SCHENECTADY — The temptation is always there, and it comes in many forms.
Make the pretty play instead of the simple, boring one, and maybe something good will happen. Maybe you’ll even wind up on a highlight show.
Or maybe your opponent is getting under your skin, and one extra pop, even if it’s a little after the whistle, would be satisfying. Maybe the refs won’t call anything.
The Union men’s hockey team took the “maybe” out of its game last weekend, relying instead on keeping it simple, sticking with their systems, playing consistently and treating ice time as if it was a precious gift, whether it was the heavy rotation of the top lines or the lesser minutes of the third and fourth.
As Dallas Cowboys fan Rick Bennett, Union’s head coach, likes to say: “I steal it from Jimmie Johnson, the old ex-Cowboy coach, ‘Let’s not be cute; let’s be good.'”
Heading into a road weekend at Princeton Friday and Quinnipiac Saturday, here are five “detailed and disciplined” areas the Dutchmen are trying to carry from last weekend into this one and beyond:
1. “FIVE-FOOT RULE”
This came up repeatedly in the wake of the St. Lawrence/Clarkson weekend.
If the Dutchmen are on defense and the puck gets within five feet of the blueline, don’t get fancy, just chip it out and then work from there.
Conversely, if it gets within five feet of the opponent’s blueline on offense, chip it in and then chase to the corners, win a puck battle and start the cycle.
“One thing we talked about last weekend was the five-foot rule and chipping pucks in and getting after their ‘D,'” said senior wing Ryan Walker, who scored a goal in both games. “I think we did a pretty good job of that. Chipping pucks in and chipping pucks out at both bluelines, making the simple play and not trying to be cute over the bluelines and turning the puck over and have it go the other way.”
“Right on the blueline, we were getting pucks out,” junior defenseman Vas Kolias said. “You don’t want to stay in your defensive end. Our wingers were great on it. We stressed all week, ‘Let’s not trap ourselves in our zone.’ They were great outlets. They were chipping pucks out of there making sure the ‘D’ men didn’t keep us hemmed in.”
On offense, the five-foot rule and chip-and-chase don’t work if you don’t follow through with good corner work.
“Corner play was incredible all weekend,” Kolias said. “And when our wingers were getting the cycle going down low, it wears teams down. The forwards were running amok down there, working as hard as they could, keeping guys on their toes, taking penalties.”
The stats for each game were nearly identical, and weighed heavily in Union’s favor. The Dutchmen won 38 of 60 (63.3 percent) against the Saints and 38 of 61 (62.3) against the Golden Knights.
Cole Maier and Brett Supinski did most of the heavy lifting, but freshman Sam Morton, centering the third line, won seven of eight faceoffs Friday and six of seven Saturday.
With Clarkson having pulled goalie Jake Kielly for an extra skater while trailing 3-2 late in the game, Maier took the last two faceoffs in Union’s defensive zone and was able to force a scrum in the corner to end the game.
4. LIMITING PENALTIES
The Dutchmen did commit their fair share of penalties over the weekend, especially in a weird second period against Clarkson that at one point was reduced to 3-on-3 play for a short stretch.
Union stayed out of the box in the third period, though, the only clean period for the Dutchmen all weekend, which helped them respond to a game-tying goal as well as preserve the 3-2 lead after freshman Michael Ryan had tied it.
“We struggled with that a little bit against Clarkson with the five-minute [advantage] and kind of cancelling it,” Kolias said. “But outside of that, we kept it between the whistles all weekend. No tough guy acts. We were hard on pucks all night, kept our sticks down, finishing hits, but clean hits. There’s a difference there between finishing your hit and finishing it clean. And the guys were abiding by those ECAC rules, and it helped us all weekend.”
The attention to detail and discipline could have broken down and been wasted if the entire team hadn’t been on the same page.
Union got solid play from throughout the lineup, and that play extended all 200 feet of the Messa Rink ice.
“It was a collective effort. Some lines not in stat sheet were pretty good for us,” Bennett said. “That’s fine with us. a lot of unselfish backchecking that led to more ‘O’ zone play time. That’s what this team is all about and what it needs to be about.
“When we’re moving our feet, playing fast, hard and smart, I think we’re a fun team to watch. When we’re not doing one of those things, it isn’t so fun to watch.”
“Consistency was huge,” Supinski said. “We took a bit too many penalties, but I think our game through the six periods was the most consistent it’s been all year. We got away from that the week before. It’s a mindset as a team to play consistent and be structured and keep things simple. It was good to see that we can put together a string of consistent periods.”