Union starts quest for fourth straight title

For the last three years, Union’s road to winning the ECAC Hockey tournament championship has been a

For the last three years, Union’s road to winning the ECAC Hockey tournament championship has been a smooth one.

The formula was simple: Earn a first-round bye by finishing in the top four, host and win the best-of-three quarterfinal-round series and advance to the championship round, whether it be Atlantic City, N.J., or Lake Placid, and capture the semifinals and final to bring the Whitelaw Cup back home.

The Dutchmen have a chance to make ECACH history, becoming just the third team in the league’s 53-year history to win four straight tournament titles. This time, however, they will have to do it the hard way, away from Messa Rink.

Tenth-seeded Union’s long and winding road to another championship begins tonight in Ithaca, where it faces No. 7 Cornell in the best-of-three first-round series at Lynah Rink. Game 2 is at 7 p.m. Saturday. Game 3, if necessary, is 7 p.m. Sunday. The winner advances to the best-of-three quarterfinals next weekend.

How tough of a quest will it be for the Dutchmen (16-16-2) to join Cornell (1967-70) and Boston University (1974-77) as the only teams to win four consecutive titles? Consider that the lowest seed ever to win the championship was Cornell in 1980. As the No. 8 seed, the Big Red beat No. 1 Boston College in the quarterfinals, No. 2 Providence in the semifinals and No. 3 Dartmouth in the final.

The Dutchmen (16-16-2) aren’t hosting a playoff series for the first time since 2007, when they finished last in the 12-team conference. The last time Union played a road playoff series was in 2009, when it fell in three games to Princeton in the quarterfinals.

“The challenge is you’re on the road, and you’re in a hostile environment,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “We hope that our games at Maine, and Notre Dame and the Mayor’s Cup [at the Times Union Center] have helped us for situations like this, and that’s why we play those games. So, hopefully, we’re ready to go from the get-go because you’re not going to have that fan support that we would here like we’ve had in the past.

“We’ve got to come out with more sense of urgency, and I think that’s going to be our hurdle.”

The Dutchmen didn’t have that urgency in the first meeting, a 5-1 loss at Messa on Jan. 16. They didn’t have it for just over a period in the second contest Feb. 21 at Lynah. Cornell (11-12-6) scored the first two goals of the game. The Dutchmen came on after that, putting pressure on goalie Mitch Gillam. But the sophomore made 26 saves and held off the Dutchmen, 2-1.

“That was a good game for our confidence, even though we lost,” senior center Max Novak said. “I think everyone was proud of the way we played. We battled for the whole 60 minutes. We didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but we were fighting until the last second. If we get that effort again, we’ll get a good outcome.”

Since the 7-1 rout it suffered at the hands of St. Lawrence on Feb. 7, Union has been playing better defensively. It has allowed just 11 goals in its last six games. Senior goalie and Niskayuna native Colin Stevens has been in for all of those games.

“I have full confidence in the defensemen in front of me,” Stevens said. “Nothing will change this weekend. They’ll continue to play strong.”

RPI at Clarkson

Ninth-seeded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (10-23-3) will also be on the road for the first round. The Engineers visit No. 8 Clarkson (11-18-5) at Cheel Arena. Game 1 is tonight at 7, Game 2 is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Game 3, if necessary, will be at 7 p.m. Sunday.

The last time the Engineers won a playoff series was in 2012, and it was against the Golden Knights at Cheel. RPI took the first-round series in three games.

RPI coach Seth Appert will have an interesting decision on who starts in goal. Senior Scott Diebold got the start last Saturday on Senior Night, and he made 34 saves in RPI’s 4-3 win over St. Lawrence. The win snapped a nine-game winless skid. Junior Jason Kasdorf was in for all nine games of the slide

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