Union hockey team working to keep its edge

It has been a magical season for the Union men’s hockey team. With each victory comes more and more
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It has been a magical season for the Union men’s hockey team.

With each victory comes more and more attention from around the country. The Dutchmen are ranked 13th in both the USCHO.com NCAA hockey and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls. They are tied for seventh in the USCHO.com’s Pairwise Rankings, which is a bar­ometer to figure how the NCAA tournament selection committee will pick the 16-team field.

And most importantly, the Dutchmen are in first place in ECAC Hockey. They are the only team in the country that hasn’t lost a league game.

This is uncharted territory for a program in its 19th Division I season. But the Dutchmen (7-0-3 ECACH, 13-4-5 overall), who have won five straight games and are 10-1-4 in their last 15 games, aren’t being overwhelmed by it at all.

They won’t allow themselves to do that, not with a hot Harvard team coming to Messa Rink tonight at 7.

“There’s a lot of people patting us on the back, right now,” Union co-captain Mike Wakita said. “But the season is a long way from being over. We definitely have to stick to the things that we’re doing well, and just keep getting better every game.”

Sticking to things means hustling and doing the little things right in practice. Taking shortcuts won’t lead to success.

“The coaches make it easier because they right the ship if we are getting a little complacent,” said Dutchmen forward Luke Cain, who has scored a goal in Union’s last two games. “They do little things to try and help us out with that. We talk about it in the locker room. We just have to keep working hard, because that’s where our success comes from. We aren’t talented enough. We don’t have any [NHL] draft picks in our locker room. We don’t have anyone who’s going to score six goals a night.”

Union coach Nate Leaman saw his players struggle a little bit with the increased expectations in last Saturday’s 3-1 ECACH win over Capital Region-rival Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The Dutchmen were down, 1-0, after the first period, and nearly trailed by two when Chase Polacek, who scored the goal short-handed, nearly got a second one in the second period.

But goalie Keith Kinkaid stopped Polacek, and the Dutchmen settled down.

“The attention definitely distracted us against RPI,” Leaman said. “That’s why I thought we showed our maturity, we showed our discipline in that game to come back and play good hockey at the end of that game, and to win that game. We fought it a little bit last week. Now, you’re dealing with coming off an emotional game, and getting the guys focused on Harvard.”

Getting ready for Harvard (4-5-2, 4-10-2) won’t be a problem for Union. The Dutchmen know they are facing a Crimson team that is starting to find its stride.

After opening the season Oct. 30 with an ECACH win against Dartmouth, Harvard went 0-5-2 in its next seven league games, and 0-8-2 in 10 straight overall. The Crimson have won three straight league games, including Monday’s 4-1 win over Dartmouth.

Union will have an eye on Harvard freshman forward Louis Leblanc. A first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in last June’s NHL draft, Leblanc is the Crimson’s second-leading scorer with eight goals and six assists. He’s had four goals in his last two games.

The Crimson’s defense has turned things around in league play. After giving up 31 goals in their first eight ECACH games, the Crimson has allowed just four goals during their league winning streak.

“They play well defensively,” Leaman said. “They obviously have the talent, on paper. They were a preseason high pick in this league. They’re a good team, and we have to make sure we’re finding ways to penetrate them and their defense because, right now, they’re playing well defensively.”

RPI returns home

RPI (5-5, 12-11-1) is back at Houston Field House for the first time in six weeks when it hosts Dartmouth (2-8, 4-13) tonight at 7, and Harvard at 4 p.m. Saturday.

The Engineers haven’t played at home since Dec. 9, when they dropped the heartbreaking 5-4 dec­ision to Union, a game in which the Dutchmen scored twice in the final minute to erase a 4-3 deficit.

“It’s odd,” RPI coach Seth Appert said. “You had Christmas break in there, so it doesn’t feel like we’ve played so many games on the road, but we did.”

The Engineers went 4-2 in their six games away from home. They would like to re-establish home-ice advantage this weekend. After opening the season 6-1 at home, the Engineers have lost four straight at the Field House.

Polacek, RPI’s leading scorer with 16 goals and 17 assists, knows the solution is simple.

“Just doing the little things right,” Polacek said, “the things we work on all week in practice, getting ready to play against Dartmouth and how they’re going to play and what we need to do to counter their weakness and do what we need to win.”

Categories: College Sports

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