. Union managed to regroup and hold on for the win, but it was a critical test of composure for Leaman’s young squad.
“When you are young,” explained the second-year coach, “it means you haven’t been through it yet. If we had eight seniors, we would have gone out and regrouped.”
Even so, the Dutchmen managed to hold off the charging Engineers, thanks in large part to Jordan Webb.
“We have a great captain,” Leaman said. “Webb led us. He stood up and said a couple of words on the bench in the third period and helped calm us down.’
Webb didn’t just make his presence felt for the first time on Saturday; he’s been excelling all season. He’s tied for the team lead with Scott Seney in scoring (12 points), leads the nation in power-play tallies (seven) and is tied for first in the country with 10 goals.
“I really challenged the seniors before the year to be the hardest workers on the team and in practice,” said Leaman. “Webb has come through. He said the other day that this is ‘the funnest two weeks in his life in hockey.'”
When you consider some of the program’s struggles during Webb’s time in Schenectady, his enthusiasm makes sense. Life is a bit different now.
“We’re paying the price and getting wins,” remarked Leaman. “We’re pushing guys in practice and having success with it. I don’t know if it will be successful all year, but it is now.”
Union’s current run and overall improvement is not only because of Webb. His teammates have made a significant impact at both ends of the ice as well.
“Seney is a big center, which we don’t have a lot of,” explained the coach. “He works his tail off and his work in the weight room has really paid off.”
Junior Jonathan Poirier (3-8-11) and sophomore Olivier Bouchard (4-4-8) have also made significant impacts up front. Meanwhile, on defense, the quick maturation of a handful of blueliners has been key.
“Sean Streich has really stood out,” Leaman said about his sophomore defenseman. “He’s been a leader out there. The freshman defensemen have adapted really well. Michael Beynon is playing against other teams’ top lines and Phil McDavitt plays in all situations.
“With senior Matt Vagvolgyi out, he’s been our quarterback on the power play. It’s allowed our young players to get a baptism by fire.”
In goal, Union has also benefited from two capable netminders — junior Kris Mayotte and rookie Justin Mrazek. The veteran goalie is 3-3-0 with a 3.84 GAA and .881 save percentage, while his understudy is 2-2-0 with a 1.52 GAA and .941 save percentage.
“It’s a good situation for both of them,” commented Leaman. “With Kris, I’m not really concerned if he lets up three or four goals. I’m more concerned about getting the win and he always seems to find a way to do that for us.
“Justin has played really well. We put him in pressure situations, like a sellout at home against RPI. He has a calmness about him and is open to learning and working on his game.
“It’s important that they play well, especially with our young defense because we will make mistakes.”
Thus far, those errors have been minimized and the Dutchmen are reaping the benefits.
Critical Battles in New England
Coaches are constantly stressing the importance of each league game — how quickly a four-point swing can send a team rocketing up the standings or sliding down them. Union and Vermont have been the beneficiaries of fast starts, while RPI and Yale have only one league win between them.
In the Engineers’ case, last weekend’s losses were twice as bad because they came at the hands of the Dutchmen, a team they do not play again in the regular season.
This weekend brings us a set of four games that rank high in importance, when Colgate (7-3-0, 2-0-0) and Cornell (4-1-1, 2-0-0) travel to Vermont (5-4-2, 3-0-1) and Dartmouth (3-3-0, 2-2-0). The games pit three teams undefeated in league play, with the four clubs separated by only three points. The New York duo also has two games at hand over the New Englanders.
“It is a big weekend,” agreed Raiders’ coach Don Vaughan. “The four points on the table are as big as any games in February and March. I would suspect that both teams will be there down the stretch.”
Which is exactly why each club’s final league games before Thanksgiving have taken on such importance.
“We know we have an incredible challenge in front of us this weekend,” said UVM coach Kevin Sneddon about his team’s toughest league test to date.
The action starts in Hanover and Burlington when Colgate and Cornell, respectively, come calling.
The Raiders saw their two-game winning streak snapped with a loss at Massachusetts-Lowell last Friday and have played only .500 hockey (3-3-0) since starting the season with four straight victories. The 3-2 defeat at the hands — and sticks — of the River Hawks was a microcosm of Colgate’s season thus far.
“We were a little inconsistent,” admitted Vaughan. “That’s been the trademark of our club so far. We played some great minutes, but not in the early part of the third period and they capitalized.
“We’re not playing a full 60 minutes. I know a lot of coaches say that. Some of it has to do with the flow of the games, but not all of our guys are clicking. We’re not a good enough team to have just seven or eight guys playing well. We need to get everyone going.
“This is a different year. We’re not sneaking up on anyone. We’re getting everyone’s best effort.”
