It’s not often that Union junior center Jeremy Welsh is a decoy on a two-on-one break.
But there he was on the right wing, watching freshman center Max Novak show maturity by firing a shot from the left wing over the right shoulder of Michigan State goalie Will Yanakeff with 4:51 left in the first period to give the Dutchmen a 1-0 lead in the NCAA hockey tournament East Regional on Friday at Webster Bank Arena.
“He doesn’t have the greatest shot in the world, but he seems to put it in the net when it’s big,” Welsh said. “He scores goals, he’s real poised and he’s been big for us down the stretch.”
The goal started top-seeded Union on its way to a 3-1 win over fourth-seeded Michigan State and earned the ECAC Hockey champions a berth in the regional final tonight at 6:30.
After a mid-season slump that saw him benched for a three-game stretch and six of 13 games, Novak has bounced back. He has nine goals and five assists in 32 games this season.
Novak got off to a hot start this season. In Union’s first game of the year, Novak scored twice to lead the Dutchmen to an 8-1 win at Army. And, after getting a goal and an assist in a 6-3 victory at Michigan on Nov. 27, Novak had four goals and four assists in his first 13 games.
But in the next nine games he played, Novak had just two assists.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” said Novak, who came to Union from the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s New Jersey Hitmen. “When you’re playing at this level, staying out of that lineup there really put it in perspective for me. I was glad to get back in the lineup, and you don’t want to get out of it.”
Novak has made an impact in the postseason. He scored Union’s first goal against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Game 1 of the ECACH tournament quarterfinals March 9. He scored the Dutchmen’s second goal in last Friday’s semifinal against Colgate.
“He’s a typical first-year guy,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “You go through your curves as a student-athlete. It’s not just hockey, either. You have to battle through school, as well. It’s two-pronged.
“He’s an excellent student-athlete. He just had a little bit of a curve there in hockey in the second part of the season. But he’s really picked it up.”
Novak has also had to adjust to playing center. He came to Union as a winger.
“The adjustment’s been pretty good,” Novak said. “I don’t mind, really, playing low and covering down there. The biggest change is taking faceoffs, and I probably have to work on that a little bit.”
On his goal, Novak was looking to shoot.
“I knew I had [Welsh] with me,” Novak said. “It looked like their goalie might have been playing him. Maybe they saw it was 27 [Welsh’s number] coming down the other side. Maybe he was cheating a little bit to the middle of the net, so I had a little bit of room on that short side. I just shot it and, luckily, it went in.”
UMass Lowell wins
Riley Wetmore scored his second goal of the game 2:13 into sudden-death overtime to give third-seeded UMass-Lowell a 4-3 victory over second-seeded Miami (Ohio) in the second semifinal.
The River Hawks (24-12-1) took a 2-0 first-period lead on a power-play goal by Josh Holmstrom and a short-handed tally by Colin Wright. Wetmore scored early in the second to make it 3-0.
The RedHawks (24-15-2) came back to tie it in the third on goals by Trent Vogelhuber, Austin Czarnik and Alden Hirschfeld.
If you are coming to town for tonight’s game, Union will have a pregame reception from 3-6 p.m. at Barnum Publick House at 1020 Broad Street.
Cost is $25 per person and will include penne a la vodka, chicken parmesan, roasted potatoes, a vegetable and one drink token.
Two Union players are closing in on milestones.
Senior center Kelly Zajac assisted on Wayne Simpson’s late third-period power-play goal to give him 128 career points. He is four points away from breaking Adam Presziniuk’s Union Division I team record for points in a career.
Welsh had a goal and an assist to give him 98 career points. If he gets to 100 career points, he will be the eighth Union player in the Division I era to do so.
While Simpson and goalie Troy Grosenick came to the postgame press conference in T-shirts, shorts and hats, Welsh was dressed in a suit and tie.
Did he have a date? No.
“I guess we have to stay in the [locker] room for half an hour,” Welsh said. “I get a quick stretch in, get a shower and we like to get out of here as fast as we can. If I wait until after [the press conference], you’re holding everyone up.”