Union hockey’s 2009 ECACH tournament win over Clarkson set the sage for program’s future success

Mario Valery-Trabucco, seen here taking a penalty shot against Colgate on Dec. 4, 2009, scored twice in Union's 5-3 victory over Clarkson in Game 1 of the ECAC Hockey tournament first-round series on March 6, 2009. The Dutchmen swept the Golden Knights for their first series win at the Division I level. (Gazette file photo)

Mario Valery-Trabucco, seen here taking a penalty shot against Colgate on Dec. 4, 2009, scored twice in Union's 5-3 victory over Clarkson in Game 1 of the ECAC Hockey tournament first-round series on March 6, 2009. The Dutchmen swept the Golden Knights for their first series win at the Division I level. (Gazette file photo)

The Union College men’s hockey program, which won a national championship in 2014, had yet to experience postseason success when the first round of the 2009 ECAC Hockey tournament was set to begin.

From 1991 to 2002, the program’s first 11 seasons at the Division I level, the Dutchmen made the postseason five times when 10 of the 12 teams qualified for the ECACH tournament. They lost in the quarterfinals to RPI in 1994 and 1997, to St. Lawrence in the first round in 2000 and 2001, and to Princeton in a 1995 preliminary-round game.

In 2003, the conference expanded the tournament to include all 12 teams. Still, Union couldn’t win a series. Even more frustrating, the Dutchmen lost five series at home. There were first-round losses to RPI (2003), Clarkson (2004 and 2005) and Yale (2006), a series the Bulldogs won in Game 2 on a shorthanded goal in the fifth overtime. There was also a quarterfinal-round loss to Cornell in 2008.

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“It’s probably hard for current Union College fans to remember what a stigma of not having won a playoff series was back then considering the program’s success since then,” said Matt Cook, a senior on the 2008-09 team and the co-captain. “But at the time, it was a big cloud that was hanging over our heads. We were all very well aware of it. We knew we had never won a playoff series.”

The Dutchmen drew Clarkson in the first round of the 2009 ECACH tournament. This time, the result would be different.

With Union set to face Clarkson in the best-of-three-quarterfinals this weekend in Potsdam, let’s take a look back at the 2009 series, one that the Dutchmen swept for their first postseason series win at the Division I level.

PROLOGUE

The teams split the season series. The Golden Knights earned a 4-3 overtime win at Cheel Arena Jan. 29, and the rematch took place at Messa Rink on Feb. 28, the final night of the regular season. At stake was the final home-ice slot for the first round; Clarkson had a two-point lead over Union, so the Dutchmen needed a win to clinch the final spot and get home ice.

TUnion got that win. Senior defenseman Mike Harr scored his first goal of the season with 8:57 left in the third period to give Union a 2-1 victory. Although the teams were tied wit 20 points, Union won the conference wins tiebreaker.

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Winning that final regular-season game against them to secure home ice advantage was a huge confidence booster,” said Chris Potts, a senior forward that season. “Unsung hero Mike Harr scoring the game-winning goal in the third period. What a perfect senior night for our 2009 class.

“We knew we could handle them, and that win was a great booster for us going into the playoffs. We knew it gave us the momentum since we’d be facing them again six days later.”

GAME 1

The Dutchmen took a 2-1 lead in the first period on goals by junior forward Mario Valery-Trabucco and sophomore forward Adam Presizniuk, but the Golden Knights grabbed a 3-2 lead on goals by Chris D’Alvise and Shea Guthrie 49 seconds apart early in the second period before junior forward Jason Walters tied it for Union.

Sophomore forward Stephane Boileau gave Union the lead just over seven minutes into the third period and Valery-Trabucco added a power-play goal late in the game to give Union a 5-3 victory. For the first time, the Dutchmen led a playoff series.

“Being down 3-2 didn’t rattle our confidence,” Potts said. “We knew we could shut down their top line, and they had an inexperienced goaltender in net. We just had to keep working hard and getting pucks to the net. That said, having experienced both situations in my time at Union — losing Game 1 and playing to avoid elimination – it’s much easier playing when you’re up in the series. And beating them twice in a row allowed us to play more relaxed, as well.”

Said Valery-Trabuuco: “In the playoffs, anything can happen. We knew that the game was not over until the final buzzer rang. On that particular day, I happened to find the back of the net, but it certainly took all of us doing our jobs to achieve the comeback and the win. That win reinforced our confidence for Game 2, and we continued to roll once the puck dropped.”

GAME 2

The momentum from the Game 1 win carried over into the first period of Game 2. Presizniuk beat goalie Richie LaVeau 3:27 into the game and senior defenseman Brendan Milnamow scored a power-play goal with 3:59 left in the period.

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Potts scored next. With Harr in the penalty box for elbowing, Potts tallied a shorthanded goal with 36 seconds left in the period.

Clarkson got a goal back when Scott Freeman scored on the power play 35 seconds into the second period. But Potts scored his second goal of the game with 8:40 left in the third period to make it 4-1 Union.

With Clarkson on a two-man advantage with 6:09 left, goalie Paul Karpowich was pulled for an extra attacker and Guthrie scored with 5:26 left to make it 4-2. But 37 seconds later, Union’s Andrew Buote scored a shorthanded empty-net goal, then Buote added another empty-netter with 2:18 left.

The Dutchmen had done it. The program’s postseason failures were a thing of the past.

“After ‘Bootsie’s’ second empty-netter, that was when it kind of sunk in that we were finally going to get the monkey off our back,” Cook said.

The players celebrated afterward.

“The locker room was certainly buzzing,” Valery-Trabucco said. “We knew we had accomplished something no other Union team had ever accomplished at the Division I level, and we were proud of it. The team had put in years of work on and off the ice, and it was finally paying off.”

EPILOGUE

Union advanced to face Princeton in the quarterfinals. The Tigers won the series in three games.

But beating Clarkson paved the way for future success for the program. The Dutchmen reached the ECACH tournament title game in 2010, and then won three straight ECACH tournament titles (2012, 2013 and 2014) before winning the national championship in 2014.

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“I may be biased, but I think everyone in the class of 2009 would echo my sentiment,” Potts said. “I think our class of 2009 and every class after us made huge strides for the program. We were [head coach Nate] Leaman’s first class, and his mentality changed the program. This was reflected by the recruits he brought in — me, ‘Cookie,’ Lane [Caffaro], Harr and ‘Mills’ [Brendan Milnamow], so I do think it started with us.

“But it needed to keep taking steps, which it did due to the other classes after us. We were the first team to win a playoff series, but then they won the ECAC, then they made the Frozen Four, then they won the national championship. Each class from 2009 onward is responsible for paving the road to the program’s success.”

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