Of those who are clicking, many are familiar faces. Despite belonging to a veteran team, Adam Mitchell (4-4-8) is the only senior in the top five in scoring. Sophomore defenseman Mike Campaner leads the way with 10 assists and 11 points, while juniors Jon Smyth (6-4-10) and Kyle Wilson (3-7-10) have picked up where they left off last season when they combined for 35 goals and 73 points.
In addition, sophomore Marc Fulton (5-3-8) and freshman Tyler Burton (2-5-7) have made significant offensive contributions on a near-nightly basis. But, when asked about which player has really stood out, Vaughan points to one of the Raiders’ more unheralded players.
“Joey Mormina has been a bit of a surprise this year,” said the coach about his 6-foot-6, 230-pound defenseman. “He suffered from post-concussion syndrome during the summer so he wasn’t able to do his usual work. We didn’t think he’d play early on, but we needed him and he ended up playing a lot of minutes in a physically demanding role.”
In fact, Mormina has yet to miss a game this season. The consistent blueliner also has the ability to chip in 12-15 points a season.
Another key contributor on defense has been rookie Matt Torti. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, he gives Vaughan another tower in front of netminder Steve Silverthorn (7-2-0, 2.26, .911).
“He’s established himself as a regular in our lineup,” explained the coach, “which is exactly how we saw him when we recruited him.”
The Raiders will battle another inconsistent squad in the Big Green on Friday. Coach Bob Gaudet’s sextet snapped a two-game losing streak with its win over St. Lawrence (6-6-1, 2-3-0) on Saturday, but before that had managed just one goal in its previous two contests. In addition, the victory in Canton was the team’s first since February 1998.
A preseason favorite to capture the regular-season title, Dartmouth is a .500 team that has had to deal with a series of injuries, the latest to junior Hugh Jessiman and sophomore defensemen Ben Lovejoy and Grant Lewis — though the latter of the blueline duo is expected to play this weekend.
And while the Big Green have only played six games, what has become clear thus far as that they may go only as far as senior captain Lee Stempniak (2-1-3) can take them. Dartmouth is 3-0-0 when he notches a point, but 0-3-0 when he’s kept off the scoring sheet.
“[They] seemed to turn it around with a nice win at St. Lawrence,” said Vaughan about the Big Green. “We’ve seen Dartmouth a lot, especially in the playoffs. We know each other pretty well and Stempniak has been a thorn in our side for years. He’s one the best forwards in the country and he’s really brought his game to another level.
“Even without Jessiman, they are a pretty good hockey club. Stempniak is the guy who scares me, but they have good depth.”
That depth has helped control the puck and allowed for a barrage of shots each night (41.2 average shots per game), but the actual tallies have been tough to come by. Forwards Mike Ouellette (1-5-6), Tanner Glass (2-3-5) and rookie David Jones (3-1-4) lead the way offensively, along with defenseman Garrett Overlock (2-2-4). But when a player the caliber of Stempniak is fifth on his team in points, it had better be because others are having career years. Otherwise, the offense is in trouble.
What’s helped bail the Big Green out at times has been their goaltending. Senior Dan Yacey is 1-2-0 with a 1.69 GAA and .939 save percentage, while sophomore Sean Samuel is 2-1-0 with a 2.33 GAA and .900 save percentage.
On Saturday, Colgate will be facing one of the hottest teams in the league. UVM is riding a six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2) and has turned its season around after starting 1-4-0.
Rookie sensation Joe Fallon (5-2-2, 2.13, .925) has been the anchor of this squad, while senior Scott Mifsud has been an offensive machine. He has eight goals and 15 points in just 11 games after notching 25 points in 35 contests last season. Add in Brady Leisenring’s nine points in six games, rookie Torrey Mitchell’s eight points and Chris Myers six goals, and you can see how UVM has been distributing its production.
“We’re getting great leadership in all roles,” explained Sneddon. “We have forwards who are doing the job from a production standpoint and we have forwards doing the job on defense, [including] Chris Smart, Tim Plant and Ben Driver.
“On the blueline, Jaime Sifers is our toughest competitor and leader, but we are getting significant contributions from players like Ryan Gunderson, Kenny Macaulay and [freshman] Mark Lutz. All of our defensemen have really stepped it up from last season.”
This explains why the Catamounts posted their fifth win three months earlier than they did in the 2003-04 campaign. Such a dramatic turnaround is rare, but it says a lot about the bad breaks of a year ago and the new-found fortunes of 2004-05.
“It all boils down to leadership and becoming a tight team,” Sneddon said. “Everybody is on the same page; everyone puts the team before the individuals. When you have leaders like Sifers, Mifsud, Leisenring and Plant, who lay it all on the line game in and game out, good things happen. Last year, we didn’t have guys paying the price until the second half. Our guys are playing for Vermont and not for themselves.”
