All season long, the Union hockey team’s approach to playing a game has been the same.
It’s all business.
That attitude helped the third-ranked Dutchmen win their second straight ECAC Hockey regular-season title and their first ECACH tournament championship. Now, they are taking the same approach toward their ultimate goal — winning an NCAA title.
The Dutchmen (24-7-7) begin that quest this afternoon at 3 at Webster Bank Arena in the NCAA tournament East Regional. Union, the top seed in the regional and the No. 3 seed overall, takes on Michigan State (19-15-4) in the first semifinal.
The winner will advance to Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. championship game against the winner of the second semifinal between Miami (Ohio) and UMass Lowell. The regional victor moves on to the Frozen Four April 5-7 in Tampa, Fla.
The Dutchmen earned the automatic bid to the NCAAs by beating Harvard, 3-1, in Saturday’s ECACH tournament final. The players enjoyed carrying the Whitelaw Cup around the Boardwalk Hall ice.
By the time the team returned to practice Monday, it was time to forget about what it had accomplished and get back to work. That’s just a continuation of never getting too high after winning, and never getting too low after a loss.
“You can only worry about the present,” said sophomore Troy Grosenick, the Ken Dyden Award winner as the top ECACH goalie and Hobey Baker Award top-10 finalist. “If you’re looking back at the past or looking into the future too much, you stray from the process. At the end of the day, the process got us here. It’s what is going to, hopefully, carry us forward.”
To show how business-like the Dutchmen are, they’re going against playoff tradition — no playoff beards allowed.
“The whole year, we’ve been sticking with the process,” said senior center Kelly Zajac, who has eight goals and 33 assists. “That hasn’t changed throughout the course of the season. We haven’t grown playoff beards, and we’re clean-shaven and have clean haircuts. It’s all business for us.
“There’s a time to have fun, and a time to joke around. Come [today], we’re going to be all business and ready to go.”
And Union coach Rick Bennett loves it.
“We have a little tradition,” Bennett said. “It’s set in stone from the opening meeting. You’re shaved every Monday. We’re student-athletes here at Union College, and that’s the way we want to keep it. These guys take a lot of pride in their academics, and that’s what we want. If you want to look like Motley Crue, so be it. Go somewhere else. That’s kind of how the focus has been.”
The Dutchmen are back in Bridgeport for the second straight year. Losing last year’s 2-0 regional semifinal to eventual NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth helped them start treating every game like a business trip.
“It’s a long road back,” said junior center Jeremy Welsh, Union’s leading goal scorer with 25. “Obviously, you don’t want to take it for granted. But it’s a long season. There’s a lot of ups, a lot of downs. Having been here, and knowing what’s at stake and what’s at the end of the season, it’s easier for the guys that were here last year to take the Cleary Cup in stride and move forward. Last year was really exciting. It was the first time we’ve done it.
“We [took] the regional berth here and move forward, and keep our sights on our ultimate goal. We haven’t gotten too high or too low. We’ve been focused on getting to this point.”
This is the first time the teams have ever met. Michigan State coach Tom Anastos watched the third period of the ECACH tournament championship game between Union and Harvard. He was very impressed, particularly with the calm demeanor the Dutchmen showed after falling behind, 1-0, early in the third period.
“They were a very poised team,” Anastos said. “That was the first time I saw them play all year, and not even 20 minutes. I thought they played with lots of poise. They played very disciplined to what it seemed to me was their style of play. I thought they were very well balanced. They played well, defensively, and they’re very capable, and they demonstrated that all year, offensively.”
The Spartans know that Welsh will be tough to stop.
“He’s a very talented player, and somebody, obviously, we have to be aware of,” Anastos said. “They have a number of players that are talented.”
Besides Welsh and Zajac, the Spartans will have to contend with sophomore forward Daniel Carr (19-19-39), junior forward Wayne Simpson (17-13-30), sophomore defenseman Mat Bodie (8-20-28), junior forward Kyle Bodie (5-23-28), sophomore forward Josh Jooris (7-19-26) and freshman defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere (5-16-21).
“We know they are a very powerful offensive team,” Michigan State junior defenseman Torey Krug said. “But at the same time, we are going to take care of ourselves, and concentrate on ourselves and let the coaching staff handle the X’s and O’s.”
Krug is the Spartans’ top player. The CCHA Player of the Year and Hobey Baker Award top-10 finalist is the team’s leading scorer with 12 goals and 21 assists.
Senior forward Brett Perlini and sophomore forward Lee Reimer are tied for second with nine goals and 21 assists each. Senior Mike Merrifield is the Spartans’ top forward goal scorer with 11.
“They’re a real fast team,” Jooris said. “I think, just sticking to our game, we have to be good coming back into the [defensive] zone out of our offense.”