SCHENECTADY — It was finally time for the guy to shed the red suit.
No, not that guy.
With Christmas break in the rear-view mirror, Union men’s hockey senior defenseman Vas Kolias comes back with the gift of opportunity, a chance to get back in the lineup after having missed three games and not having played since Nov. 16 due to injury.
Before the Dutchmen went on holiday immediately after a Dec. 13 victory over Merrimack, Kolias had been practicing in a red no-contact jersey, while everyone else was in garnet or gray, but on Thursday there were no red jerseys on the Messa Rink practice ice.
Kolias, a de facto co-captain, is eager to get back in a game, especially since he’ll be rejoining a team that has been playing its best hockey of a season that started with seven straight losses.
The next chance comes this weekend, when the Dutchmen (5-12-0) play in the Catamount Cup tournament in Burlington, Vermont, against the University of Vermont 7:05 p.m. Saturday and against nationally ranked Providence at 4 on Sunday.
“That rust will get shaken off in practice,” Kolias said. “So, guarantee I will not be back in a game until I am 100% ready to go and no rust. I’m not going to put the team in that position.
“But 100%, I’m pretty much there.”
“We’ll see how practice goes, and it gives the coaching staff a huge decision to make,” head coach Rick Bennett said. “It’s probably more rust than anything. Is anybody ever 100%? I don’t think anyone is, after 17 games. But he’s a warrior, he plays hard, and if he gets in the lineup, I don’t expect anything different.”
Kolias was hurt in a 2-1 overtime victory at Princeton, then missed a stretch of home games including a 5-0 win over Brown, a 2-0 loss to Yale and a 3-2 win over Merrimack.
In his first three years at Union, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound defenseman played in 110 of 115 games, and was counted on this season not only for his play on the ice, but for his leadership.
In would be a gross understatement to say that, as the team has enjoyed a burst of success recently, he’s hungry to be a part of it.
“We’re not happy with that first half of the year and we’re looking to get after it, to kind of start making a statement that we’re … you know, we’re no joke,” he said. “It’s been great energy, and the guys are all going.
“When we minimize our turnovers, teams fuel off of that. Our turnovers are down. We’re getting north, we’re not throwing the puck around going south, east to west, we’re getting pucks deep on guys and making sure they felt it when we got in there.”
“UVM [Vermont’s Gutterson Fieldhouse] apparently is five feet wider, and with Vas’ speed, he’s going to bring that to the table,” senior wing Anthony Rinaldi said. “And he brings leadership, so it’ll be good to have him back this weekend.”
The Dutchmen don’t play on the wider sheets of ice often, but strong skaters like Kolias and Rinaldi could benefit from the extra open ice.
“I love it,” Rinaldi said. “Playing in Belfast last year, we played on Olympic ice, and I loved it. The UMass rink is a bit bigger, and I loved it, so it helps. That’s a big part of my game, and if I can use it, it benefits me, for sure.”
“We’ve got to get used to the extra five feet and just play a sound defensive game and get to their goaltender, because he’s one of the best in the country,” Bennett said. “He’s proven that over three years. We have to get in front of him, or it’ll be a long night. But it’s more about playing our systems, coming out of break.”
Like Union, Vermont has struggled to score, with just 22 goals in 14 games.
The 1-11-2 Catamounts haven’t won a game since Oct. 19, 2-0 at St. Lawrence.
Vermont senior goalie Stefanos Lekkas has a .908 save percentage and 2.86 goals against average.
“I have a friend at UVM, and we’ve been exchanging text messages,” said Rinaldi, who attended Kent School with Catamounts junior Max Kaufman. “It looks like they’re kind of going through the same thing we were going through and not finding the back of the net, having a hard time scoring goals. But he said their results don’t reflect how they’ve been playing, so hopefully we’re ready for them.”
The Dutchmen will see a familiar face in goal when they take on Providence on Sunday. Michael Lackey, who has played the bulk of the minutes for the Friars, is a graduate transfer from Harvard who was in net for a 5-3 Crimson victory over Union at Harvard last season.
The 9-5-3 Friars, who are in first place in Hockey East, are No. 13 in the USCHO poll and No. 15 in the USA Today poll.
Union has played in this tournament twice, losing to Vermont and beating Merrimack in 2012, and losing to St. Cloud State and beating RPI in 2006.
Like the 2014 NCAA East Regional in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the Catamount Cup will serve as a reunion of two past Union head coaches, Vermont’s Kevin Sneddon and Providence’s Nate Leaman, with the current one.
The Dutchmen beat the Catamounts 5-2 in the regional semifinals that year, and got past the Friars 3-1 in the final.
“That seemed like a decade ago,” Bennett said. “That’s history. The guys in our locker room and the guys in their locker room really don’t care about that. It’s nice to see those guys, but we’re up there to win.”
Goalie Josh Graziano, who made a verbal commitment to Union in November, is practicing with the Dutchmen while the school’s compliance office shakes out details with the NCAA on when he would be cleared to play.
The Williamsville native had been playing in the NAHL with the New Mexico Ice Wolves. …
Bennett said junior wing Jack Adams, who blew out his knee at the Detroit Red Wings prospect development camp this summer, has been on skates for the first time since surgery, but is “highly doubtful” to play this season.
“As far as his timeline, I think he’s on that ‘highly doubtful’ to make it back this year. He’s gotten on the ice a little bit. The reports that I get back from him, through his doctors, says he’s got one of the strongest knees that they’ve seen at this time, in all the surgeries that they’ve done, so that’s a huge positive.” …
Another junior forward who has been out all season due to injury, Parker Foo, has been making progress and is “getting closer” to a return, Bennett said.