Regional loss stings, but Union hopes to keep growing

Union coach Nate Leaman faced an uphill battle in attracting talented hockey players for the Dutchmen after finishing last in the ECAC during the 2006-07 regular season. All that the little-known hockey program from Schenectady, N.Y., had to show for its jump to Division I in the 1991-92 season was a pair of ECAC quarterfinal losses and several quick first-round exits.

“Five years removed, [the Dutchmen] finished last in the league, so definitely [the program has] grown in the past four years,” senior captain Brock Matheson said. “I’m very optimistic in the direction this program is heading. I’ve said a number of times, I think we have the best coaching staff in the nation.”

Thanks in large part to Leaman’s extraordinary recruiting efforts, Union overhauled its lackluster program and — just five years later — earned one of 11 at-large bids to the 2011 NCAA Division I tournament. Along the way, Union set a school record of 26 wins, captured its first Cleary Cup with a regular season ECAC record of 17-3-2, and achieved a national ranking as high as No. 4 during the regular season.

The ECAC echoed Matheson’s sentiment, naming Leaman the league’s coach of the year for the second straight season. But Leaman was not the only one from the Dutchmen to garner league accolades this season. Sophomore goaltender Keith Kinkaid was named first team All-ECAC Hockey and goaltender of the year, while Matheson and junior forward Kelly Zajac earned second team honors. Freshman forward Daniel Carr and defenseman Mat Bodie were also named to the all-rookie team.

The well-decorated Dutchmen’s first trip to the NCAA East Regional ended on a bittersweet note, as Minnesota-Duluth stonewalled Union’s run at the national title 2-0 in the first round. The Bulldogs’ victory bolstered their undefeated record against the Dutchmen, going 8-0-1 in nine contests.

Union’s strength throughout the regular season and its post-season push — its blistering 31.1 percent success rate on power plays — proved to be its Achilles’ heel Friday afternoon. The Dutchmen squandered nine opportunities to find the twine — tying its season-high in power play chances, set against Army last December — while allowing the Bulldogs to convert on two of their power plays. It was only the ninth game that Union failed to light the lamp on the man advantage, having scored in 31 of its previous 39 contests.

Matheson did not think that his squad’s inexperience at the national level contributed to the loss.

“At the end of the day, it’s just another hockey game — same boards, same ice,” Matheson said. “There’s a tendency for it to get built up a little bit but I think we did a good job of seeing it for what it was. Obviously, we weren’t successful tonight but I think we did a good job preparing for the fact that this was our first tournament.”

The sting of the Dutchmen’s early exit from the NCAA tournament was particularly pronounced for Union’s crop of seven seniors, the first class of Dutchmen to amass four consecutive winning seasons.

“It’s too bad that [senior forward Adam Presizniuk] and I won’t be a part of it,” Matheson said. “But we’re very privileged to have been a part of it and see it grow in the past four years.”

In an emotional postgame news conference, Leaman was quick to correct Matheson: “You’re always going to be a part of this program. They came into a tough situation as freshmen and were looked to kind of carry the mail. They’ve done a tremendous job of leadership, and they’ve done a tremendous job of representing our university. So they’ll always be a part of our culture and our program.”

Despite its early NCAA exit, Union figures to be a formidable foe in the ECAC and on the national level next season. Twenty-one Dutchmen players will return to lace up their skates next season, most notably Kinkaid and Zajac.

“This program isn’t even close to its potential yet,” Matheson said. “And it’s [going to] steadily improve.”