Duplicating success a challenge, but Union ‘starting to get it’

Following a monumental year, this season’s Union Dutchmen are finally “over it.”

“We have had our peaks and valleys this season,” coach Rick Bennett said. “I think the guys are starting to get it — they’re settling down. It took them a while to get over the expectations and all that. Once we got over that hurdle, it’s really settled down for us.”

The defending Whitelaw Cup champions as league tournament winners famously rode a wave of talent and cohesion to the Frozen Four in Tampa last season, and league observers couldn’t pick Union high enough in preseason polls last fall.

The campaign hasn’t played out as anticipated, symbolized by a 4-1 season-opening loss to Merrimack under the fabric of freshly flown banners. The Dutchmen followed that falter with a 6-0-1 run and finished the first half 8-3-4, but it was already clear that this was not going to be a carbon copy of last year’s historic run.

“I believe I was just as guilty of the expectations. You want to do well, you put more expectations on yourself, but that’s just human nature,” Bennett said. “Our leadership has really grown throughout the season” to keep the team grounded, he said.

“It was a little bit of an issue, I have to say — maybe even the first half of the season. You know, you go through these peaks and valleys, and it’s a place we had never been before as a program, and you have to get over it.”

The coach isn’t about to say that Union is as good as it’s ever been, but it may be peaking at the right time.

“This past weekend was one of our best weekends this season,” Bennett said. “Was it the best? It’s tough to compare. I would say it was the most consistent, what with sticking to the process. They were frustrating games [wins over Yale and Brown] in the fact that there wasn’t much scoring and it’s very easy to wander from your systems, but I think we stuck with it.”

A key cog in the defense — title and otherwise — is Mat Bodie. The blueliner and captain has notched 19 points in 25 games this season, and 18 goals and 80 points in 104 career games. The opportunistic junior suffered a broken wrist in early November but missed only five games and has come back stronger than ever, per Bennett.

“Mat Bodie’s been playing probably his best hockey since he’s been here,” Bennett said. “I’m not going to say he’s 100 percent but I don’t think anybody’s been 100 percent since September.”

Bodie’s productivity is complemented by that of forwards Wayne Simpson and Daniel Carr, who have combined for 24 goals and 51 points in 30 games.

“Those guys can put the puck in the back of the net with anybody,” Bennett said. “I think a guy that is really underrated, that doesn’t get a lot of press, is [senior forward] Kyle Bodie. He has quietly put together, in his past two seasons, as good a [performance] as a lot of guys who have come through this program. He’s our top center right now, our assistant captain, and he’s done a great job this season producing as well as as a leader.”

The brothers Bodie have Union in a tie for third place, and Bennett is certain that Union can hang with the best of ECAC Hockey and beyond.

“We have as good a team as anybody,” he said. “Any given night … even a playoff series, best-of-three, I like our team. That’s why you play. To think there’s a team out there that’s gonna beat you eight-zip without even trying, I just don’t see that out there in college hockey. The parity is incredible.”

Time for the annual Crimson crush

Harvard hasn’t had the best season so far. Entering the Beanpot two weeks back, the Crimson won once in 15 games (1-13-1) and hadn’t posted a league point since mid-November. And yet, here we are, urging you not to sleep on the Cambridge club.

“Every team is trying to get ready for the playoffs, and for us, those two [non-league] games in the Beanpot are always against excellent competition,” said coach Ted Donato, whose team is 2-0-2 since falling to Boston College in the Beanpot semifinal. “If we can play well and get some victories, that can be used as a springboard from a confidence standpoint.”

The boss finds the turnaround to be the symbiotic result of a little luck and a lot of hard work.

“It’s a little bit of both, but I do think we’re playing much better,” Donato said. “I think we are an improved club. There were certainly some games in the losing streak that we deserved better, where we got a couple of bad bounces, but they usually equal out if you put the hard work in.

“I think our team has matured, I think we have a better understanding of what our strengths are as a team. Guys are making the little sacrifices necessary in order to win, whether it’s understanding when the puck has to go deep or blocking shots, faceoffs. All the little things that we have improved on during the year.”

The injury bug feasted in the Bright locker room this season, which compounded the effect of last summer’s controversial cheating scandal that led to the departure of four players, including a backup goalie and three defensemen.

