Remade Union holding its own early in title defense season

It’s not easy to climb to the top. It’s even harder to stay there. Once the confetti has been swept away, the trophies shelved and the arena emptied, the hard part begins.


That hill must seem doubly steep for many at Union this year. Nate Leaman, the lead architect of the program’s steady rise and of its only league title winner, suddenly bolted for (ostensibly) greener pastures. Just days prior, a — if not the — anchor and keystone of the champion Dutchmen, All-American and Dryden Award winner Keith Kinkaid, elected to sacrifice his final two years of NCAA eligibility to take a shot at the Big Show with the New Jersey Devils.

Mix one of Union’s all-time great captains — Brock Matheson — in among the usual assortment of graduating contributors and you have a very, very difficult standard to uphold.

So far, though … so good.

Union opened its title defense by raking Army 8-1 in West Point. Last weekend, the U held tough against a talented Western Michigan squad in a pair of home draws.

“It was a great test this weekend. Any time you go against a team that is that detailed and works as hard as they do, I feel it can only make you better,” new coach Rick Bennett said. “I guess we won’t know until Friday, but I think it was a great test for our team this early.”

The Dutchmen are not without their flaws, as evidenced by the evaporation of three separate one-goal leads against the Broncos.

“I think we have to shore up some turnovers on our part,” Bennett said. “Whether they’re early turnovers in the season, we’re just trying to figure that out.”

One preseason concern that is taking care of itself is Union’s goaltending. Sophomore Troy Grosenick has stepped into the spotlight and shown that he’s worth his roster spot and then some. “A nice surprise,” according to Bennett, Grosenick has already played 100 more minutes than he did in his rookie year, holding a 1.90 goals against average and a .923 save percentage.

It’s still quite early, but Bennett believes that his team is beginning to show flashes of cohesion — sparks of identity.

“I’d like to think so,” Bennett said. “It was good to see the guys working hard, sticking together, getting strong play and protecting our goaltender, not allowing a lot of second-chance opportunities. I thought that was one of the keys to a team that likes to play for each other.”

That priority on protection is exactly what the rookie head coach likes to see, and he isn’t shy about stating that defense is Job One.

“It’s always going to be a staple here that we’ll take care of the D zone first, and then we’ll move on to the next zone,” he said. “We want our D to get it up to our forwards, and move it out of our zone as quickly as we can. It’s stuff that we need to work on, stuff that some of the new guys are going to have to grasp. … It’s another work in progress.”

Speaking of works in progress, Bennett called out a couple of guys who have been skating ahead of the curve in their opening weeks in Schenectady.

“I like the play of [freshmen forwards] Max Novak and Sam Coatta,” he said. “They’ve been — I’m not going to say surprises, because we knew what we were getting — but by the same token, they’ve seemed to jell right away. Shayne Gostisbehere has been doing a nice job on defense, and that is not the easiest position to come into in your first year. Those three guys, I like the way they’re headed.”

It’s not just three freshmen who seem to be headed in the right direction in Schenectady. There’s more room in the Messa trophy case, and it looks like this team might just know it.

Fun with small sample sizes

It’s early. In many ways, that means that there isn’t much to say … but in other ways, there is so much opportunity for ridiculous extrapolation of data!

Here are some standout statistics from the first two weeks of the (non-Ivy) season, and the ensuing projections should the subjects somehow maintain the pace.

Quinnipiac’s Jeremy Langlois has six goals and nine points in five games, including five goals and six points on the power play. At this rate, Langlois is due for 40 goals (34 on the power play) and 61 points. Not to be outdone, Louke Oakley could hit 45 goals in Clarkson’s extended 36-game regular season, and St. Lawrence’s Kyle Flanagan, 42 in the standard 34-game docket. (Each has tallied five goals in his first four games.)

Colgate forward John Lidgett is doing quite well for himself in his first two weekends of NCAA hockey, notching four assists in four games. That comes to — wow, tough math here — 34 assists. Hopefully he’ll find room for a goal in there, but I’m sure no one would be too disappointed if he indeed finished with a 0-34–34 line for his rookie campaign. Union classmate Max Novak has three points in three games, but by a 2-1–3 format, pacing him for a 22-11–33 regular-season line.

Among defensemen, Bobcats junior Loren Barron (2-3–5, five games played) and St. Lawrence junior George Hughes (0-4–4, four games) are each looking at 34-point seasons, as well.

Last, but most certainly not least, Union senior Kelly Zajac has no goals but five assists in the Dutchmen’s first three games. At the current pace, he should be good for an easy 56-assist season.

Good luck with that.

Despite his team’s rough start, Rensselaer goalie Bryce Merriam nonetheless boasts a .944 save percentage. Should he play three of every four games for RPI this year, he’ll stop 722 of 765 shots. It doesn’t help his cause much that the ‘Tute is taking 18.2 minutes in penalties per game — which would sum over 618 for the full season — or that at its current 7.7 percent power-play rate, it would score only 17 PPGs all year. (On the other hand, at least the Engineers’ penalty-killing unit is on point: With a 95.5 percent success rate, opponents might earn fewer than seven goals against short-handed RPI over the full season.)

Clarkson’s PK corps is also rolling along at 88.9 percent, but in giving up nearly eight power plays a game, the Golden Knights are still paced to allow four times as many PP scores as RPI. At least the Knights have a rockin’ power play, which will score nearly 65 goals in the regular season if it can somehow hold at 30 percent.

SLU and Union are each chugging along with 27.3 percent PPs, and Quinnipiac is right there behind them at 25.4 percent. That could result in 54 power-play goals for the penalty-drawing Bobcats this year and 51 for the Saints, but only 34 for the power-play starved Dutchmen.

On the other side of the coin, if the Saints don’t improve their penalty killing, they will give up at least 51 goals short-handed, too.

Should Union and Quinnipiac’s offenses continue to streamroll through opponents, they will score 147 and 142 overall goals this year, respectively. Not too shabby. (Of course, RPI is at the opposite end of the scale, set for all of 34 goals this year. Overall … yeah.)

And last, and probably least: the St. Lawrence Saints’ current 6.25 goals against average can only get better … unless they want to see an unimaginable 212 in the season-ending GA column. I won’t bother pointing out what their 0-4-0 start (the worst since 1996-97) would extrapolate to.

Time for a change

A few alterations of note:

• Union will once again don black alternate jerseys for select home games this year, with a slightly different collar than in previous editions of the sweater.

• Princeton tweaked its orange sweaters this year, switching from white lettering to black (for improved visibility) and following the Philadelphia Flyers’ sartorial lead with white nameplates behind black lettering.

• Cornell has smartly returned to its traditional look, instead of the weird Boston University/Detroit Red Wings template that it inexplicably stumbled into last year.

• Colgate sports new sweaters as well, replete with fine maroon piping and the “C’gate” crest, replacing the classic name-and-number look of years past.

• Clarkson will be wearing its gold helmets (matching its jersey’s hue of “gold”) at home this year, but will rock the green lids on the road.

• While we’re in Potsdam, it’s worth noting that the university is planning major renovations to Cheel Arena, but details aren’t available just yet.

• Also rink-related, Quinnipiac has renamed the hockey half of its dual-arena TD Bank Sports Center the “High Point Solutions Arena at the TD Bank Sports Center” … and I’m going to stop right there.