Offensive depth, leadership give Union a boost

The Union Dutchmen enjoyed a record-setting season last year, elevating the program’s Division I records for victories (21), win percentage (.615), and — most importantly — progression, advancing to ECAC Hockey’s final four in Albany for the first time.

But with the graduation of the Dutchmen’s top two scorers in Mario Valery-Trabucco and Jason Walters, as well as fourth-highest scorer and defensive institution Mike Schreiber, Union appeared a bit wobbly entering the season: Where would the missing offense come from? Would sophomore goalie Keith Kinkaid transition smoothly into his second campaign? How long would it take for strong leadership to emerge?

Most of all, how would a program so historically light on success be able to improve on such a superb 2009-10 performance?

A little guidance is a good start.

Brock solid

“We’re pretty fortunate to have a young man by the name of Brock Matheson, who came to our program and has really risen from being a guy that was in and out of the lineup as a freshman to being our No. 1 D,” coach Nate Leaman said.

Matheson is one of 11 Dutchmen to play all eight games so far, and while his three points (all assists) aren’t about to win him the Hobey, he has been on the ice for the high-leverage moments and has a respectable plus-4 to show for it.

“Brock brings an outstanding presence, and equally important, what I really like about Brock as a captain is he tells me things that I need to hear,” Leaman said. “He’s not a yes-man or anything like that. We’re also fortunate to have six senior forwards as well and we have a strong leadership in our senior class, and I think we’re going to need it when we get into ECAC play here.”

Out of shallow water

Leaman pointed straight to the team’s offensive depth as its greatest strength through the first month of the season.

“I think we have good depth up front; we’ve also had contributions from other players as well,” he said. “We’re looking to get it done with our depth at the forward position, and I think we’ve been able to do that a little bit so far.”

True enough, Union’s offense ranks second in the nation with 5.0 goals a game, trailing only Yale’s 7.0 average (and the Bulldogs have played only two games). Thirteen Dutchmen players have lit the lamp already, led by sophomore Jeremy Welsh’s half-dozen goals, and seven more have made the score sheet with assists.

Thinking outside the box

One of the many things Union did well last year was keep its nose clean: The Dutchmen took only 10.7 penalty minutes a game last season, fifth-best in the country. This year’s squad is shaping up to be a chip off that Lady Byng block, currently averaging 10.8 penalty minutes per game, 44th out of 57 active D-I teams. Better yet, the Union boys are killing 88.2 percent of those penalties without suffering any damage on the scoreboard.

“I think [discipline] is an area that we need to continue to improve,” the coach said. “That’s something that’s in our control, is not taking poor penalties. The way our penalty kill struggled at the beginning of last year really hurt us in some of our early games, and because we’ve been disciplined early that’s really helped our penalty kill and in turn has helped us win some games.”

Don’t call ’em cupcakes

Sure, Union opened the season with a home deuce against Sacred Heart (now 0-5-1), and followed that up with a trip to the Alaskan schools (Alaska is 5-2-1, Alaska-Anchorage 1-5-2), Niagara (2-3-2), Connecticut (1-1-2) and Rochester Institute of Technology (2-4-1). In other words, apart from Rensselaer (3-1-3) and Alaska, the Dutchmen’s opponents have summed a sad 6-18-8 record.

But don’t let that diminish what the Dutch have done, nor whom they have played.

“I think Niagara and RIT are going to be very good teams,” Leaman said. “I’d be surprised if those two teams aren’t 20-win teams … to be completely honest. I think we played well, we had timely goals, we had good goaltending in those games, so I don’t think those scores were a fluke by any means; I just think we had good games those nights.”

As far as the loss at Alaska, it was far from your everyday road stumble.

“We went up to Alaska, and played Alaska in Alaska. They’re a top-10 team in the country and we have their home opener, and it was a tight game. We had chances to win that game. So I guess when I say we have concerns, everybody has concerns right now. You’re trying to improve your team.”

Then there was the league tune-up game at Lake Placid, N.Y., an unsatisfying 3-3 tie with crosstown rival Rensselaer.

“I think the game against RPI last weekend kinda spoke for itself in that way,” Leaman said. “RPI was terrific defensively. I think they had their A-game, and that’s what we have to be prepared for as a team. Playing in the ECAC, it’s 22 games, and you see everybody’s A-game every night. It’s a tough league, and we start off with five of our first six on the road before Christmas. We have to be very good on the road in order to garner some points early.”

Long road to hoe

There isn’t much that the coach — wisely signed to a five-year extension this summer — has found fault with thus far, but he’s not exactly kicking back with a Cuban every afternoon, either.

“There’s a lot of things,” he said of his concerns. “I don’t think we’re different from any other program in that we’re seeing how many areas we have to improve on. I think that’s the key for us right now, is understanding that there’s a lot of improvement. I think our team defensive play will need to get better to be successful in the ECAC.

“The thing that I’ve been a little bit frustrated about this year is just the way that our schedule has worked. With our trip to Alaska, we haven’t had a full week of practice yet. We haven’t had a lot of time to work on our game, and I think that — as a coach — is a concern. We’re trying to continue to improve, and it’s tough to continue improving when you’re not getting the number of practices you need.”

At least he doesn’t need to worry about goaltending, with the way sophomore Kinkaid has performed.

“I think he’s better than he was last year,” the coach pronounced.

He hasn’t had to worry about his offense. He hasn’t had to worry about penalties, special teams, depth or injuries.

The next thing Leaman may have to worry about is how to expand Messa Rink; 2,225 for a national-caliber program? That just won’t do.

Some at Cornell seeing red

Can you spot the differences between these jerseys and this jersey? If you can’t, you probably don’t patronize Lynah very frequently.

The Big Red went from their previous well-worn pattern (which was the latter image) to a more common one (the former), best known as the Red Wings white/road template. No explanation has yet been given, though Cornell’s sports information department made it clear that the change was intentional (therefore denying a rumor that the order was an accident).

While it’s a relatively small change, the aesthetic adjustment nevertheless has many Lynah Faithful up in arms … not merely because it’s a less unique design, but because the pattern has long been used by a certain traditional archrival.

From a BU alumnus to all you proud Cornelians: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, is it not?