No one has written a book about how a team should handle itself the season after winning a national championship, but Union hockey coach Rick Bennett is considering it, after a tumultuous season.
For the first time since 2011, the Dutchmen aren’t playing for an ECAC Hockey tournament title. And for the first time in five years, they will be watching the NCAA tournament from their dorms or apartments.
The Dutchmen’s season ended last Sunday when they were eliminated by Quinnipiac in the ECACH tournament quarterfinals in three games. The Bobcats stopped Union from seeking a fourth straight Whitelaw Cup and making a fifth consecutive trip to the NCAAs, with a chance to defend the national title it won last year.
Union’s record was 19-18-2, ending a five-year run of winning at least 20 games. The Dutchmen’s ECACH mark was 8-13-1, placing them 10th. It was their first losing campaign since going 9-11-2 in 2008-09.
So, what happened? Bennett believes the root of the Dutchmen’s troubles started before the season even began. The team may have basked too much in the glory of winning its first NCAA title, and Bennett takes the blame for that.
“I would do things differently in the spring after a national championship, as far as just trying to keep everyone’s heads on straight as far as the workouts,” Bennett said. “I think we enjoyed ourselves a little too much. That’s just a personal opinion. I really do think that’s where it started.
“This is by no means on them. This is on me. I want to make that perfectly clear. This has nothing to do with the staff. This is on me. Going forward, I will be changing it. As I’ve said before, when you’re in uncharted waters, you’re going to learn a heck of a lot. I learned a heck of a lot, and I’m just going to switch things up.”
It looked like Union would have smooth sailing after opening the season with five straight wins. It was just a continuation of the unbeaten streak that the Dutchmen closed last season with, culminating the 16-0-1 run with the NCAA title.
But the hot start may have gone to the player’ heads. The Dutchmen thought they were invincible and that opposition was going to fear them because they were the NCAA champions. The streak ended with a 3-2 loss to St. Cloud State on Oct. 25.
Six days later, the Dutchmen opened ECACH play at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A 6-1 blowout victory by the Engineers sent the Dutchmen into a tailspin that lasted nearly four months.
Inconsistent play became the theme of the Dutchmen’s season. There were some games in which they played well, like road wins at Brown (7-1) and Yale (3-2), in December. But there were some mind-numbing losses, like the 8-2 thrashing by Western Michigan on Nov. 29, and the 7-1 setback at St. Lawrence on Feb. 7 in which the Dutchmen were thoroughly outplayed.
Then there were defeats that had everyone shaking their heads. There was the 4-3 overtime loss to Dartmouth on Nov. 7, a game in which Union blew a 3-0 lead. Then there was an uninspiring 3-2 loss to UConn on Dec. 27, another contest in which it wasted a lead. Union scored two goals in a 1:09 span early in the second period, and then didn’t do enough to protect it.
“The 5-0 start gave us a false sense of security. It really did, because we weren’t playing well,” Bennett said. “I thought our goalie, Colin
Stevens, was the difference in the 5-0 start. And when that happens, it does create that false sense of security. As much as you try to tell them and show them, you’re still 5-0, so what the heck is this guy talking about?
“I think it’s a great tool to use in the following years, especially with the guys in the locker room coming back.”
The big issue for the Dutchmen this season that had fans scratching their heads was why Bennett had a goalie rotation. Stevens, a Niskayuna native, was coming off a season when he won the Ken Dryden Award and was named an All-American.
But from November until January, Stevens didn’t get all the starts. Sophomore Alex Sakellaropoulos played 14 games, getting starts in eight of them. It was Sakellaropoulos who got the start at then-top-ranked Boston University on Jan. 3. Stevens was pulled from six games this season, compared to two last year.
He was pulled from the
St. Lawrence game after allowing three goals. But he never got pulled again as he started the final 11 games of the season. He allowed just 20 goals in that span and posted a shutout.
“I don’t second-guess it, because we have a guy on staff [assistant coach/goalie coach Jason Tapp] that I have a tremendous respect for and I listen to an awful lot, along with the other coaches,” Bennett said. “At the end of the day, I make the decision. The decision I made was to try and give Alex a shot here to kind of get Colin going. I think, in the end, worked.
“As far as people talking about it, keep yapping.”
At Sunday’s postgame press conference, Bennett bristled at the notion that the team had a disappointing season, pointing to the fact that the Dutchmen won 19 games.
But Union’s fall in the ECACH standings was disappointing. Picked to finish second in the preseason polls, the Dutchmen’s 10th-place finish was their worst since 2006-07, when they were at the bottom of the 12-team league. The last time a team dropped from first to the bottom third of the standings was in 2007-08, when St. Lawrence finished ninth after winning the league the previous season.
Bennett believes, after losing defensemen Mat Bodie and Shayne Gostisbehere and forwards Daniel Carr, Matt Hatch, Cole Ikkala and Kevin Sullivan, the Dutchmen were picked too high.
“I don’t know what the geniuses pick at the beginning of the year,” Bennett said. “Obviously, they weren’t looking hard at what we lost.”
The Dutchmen did discover their game, winning their final regular-season contests and then sweeping Cornell in the first round at Lynah Rink. But the series loss to Quinnipiac will sting, particularly how they lost Game 1, blowing a 3-1 lead in the final two minutes of regulation and dropping a 4-3 decision in triple overtime.
“It’s never easy ending the game or ending the season. Every loss is pretty hard,” Union senior center Max Novak said last Sunday. “Your last game of your career, you would like to go out on top. It hurts right now.
“I think it’s good for those guys in the locker room to feel this.”
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