SCHENECTADY — There are nine defensemen on the Union College men’s hockey roster.
Two thirds of them are underclassmen (four freshmen, two sophomores). Three are juniors. Two of those juniors, Nic Petruolo and Nathan Kelly, are in their second year of their college careers. They didn’t play in their freshman year because the Dutchmen canceled their 2020-21 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There are no senior defensemen.
There will be some growing pains for the defensive unit. They will play well, like they did in last Thursday’s 5-1 win over Bentley at Messa Rink. And there will be the occasional clunker, like last Saturday’s 8-5 loss to RIT at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester.
Minimizing the bad games will be important for the Dutchmen (2-3-1) as they get closer to the start of ECAC Hockey play next weekend against RPI. They have two more non-conference games this weekend when they travel to Amherst, Massachusetts, to take on sixth-ranked UMass (2-0-1) Friday and Saturday at Mullins Center.
Outside of the RIT game, first-year Union head coach Josh Hauge has been pleased with how the young defensive corps has played.
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“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for these guys to get so much ice time as young players and just such a benefit for them to be thrown into the fire,” Hauge said Tuesday at the team’s media availability at Messa. “It’s exciting to see that they’ve taken big steps, and I think when you have some younger defenseman, you might have nights where you are prone to [have], what happened on Saturday, where you’re just making inexperienced plays. “If we’re not picking each other up, we can get into trouble.
“But overall, I’m really happy with where they’re at. They’ve taken such steps, and there’s just so much accountability on him as a young D-corps.”
The eight goals Union allowed to RIT were the most since giving up eight to Clarkson at Cheel Arena on Jan. 15 of last season. Petruolo knows what went wrong against RIT, and believes the team is working to correct those mistakes this week in practice.
“It’s a one-game thing,” Petruolo said. “Obviously, every game right now is big for us [in the] Pairwise [Rankings]. But we do have a young D-corps, and so there’s going to be a lot of learning coming along from that. RIT was definitely a game we learned from, as well as Bentley. I feel that no matter what the outcome is of the game, there’s always things that we can critique and get better at, which is one thing that our defensive coach [assistant coach Lenny Childs] stresses a lot.”
Kelly believes the bond is strong with the defensive unit.
“We have a great group that we can bounce back with,” Kelly said. “[I] like a lot of energy from us, especially with our young guys playing such good roles. Being the players that they are, I think we can turn it around really quickly. I don’t think we’ll look at our last game too heavily. We’re just going to focus on UMass.”
Freshmen Nick Young and John Prokop have been impressive so far. They each have been recognized by the ECACH by being named Rookie of the Week. Young won the award last week after scoring his collegiate goal Oct. 7 against UConn. Prokop earned the honor Monday after collecting five assists in the two games last week.
Prokop is second on the team in scoring with seven points, all on assists. Young has a goal and an assist.
“They’re playing some hard minutes, and they’re producing offensively, so it’s nice to see.” Hauge said. “I think it gives us confidence to know that they’re only going to get better and they’re only going to get more comfortable in their role. I think they both have big-time futures ahead for us and are excited that we have them in the program.”
Young and Prokop are listening to advice from Petruolo and Kelly.
“They’ve been nothing but helpful to any questions we’ve had,” Young said. “I think it really helped us get to where we are and obviously, it’s not where we want to be [yet]. We keep wanting to push to be better. Without them, I don’t think there’s any way we get Rookie of the Week. They’ve really helped us and take that next step from the junior leagues into Division I.”
Said Prokop, “They’ve done it before, so leaning on that was extremely important like going through wins like Bentley and losses like RIT and especially going into conference play here in a couple of weeks. They’ve seen it before, so it’s important to ask questions.”
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