A month and a half ago, Union faced Colgate for the first time since last season’s ECAC Hockey tournament quarterfinals, when the 12th-seeded Raiders upset the top-seeded Dutchmen in that series.
When the teams met at Messa Rink on Feb. 3, the Dutchmen were focused on protecting their first-place standing and not exacting revenge.
The two teams meet again in the postseason, and the stakes are even higher. But the message of last month remains the same.
The top-seeded and sixth-ranked Dutchmen are keeping their focus on the prize — an ECACH tournament title. They hope to take a step toward that this afternoon at 4:30 when they face the fourth-seeded and 20th-ranked Raiders (19-15-3) in the first semifinal game at Boardwalk Hall.
The winner advances to Saturday’s title game at 7 p.m. The loser plays in the third-place game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
The Dutchmen are looking to become the first No. 1 seed to win the tournament since Yale in 2009. Union advanced to the championship round for the second time in three years by sweeping 10th-seeded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the quarterfinals. But the Dutchmen were outplayed in long stretches of that series.
“We’ve got a couple of things that we really need to work on,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “We can’t put our energy into worrying about [last] year and what happened with Colgate. I know you guys [the media] are probably sick of the same old song and dance, but it’s a different team. It really is. Our focus is to work on our weaknesses so we don’t have those situations again.”
In last March’s best-of-three quarterfinals, the Dutchmen won Game 1, 4-1, and took a 2-0 lead into the third period of Game 2. But the Dutchmen didn’t play very aggressively in the final 20 minutes, and Colgate scored four goals to win, 4-2, and force a Game 3.
In a back-and-forth contest, Union had a 3-2 lead late in the game. But Francois Brisebois scored with 2:27 left in regulation to tie the score and send the game to sudden-death overtime. Wade Poplawski scored with 7:08 left in OT to give Colgate the shocking upset.
“I’m sure it’s in the backs of some guys’ minds, but that’s not what we’re focusing on,” Dutchmen junior center Kyle Bodie said. “We’re focusing on this year’s team, and going out and trying to reach our potential.”
Union won both meetings this season against Colgate. The Dutchmen took a 3-1 victory in the game at Messa, and then captured their second straight Cleary Cup with a 5-3 triumph Feb. 25 at Starr Rink.
Colgate coach Don Vaughan sees no weaknesses in the Dutchmen, and that has him worried. Senior center Kelly Zajac (8-33-41) leads the Dutchmen offensive attack, which has eight players with at least 20 points. Junior center Jeremy Welsh has 23 goals and 13 assists. Junior right winger Wayne Simpson (17) and sophomore left winger Daniel Carr (16) can also put the puck in the net.
In goal, sophomore Troy Grosenick has an 18-5-3 record with a 1.66 goals-against average, a .936 save percentage and five shutouts.
“When you watch them, there’s not a team that I can remember in our league in recent history that’s as complete as they are,” Vaughan said. “They, obviously, have great offensive upside, but they’re very stingy defensively. They compete so hard. Welsh [won] like 70 to 80 percent faceoffs. They win draws, they’re so sound defensively in their own end, they take away time and space, they come hard to the net, they’ve got a great power play, they kill penalties well and they have one of the best goalies, if not the best goalie, in the country.
“You put that all together, you’ve got a pretty complete team. That scares me.”
The Raiders, who needed three games to oust fifth-seeded Quinnipiac, are led by senior right winger Austin Smith. He has a nation’s best 36 goals, and leads the Raiders with 56 points. Smith is averaging 1.51 points per game, second only to Maine’s Spencer Abbott at 1.59. Smith leads the country with six short-handed goals. He also leads the team in power-play goals (seven) and game-winning goals (five).
But there is more to the offense than Smith. His linemates, sophomore center Chris Wagner, has 17 goals and 33 assists, and freshman left winger Joe Wilson has nine goals and 13 assists.
Union did a good job keeping the Wilson-Wagner-Smith line from dominating the two regular-season meetings. The Dutchmen held them without a point Feb. 3 game. In the Feb. 25 contest, Smith had a goal and an assist, Wagner had an assist and Wilson didn’t get a point.
“They’re a skilled team,” Zajac said. “They can put the puck in the net. They showed that in the last game against Quinnipiac [a 4-0 win]. They had a good outburst of goals. We just have to play good defense. That’s something that we’re trying to fix up here this week.”
Bennett wants his players to keep an eye on senior center Austin Mayer (8-15-23) and junior right winger Robbie Bourdon (12-9-21).
“I’m concerned about that Joe Wilson, Chris Wagner and Austin Smith line,” Bennett said. “[But] they’re more than a one-line team, that’s for sure. They have a lot of depth, very good defensemen.”
Bennett is especially impressed with the all-around game of defenseman Jeremy Price. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior has two goals and 21 assists.
“Offensively, I think Jeremy Price is one of the best defensemen in our league,” Bennett said. “He plays the kind of game you want to play. He’s a little bit of a hybrid type of player that he’s tough to play against because he can play offense, and he can play a physical game. He’s the closest thing to Scott Stevens we have in the league. He scares a lot of people.”