SCHENECTADY — There comes a point in a season when your freshmen aren’t supposed to be freshmen anymore.
Maybe it’s still too early for that development with the Union men’s hockey team, but for one night, anyway, the first-year players didn’t play like first-year players.
Chaz Smedsrud and Liam Robertson each scored for the first time since early October, and senior Anthony Rinaldi got what proved to be the difference-maker by finishing a 3-on-2 with Smedsrud and another freshman, Gabriel Seger, as the Dutchmen beat Merrimack 3-2 at Messa Rink on Friday.
After a 0-7 start to the season, Union (5-12-0 overall) heads into Christmas break having won three of its last four.
The Dutchmen are counting on an unusually large freshman class of 12 for whatever success they have this year, and on Friday, those players accounted for two goals and four of six assists.
“I thought a lot of the first-year guys contributed,” head coach Rick Bennett said. “Alex Cohen, I can go on … so did Merrimack, their first-year guys battled, too. And we needed it tonight.”
“I feel like we’re a lot more comfortable out there, with the puck, in the defensive zone, the neutral zone, the 200-foot game,” said Smedsrud, a 6-foot-2 forward from Luverne, Minn. “It’s faster, so the adjustment period is finally done.”
During a lackluster first period for both teams, Merrimack (4-11-2) struggled to get through the neutral zone early and didn’t manage a shot on goal until 8:34 left.
Still, the Warriors got on the scoreboard first, when Tyler Irvine’s wrist shot from straight on got through traffic while Joseph Campolieto was in the penalty box at 6:48 of the second period.
The Dutchmen needed just 1:18 to tie it up, also on the power play.
After two shots saved by Jere Huhtamaa, the puck came out to freshman defenseman Dylan Anhorn at the point, he skated forward and hit Smedsrud at the right faceoff dot, and Smedsrud buried a low wrist shot at 8:06 of the second.
It was Smedsrud’s first goal since a 7-3 loss to Boston University in the season opener on Oct. 5.
“That felt great, finally finding the right spot and getting it in the net,” Smedsrud said.
“We have a swing play. Tony [Rinaldi] swings up, and he had a lot of time. He shot it, it got blocked, bounced out to Anhorn, Anhorn faked the shot and passed it over to me, so the goalie was kind of out of position and I ended up going five-hole.”
Robertson, who hadn’t scored since Oct. 11, gave Union a 2-1 lead at 8:58 of the third period with a wrist shot inside the left post, seconds after he had miss an open net from almost the same spot.
The puck cycled back to him for a second chance, and he didn’t miss on that one.
“Robbie had a tremendous game tonight,” Bennett said. “Even when we had a little bit of a breakdown on our set breakout, he’s the one who carried the puck up the ice off the rush and almost got a shot on net. So that was a great release, and you know what, the puck had eyes and found a home.”
On the rush midway through the third, Rinaldi skated up the middle, passed left to Smedsrud and got it right back for a backhand pass to Seger between the circles.
Seger’s shot was saved by Huhtamaa, but Rinaldi, who had continued on his way to the left post, found himself in position to bang in the rebound from a tight angle for a 3-1 lead.
“It was a good 200-foot play,” Rinaldi said. “I skated up with the puck, good rush. I think Seegs may have shot it, it bounced off a defender and ended up landing right in between me and I got a great shot off.”
“I thought the two goals we gave up in the third period were very preventable,” Merrimack head coach Scott Borek said. “The first goal of the period [Robertson’s], we had a defenseman try to beat a guy one-on-one at the red line, and that puck turned over and came back in our zone. We had a 30-second D zone shift, and they scored at the end of it.
“We were really cautious on how we played the [3-on-2] rush. Our first forward got into their player [Seger], almost too much and he couldn’t recover on the rebound. But we gave up a lot of space at the blue line on that third goal that we didn’t have to.”
The Warriors, who dressed five freshmen defensemen, got one back at 15:18 on senior Griff Jeszka’s first goal of the season.
Borek pulled Huhtamaa with 1:17 left, but the Warriors didn’t get any good scoring chances with the extra skater.
Of Union’s five wins this season, Friday’s was the first in which the Dutchmen, who had eight freshman forwards in uniform, gave up more than one goal.
“We established some offensive zone time, especially with our defensemen,” Bennett said. “I thought they were active, trying to create some chaos by working as five and using the whole zone. What did we get off that? Sometimes we had a few shots on net and it worked out. Sometimes it’s not going to, but I thought it gave us some life.”
The Dutchmen will get a break before returning to the practice ice on Dec. 23 to prepare for the Catamount Cup at Vermont on Dec. 28-29.
Merrimack 0 1 1–2
Union 0 1 2–3
First period–None. Penalties–Dockery, M (tripping), 15:11.
Second period–1, Merrimack, Irvine 7 (L. Drevitch, Dockery), 6:48 (pp). 2, Union, Smedsrud 2 (Anhorn, Rinaldi), 8:06 (pp). Penalties–Campolieto, U (holding), 5:21; L. Drevitch, M (hooking), 6:57; Emelifeonwu, U (cross-checking), 16:09.
Third period–3, Union, Robertson 2 (Sanda, Brierley), 8:58. 4, Union, Rinaldi 4 (Seger, Smedsrud), 10:35. 5, Merrimack, Jeszka 1 (Simeon, Carlile), 15:18. Penalties–Uens, M (holding), 3:47.
Shots on goal–Merrimack 5-6-7–18. Union 11-6-8–25.
Power-play opportunities–Merrimack 1 of 2. Union 1 of 3.
Goalies–Merrimack, Huhtamaa L, 3-6-1 (25 shots-22 saves). Union, Hanson W, 5-12-0 (18-16).
Referees–Kyle Allen, Kevin Graber. Linesmen–Fraser McIntyre, Brian Oliver.
BEMIDJI STATE 2, UNION 1
Abby Halluska scored with 1:33 left in regulation to give Bemidji State a non-conference victory over Union.
Leah Herrfort’s second goal of the season tied it at 1-1 on the power play at 11:09 of the third period.
Bella McKee made 25 saves for the Dutchwomen (2-13-3), and Lauren Bench made 21 saves for Bemidji (10-8-1).
Bemidji State 0 1 1 — 2
Union 0 0 1 — 1
Second period–1, Bemidji State, Beebe 6 (Kaasa, Kampa), 15:54. Penalties–Werth, B (interference), 11:16; Halluska, B (checking), 19:06.
Third period–2, Union, Herrfort 2 (Reynolds, King), 11:09 (pp). 3, Bemidji State, Halluska 4 (Langei), 18:27. Penalties–Kaasa, B (cross-checking), 9:56; Moser, B (tripping), 12:56.
Shots on goal–Bemidji State 5-8-14–27. Union 8-5-9–22.
Power-play opportunities–Bemidji State 0 of 0. Union 1 of 4.
Goalies–Bemidji State, Bench W, 8-6-0 (22 shots-21 saves). Union, McKee L, 2-10-3 (27-25).
Referees–Jeremy Lemoine, Amanda Tassoni. Linesmen–Ryan Belhumeur, Casey Garrish.