SCHENECTADY — No matter how you feel about dietary supplements, chugging the whole jar before you start the meal probably isn’t the way to go.
If you’re a men’s Division I hockey team that aspires to the NCAA Tournament in any given year — among them Union College — success in the non-conference schedule has a profound influence on whether you make the field of 16 for the regional semifinals.
In 2017-18, Union chugged a whole jar of hard-to-swallow non-conference games before it even got to the table.
The Dutchmen started at Boston University, then ranked No. 2 in the country, and followed up the next weekend at the University of Minnesota Duluth for the Ice Breaker Tournament, against two other 2017 NCAA Tournament teams, Michigan Tech and No. 3 Minnesota.
Toss in one-goal losses at home to Massachusetts and Vermont, and the Dutchmen were staring at an 0-5 record.
Rick Bennett’s players embrace his play-anybody-anywhere philosophy, but the Union head coach ruefully chuckles when he looks back at the start of last season, while looking ahead to a non-conference schedule in 2018-19 that, while still difficult, should not be nearly as dyspeptic.
With a few more victories against teams like Omaha, which Union plays at home Friday and Saturday night, Union could be in better position for an NCAA at-large bid later.
“You’re trying to look at a schedule that’s somewhat balanced,” Bennett said. “I felt like last year, that’s a head coach that’s, in the summer, raring to go, raring to play, and we’ll schedule anybody anywhere, and that’s exactly what we got.
“And I don’t know if that worked out too much. So I’ll chalk that one up to me as bad scheduling.”
Besides that brutal early stretch, Union also went on the road in late November to North Dakota, then ranked No. 3. That trip turned out to be one of the highlights of the season when the Dutchmen won 4-1 and scraped together a 2-2 tie.
But it wasn’t nearly enough to boost the Dutchmen into the field of 16 for the NCAAs, after Union almost grabbed a piece of the ECAC Hockey regular-season title before losing in the conference quarterfinals to Princeton.
“Now, do you want to be oh-and-5? No, but by the same token, if that means we’re going to get better and improve over the course of the season, then fine,” Bennett said. “How we finished was … I’m not going to use the word ‘disappointing,’ but I have to say, of all losses since I’ve been here, those two hurt a lot.”
Bennett said there aren’t enough games in a college hockey season to use non-conference games to tinker with lineups, systems or playing style.
Winning is the only thing that matters, whether you’re playing one of the top-ranked teams in the country, or a team that likely will finish in the bottom half of its conference.
These aren’t throwaway games, under any circumstances, for a coach who wants his team to approach each opponent “like it’s Stanley Cup game.”
“It’s not the National Hockey League where you have 82-plus games,” he said. “We have 34, and you’ve got to make the most of those 34 to be in the top 16 at the end of the day. So that’s kind of how we look at it.”
Last year, Union played five non-conference games against teams that had made the NCAA round of 16 the previous season.
This year, they have three guaranteed, one against St. Cloud State and two at Northeastern, and could face Boston University in the second round of the Friendship Four Tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in November.
After beating Army last Saturday, Union’s non-conference opponents after Omaha are ECACH rival Yale (in Belfast), BU or Connecticut in Belfast and Canisius for two home games before traveling to Pittsburgh for the Three Rivers Classic.
There, Union will play St. Cloud State and either Brown or Robert Morris.
There is also the annual Mayor’s Cup game against RPI, which doesn’t count in the ECACH standings.
“Just getting off on the right foot this year — oh-and-5 was about as poorly as it could’ve gone,” senior captain Cole Maier said. “Coach Bennett is open to playing anybody anytime, so guys look forward to that and want to play in big games. If you want to play in big games, you’ve got to be able to win some.”
“Compared to last year, it’s not as intense, but we still have some great games,” senior wing Sebastian Vidmar said. “We have Army, then Omaha coming in and then go to Northeastern, which is a great opportunity to get an advantage in the Pairwise early.”
The most direct route for any tournament-caliber team is to dig in to the main meal and win the conference tournament, of which there are six with automatic berths.
But the NCAA Selection Committee has to award 10 at-large spots, too, and uses the Pairwise Comparison list (essentially a reflection of the Ratings Percentage Index) to do so.
That makes non-conference performance an important factor.
“It’s extremely important for Pairwise to get into the NCAA Tournament,” senior forward Ryan Walker said. “I think this year is pretty strong as well, and it’s nice that we get to start at home these first two weekends.
“I think we have a pretty strong non-conference schedule again. If we play well enough, that can help us in the end.”
“If we want to challenge our players, and they want to be better, they’re coming to this school to be great student-athletes, and hockey is part of it,” Bennett said. “So I want to get the most demanding schedule as possible and play anybody. Just play anybody. It doesn’t matter. And it’s good for college hockey when you go places and play different teams.”
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
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Categories: College Sports, Sports