“It’s been a tumultuous year as far as losing bodies,” Donato said. “It’s been tough injury-wise; I think we’ve had a fair number of guys — maybe as many as five or six — that have been out for more than a month at a clip. It’s been really tough to get a full complement of players on the ice.

“We’re starting to get healthy, with guys like [freshman Kyle] Criscuolo back in the lineup, guys like [senior Alex] Fallstrom being healthy, [sophomore Colin] Blackwell, [freshman Brian] Hart. … We’re a better club” with them, Donato said.

Donato isn’t exactly sure how many man-games have been lost to injury this season, but he’s sure he wouldn’t like the sum.

“We really haven’t tracked it, but it would be big,” he said. “It would be a big number.”

The four-game spurt — the program’s longest unbeaten streak since last January — comes at a predictable time for Harvard, which has made a habit of compensating for rough mid-season slumps with deep playoff runs. The Crimson have made it to the ECAC title game four times in the last eight years, second only to Cornell in that period.

“We’ve really been focused on trying to improve as a club so that we’re capable of playing our best hockey into the playoffs,” Donato said. “Our power play has improved. Numbers-wise it’s better, but I think it’s been even better than the recent uptick. I think against BU [in a 7-4 Beanpot consolation-game victory], we had one goal that we were credited with on the power play, but we had another couple that were within two seconds of the power play [expiring].

“A great deal of our team was gripping its sticks a little bit. We’d have some looks but we weren’t finishing our chances and we were losing tight games. There was a lack of confidence but now I think we’ve got the tables turned the other way where guys are feeling good about their games. Pucks are going in the net. The power play has improved. It has been led by our senior group.”

Those seniors haven’t just read this story before; they’ve written it. Now they’re just looking to compose the program’s first happy ending since 2006, which was the last time Harvard won the league title or qualified for the NCAA’s … they did both that year.

Brown bearing down

The Brown Bears generated a lot of buzz over the past week, and the positive energy wasn’t lost on coach Brendan Whittet.

“I would’ve said we were rolling until this past weekend,” said Whittet, whose team was swept in the Capital District.

“We seemed a little flat this past weekend. Prior to that, I was happy with the progress we were making. Some of that has to be attributed to [senior goaltender] Anthony Borelli. Him coming in and taking over the starting job, he’s been a real solidifying presence back there. He’s allowed us to win a lot of hockey games. That’s where it starts.”

The Grand Isle, N.Y., native was hardly the heir apparent to Mike Clemente’s crease. In fact, it took three and a half years for him to win the starting job.

“Anthony has stuck around through some hard times where he wasn’t playing,” Whittet said. “Not only was he not playing last year, he wasn’t even making the trips with us a lot of times. To go from where he was on the depth chart to being one of the elite players in our league — and in the country — I tell people, statistics don’t lie. The kid’s got unbelievable stats, and that’s testament to his attitude, his stick-to-itiveness and his ability.”

Borelli has had to been stellar (and he is: His save percentage through 17 games is .947), because the Bears’ offense is … let’s just say uninspiring.

“We have to be good defensively because we’re never going to be a prolific offensive team,” Whittet said. “Not this year. We have to win those low-scoring games and be really good on the defensive side of the puck.”

Sophomore Matt Lorito leads the team in all three main offensive categories: goals (14), assists (12) and points (26). The next-most-prolific scorer, rookie Nick Lappin, is a shout-and-a-half down the road with six goals. Lappin and classmate Mark Naclerio are “snipers in the works,” according to their coach, but suffice to say scoring is a constant challenge.

“Matty Lorito has hit a little bit of a lull, too,” Whittet said. “It’s gotta be by committee: We have to generate a lot of shots and drive the net to those dirty areas to pick up those second opportunities, and when we don’t do that — when we become a perimeter team — we’re in big trouble.”

The special teams are equally inconsistent, but Whittet hasn’t given up hope yet.

“We constantly work on those things, and we try to put guys in situations that they can excel in. We don’t take a lot of penalties, which is a good thing, because our kill has been so discombobulated. It’s one of those things where when we go south, we really go south.”

The Bears’ advantage looks downright decent at times, but, “there’s other times when it looks like we should just defer and not take the power play, because it becomes an adventure out there,” Whittet said wryly.

As far as Whittet can tell, the secret behind Brown’s recent run — and drop — is commitment.

“I think what happens is, you start feeling good about yourself, and you get away from those little things and those things that allow you to be successful,” he said. “Guys have to be mature mentally and prepare for every opponent.”