Which is the attitude UVM will take into its games against the Big Red and the Raiders.
“Mike [Schafer] has his team playing excellent hockey, as usual,” said Sneddon about Cornell. “There’s a reason they are a top-10 team right now. At the same time, we feel good about the way we are competing right now and we look at Friday’s game as a great challenge and a great opportunity.
“As for Colgate, they are strong, if not stronger than last year, so we expect another tough game from them on Saturday. Colgate has great goaltending and a team that pays the price in all three zones.”
First things first, though. And that means a visit from No. 9 Cornell.
“Both rinks are tough places to play,” said Schafer in reference to his team’s trip to Gutterson Fieldhouse and Thompson Arena. “Vermont is playing very well and with a lot of confidence and Dartmouth is a good club.
“Every weekend is essential. There are no easy games.”
The Big Red had won their first four games before last weekend’s trip to Michigan State. Cornell tied the Spartans (1-1) the first night and lost (2-0) two days later in a Sunday afternoon contest. After scoring seven goals three times and racking up 23 tallies in four contests, the offense disappeared.
“We didn’t play very well on Friday,” said Schafer. “David McKee was fantastic (36 saves). On Sunday, we got it going a little bit, but it was a tough weekend.
“Up until then, we had balance from everywhere. In order to have success, we need to have balance and contributions from everyone.”
Remarkably, only two skaters have yet to record a point. Everyone else — goalies not included — have at least two points.
“We roll four lines and six defensemen,” explained Schafer, “and keep constant pressure. We hope to capitalize on opportunities. It’s the same philosophy we’ve always had.”
Despite the balanced attack, junior Matt Moulson (4-3-7) is the team’s biggest threat, especially on the power play, where he’s scored three times.
Defensively, the Big Red are up to their old tricks again, having limited this season’s opponents to just seven goals in six games. In league play, Cornell has outscored opponents 9-2 in its first two contests. Central to this success is the young man between the pipes. McKee, a sophomore, is 4-1-1 with a 1.19 GAA and .947 save percentage .947 save percentage.
“Finding a way to get scoring changes against Cornell,” answered Sneddon when asked about the biggest challenge facing his squad when they host the Big Red.
“They are very disciplined from a defensive perspective, so teams can get frustrated when trying to generate offense.
“Throughout the weekend, fans should see some great hockey and some spectacular goaltending.”
Brown (1-3-1, 1-3-1) travels to No. 8 Minnesota-Duluth (5-3-2, 4-2-0 WCHA) to face the struggling Bulldogs. At one time UMD was 5-0-1 and ranked first in the country. Then Vermont came to town and the Bulldogs now find themselves mired in a 0-3-1 slide, having scored just six goals in the last four games while giving up 13. The Bears, meanwhile, snapped an 0-3-1 streak of their own by defeating Yale on Saturday. Brown and UMD have met six times, with the Bulldogs leading the all-time series 1-5-0.
Dartmouth hosts Colgate and Cornell this weekend. The Raiders lead the all-time series against the Big Green 35-33-3 with Colgate going 2-0-1 against Dartmouth last season — including the ECAC consolation in Albany. The Big Green also trail in their all-times series to Cornell, 64-36-2, after the clubs split last season’s series. Dartmouth is 6-2-1 versus the Big Red in the last six years.
Vermont tries to play the role of unwelcoming host to Cornell and Colgate as well. But, like its travel partner, the Catamounts trail in both of the all-time series. The Big Red have dominated winning nine straight against the Cats to push the series advantage to 31-12-7. Last season, Cornell didn’t allow a goal to UVM in either contest. The Raiders, meanwhile, split last season’s series and hold a 33-22-5 lead in the head-to-head match-up.
Princeton (2-3-1, 2-2-0) returns home after having had its two-game winning streak snapped in Cambridge to host Union and Rensselaer (5-5-1, 1-3-0). The Tigers lead the all-time series against the Dutchmen, 17-11-3, but trail in the matchup against the Engineers, 22-54-8. Princeton split with Union last season, while getting swept by RPI in the regular and again in the first round of the playoffs.
Yale (0-6-0, 0-4-0) is still searching for its first win after playing its best game of the season at Harvard last Friday. Outscored 35-8 thus far, the Bulldogs trail in their all-time series against RPI, 30-44-5, after splitting a pair last season. Following the same split decision last year, the Elis retain the upper hand over Union, 15-7-2.
Tuesday will see three additional mid-week games involving ECACHL teams. Massachusetts (6-4-1, 3-2-1 HE) and former Princeton coach Don “Toot” Cahoon take on Vermont, Harvard hops a bus to Commonwealth Avenue to battle No. 15 Boston University (5-3-0, 4-1-0 HE) and travel partners Yale and Princeton square off at Hobey Baker Rink.