It’s neither the time to look back nor to look too far ahead for the Union men’s hockey team.
The Dutchmen swept four games from Princeton last season, including two in the first round of the ECAC Hockey playoffs, but that won’t help them on Friday.
And a date with the No. 2/3 team in the country, Quinnipiac, looms this weekend, a daunting challenge on the horizon, and also an intriguing opportunity, but that won’t help them on Friday, either.
That’s when Union plays at Princeton, as the Dutchmen jump back into ECACH play at Hobey Baker Rink for a 7 p.m. game, followed by the game at Quinnipiac on Saturday.
Coming off a 20-game break without a game, Union (3-3-0 ECACH, 6-8-1 overall) stayed in the moment last Saturday, twice coming back from a one-goal deficit to beat Northeastern 3-2 at Messa Rink.
The Dutchmen stuck to the little things, the moments when discipline and preparation add up to a greater good, and the end product was a victory over a team ranked in the top 20 at a time when rustiness would’ve been a convenient, if unsatisfactory, excuse.
So they’ll try to replicate that against the Tigers (3-6-0, 4-7-0), a team that will test Union’s defensive structure in particular, since Princeton likes to push the puck and doesn’t waste time exploring offensive opportunities.
“They’re extremely aggressive,” Union head coach Josh Hauge said on Tuesday. “They attack. They have the ability to finish off the rush. They really push the pace of the game.”
“Princeton is a dangerous team,” Union senior center Owen Farris said. “They just beat Clarkson last weekend. They’re a very aggressive, attacking team, and if you don’t come ready, it’s going to be a tough game for us.”
In the Northeastern game, Hauge was encouraged by the fact that the Dutchmen came back from the Thanksgiving schedule hiatus with a sharply focused game.
That includes goalie Connor Murphy, who was playing against his old team for the first time and had reason to bring some extra emotion to the rink.
The only time that was allowed to emerge was as soon as the game was over, when a Northeastern player gave Murphy a whack to punctuate a futile last effort by the Huskies to tie the game.
Tussles and wrestling matches broke out all over the Union defensive end, but Murphy laughed about it later and enjoyed a reunion with his old teammates during the handshake line.
Union’s Liam Robertson and Farris were assessed game misconduct penalties.
“Obviously, it’s high energy, high emotion at the end of the game,” Farris said. “We were trying to kill off the last seconds, one of their guys is facing the other way, turns back, takes a slash at Murphy.
“I was the first one there and was just trying to make sure it’s understood that’s not allowed. It’s sort of an unwritten rule in hockey. You don’t do that, so I think we handled it accordingly. It didn’t get too out of hand, although it was a bit of a scrap.”
“It was just a moment,” Robertson said. “If you go back and watch the video, one of their players slashed our goalie. We like to stand up for our players no matter who it is, but especially our goalie, is probably our No. 1 priority. We want to make sure he’s always comfortable and nobody’s taking any steps towards him like that.”
Princeton, coming off a 6-2 win over Clarkson and a 5-4 loss to St. Lawrence at home last weekend, is just one point ahead of Union in the standings.
Among the four wins by Union over the Tigers last season was a 1-0 overtime result in which Robertson scored the game-winner.
The Northeastern victory last Saturday could serve as a useful launch point back into conference play, especially because of how the Dutchmen shook off the game inactivity of the previous three weeks.
“We’ve taken really positive steps just in the last month,” Hauge said. “To see that get rewarded is huge for the guys, and just our overall confidence, knowing we can go toe-to-toe with anyone.
“It was huge after a break just to get that first game back. The ECAC, you’ve got to play it with structure and detail if you’re going to be successful, and to have the ability to play one game before getting back into ECAC play was huge, because this is a really big weekend for us.”
“We put ourselves in a good situation through break in terms of how we handled ourselves in the week leading up,” Farris said. “There’s a little nerves coming into a game again, because you get in a rhythm of playing every weekend, Friday and Saturday, and then have two weeks off. So we did show a little bit of something we can clean up in the first five, 10 minutes, but as soon as we settled into the game, we played very well and came away with the win.”
