Union hitting stride

After playing non-league games over the past month, the Union and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute h

After playing non-league games over the past month, the Union and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute hockey teams are heading in opposite directions as they return to ECAC Hockey play.

The Dutchmen are on a roll, having won two straight and going 3-1-1 in their last five games. Add in the three exhibition games Union played in Canada during the final weekend of 2007, and it is 5-2-1 in the last eight games.

Meanwhile, the Engineers have dropped five in a row. Four of those losses came against nationally ranked teams.

Now that the non-league portion of the schedule is over, both teams believe they are ready to make significant moves in the league.

Tonight at 7, Union (1-3-2 ECACH, 6-8-3 overall) will host Colgate (1-3-2, 7-8-3) at Messa Rink, while RPI (3-2-2, 8-10-3) takes on Cornell (4-2, 6-5-2) at Houston Field House.

Ever since a 5-2 loss to Prov­idence on Dec. 7, the Dutchmen have been playing well. Union coach Nate Leaman is pleased, in particular, by the team’s play in the third period of its last few games, including the exhibition contests at the University of New Brunswick.

“That was our goal last weekend, to play well and make sure we were going into league play playing well,” said Leaman, whose Dutchmen were 5-5-1 in non-league games, and will be playing their first ECACH game since a 4-3 loss at Princeton Dec. 1. “Including the Canadian stuff, we won four of the last five. All four wins were in the third period. We’re happy about that as well because we’re starting to mature a little bit, and believe in ourselves a little bit.”

In those four wins, the Dutchmen have scored 11 goals in the third period. After spending the first half of the year outshooting their opponents but having little to show for it, the Dutchmen are turning things around.

“Some things in the first half were working, we just weren’t scoring,” said junior defenseman Brendan Milnamow, who had a career-high three points in last Friday’s 4-1 win over Connecticut. “Now, we’re catching our breaks a little bit.”

The Engineers, who beat Harvard, 4-2, in their last ECACH game Dec. 4, haven’t been as fortunate of late. The losing streak ended their eight-week run being ranked in the USCHO.com/CSTV NCAA top 20 hockey poll. The first four losses during the streak came against No. 2 Miami (a sweep by the RedHawks at Houston Field House), and No. 4 Colorado College and sixth-ranked Notre Dame at the Lightning College Hockey Classic.

The last loss, against a struggling Maine team last Sunday, didn’t sit well with RPI coach Seth Appert. He called it the worst effort of the season. Instead of giving the team Monday off, he had a hard practice, followed by another one Tuesday. Appert gave the Engineers Wednesday off before returning to practice Thursday.

Appert is planning line changes for the matchup with the Big Red.

“We’ve been altering our lines, and will continue to do so,” Appert said. “I don’t feel that we have any perfect chemistry on our set lines yet. There’s been times that guys have had certain chemistry, but not for an extended period of time have we had three guys have that unbelievable cohesion that you just have to leave them together.”

After alternating starts with his goalies the first half of the season, Appert is expected to give junior Mathias Lange his fourth straight start. Senior Jordan Alford last played Dec. 16 against Miami.

“We’re not necessarily going back to alternating,” Appert said. “We haven’t made a firm decision on who starts, but I think there’s a strong chance that Mathias goes [tonight]. I’ve said all year that when one separates, we’re going to let that one ride. Although it hasn’t shown in the wins and losses column, I think we can look at the overall play and the statistics. Mathias is separated [from Alford] a little bit right now. Jordan is working hard to get his game back to where it was in the first two months of the season.”

Despite the skid, Appert believes his team is prepared for the final 15 league games of the season.

“We’re excited to get back into league play,” Appert said. “This is the most important time of the season for us. We’ve said that all year.

“There will be times in the future of this program that we’re in position to rattle off a string of non-conference victories against opponents with which we played. This year, we played those teams with the intention of trying to beat them, but more so to learn what it takes to play with teams like that every night, to learn to how, once again, become a championship program.”

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