“Everybody’s got to adjust, especially the freshmen, to just look at Friday,” Robertson said. “That’s a skill you have to develop, and I think as you get older, you do.”
Soooo … looking ahead to Saturday, Union will face a Quinnipiac team (8-0-0, 12-1-3) that already has a comfortable five-point cushion at the top of the ECACH standings and is unbeaten in its last 11, all wins except for a 2-2 tie with UMass in the Friendship Four in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The Bobcats’ only loss was 4-0 at Maine way back on Oct. 22, which Quinnipiac answered with a 6-2 victory over the Black Bears the following night.
The Bobcats are No. 2 behind Denver in the USCHO.com poll, with 12 of 50 first-place votes, and No. 3 behind Denver and Minnesota in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.
“Really, as a staff, we’ve put all our effort into Princeton right now,” Hauge said. “That’s what we’re dialed in on. It’s a really important game for us.
“I’ve watched Quinnipiac a little bit, and obviously they’re extremely talented, but they’re also extremely structured. They don’t take a lot of chances, they don’t give up much.
“They just kind of lean on you, and by the end of the night, I think this last weekend they had 40 and 50 shots on net. They’re not looking to transition and go. They make you pay if you do turn one over, but they’re just going to lean on you, play that heavy, hard game.”
“I don’t think we’ve had a six-point weekend out of ECAC play yet, and that’s something we need to do,” Farris said. “So we’re looking for a strong weekend, Friday and Saturday, but Friday’s our first thought.”
DUTCHWOMEN AT BROWN, YALE
The Union women’s team is also on the road for two ECACH games, at Brown on Friday and Yale on Saturday.
And like the men, the Dutchwomen are also trying to springboard off their previous game, the first win over a ranked opponent in the history of the program, 4-1 over Princeton at Messa Rink last Saturday in which goalie Sophie Matsoukas made 56 saves.
The Dutchwomen (3-3-1, 8-6-1) will also face an opponent on the second night of the weekend with a lofty ranking, as Yale is No. 3 and 4.
Princeton outshot Union 57-15 last Saturday, but head coach Josh Sciba was encouraged by the fact that the Dutchwomen scored when the opportunities showed up.
He also saw improvement from Friday to Saturday simply moving the puck up ice.
“I don’t think we played our best on Friday,” he said. “We had a tough time breaking the puck out. We really couldn’t crack the red line, to be honest. We want to be much better there going into this weekend.
“Certainly when you have a goalie who stops 56 pucks, it’s something that’s a recipe for success all the time. But when you look at the game, at our goals, we buried opportunities on Saturday. Yeah, we got outshot, but the offense we created, we earned those opportunities and took advantage of them. I’m really proud of that.”
It was a precedent-setting week for the Dutchwomen, who not only beat a ranked opponent for the first time, but had a skater earn the conference Rookie of the Month award for the first time ever.
That would be Riley Walsh, a first-year forward from Duxbury, Massachusetts who scored four goals and assisted on four others as Union went 4-0-1.
Remarkably, three of those goals came in overtime, against Dartmouth, RIT and RPI, and she assisted on both goals of a 2-2 tie with Harvard in which the Dutchwomen trailed 2-0..
She’s part of a team that continues to build confidence.
“The win [over Princeton] itself was huge,” Sciba said. “It’s great for our program to beat a ranked opponent. We want to continue to build on that, and when we can beat a ranked opponent like that, we can see results when we’re not at our best. I think there’s a ton of belief in our room right now.”
“It’s really satisfying, and I’m lucky to be a part of this team and have been for a few years,” senior forward Emily King said. “But this year, it’s really changed. I’m just happy to be here, and it’s really fun. Like, hockey, I enjoy coming to the rink every day, having a great time with my team, and now we’re having success and getting good results. Its gratifying, after putting in all this hard work and finally seeing positive outcomes.. Especially doing it with people you love like your family.”