They stuck to the process.
Jeremy Welsh was called up from AHL Charlotte to the Carolina Hurricanes last Friday, and played in his second career NHL game on Tuesday night, logging five minutes in a 4-1 loss to Tampa Bay.
He scored a team-record 27 goals last season for Union College, and many of them were of the type that gets the Carolina Hurricanes of the world to notice you.
In a convenient juxtaposition, his former college team was on the winning end of a 4-1 score at Messa Rink on Tuesday night, over Harvard, and the key goal was the product, first, of hard work in the corners, and, second, of a wonderfully patient passing scheme on the ensuing two-minute five-on-three power play.
Harvard was profoundly mindful of offensive-minded defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, drafted in the third round by the Flyers last year, so teammate Mat Bodie sucked in the defense and found Wayne Simpson on the left post. He stepped out and ripped one high to the far corner for a 2-0 lead.
Union must have passed it 15 times in a span of 36 seconds to assemble that goal, on its first shot of the PP.
“We stuck to the process,” Bodie said, and after he left the interview room, head coach Rick Bennett walked in and echoed those exact words.
The Dutchmen aren’t nearly where they want to be, or where many observers expected them to be, at this point in the season, but they’re also showing signs of trusting and respecting a process that requires constant attention to detail.
It showed itself when Union banged away in the corners and drew concurrent minor penalties, and it showed itself when the Dutchmen seized that opportunity not by rushing shots and flailing away at the Crimson net, but by using five players to hypnotize the Harvard defense with crisp passing for Simpson’s goal.
It was a departure from a wasted lengthy five-on-three against Quinnipiac 10 days before, when the Dutchmen had a 2-0 lead and lost, 3-2.
The thing is, with Welsh and Kelly Zajac gone, Union had talked in the preseason about going gritty for offense instead of pretty, and the Dutchmen actually managed plenty of both on Tuesday.
“I don’t think our offense is where it was last year,” said Bodie, who had three assists. “Obviously, Jeremy and Kelly made some huge plays for us and some pretty goals, but I think we’re kind of finding our groove with respect to goals.”
“He was rewarded, by his assists tonight and the game before, because he was doing the little things that the coaching staff has been showing,” Bennett said. “The difference between tonight and Quinnipiac was we stuck with the process. We weren’t overzealous, and . . . stayed with it. And that’s what you have to do. Keep battling, when it’s zero-zero, or you’re on a five-on-three and it [goal] doesn’t come in the first three seconds. They didn’t pass through sticks, and they just kept it simple.”
It’s not to say Union was flawless.
Rarely — perhaps never — can a team claim that.
There still is the matter of faceoffs, and Harvard’s goal came right off a draw less than three minutes after Simpson had given Union the 2-0 lead.
Remarkably, the Dutchmen also were called for too many men on the ice for the third game in a row, when the score was 0-0, although it didn’t cost them.
Coaches love that.
“One of our guys had a foot over, he was halfway,” Bennett said. “Our player was coming back hard, and our guy jumped. You know what? It’s going to be a little tough skate on Thursday, for the coaching staff, as well. That’s a team penalty, and the coaching staff is going to be held accountable, too.”
In general, though, Union is beginning to grind out some momentum.
For a team flush from a Frozen Four appearance last year, expectations were high, and USCHO.com had the Dutchmen ranked No. 5 in the country in the preseason.
That seems pretty misguided now, especially in light of the challenge Union faced to find offense with Welsh and Zajac gone.
It doesn’t mean the Dutchmen don’t have some good pieces, like 2012 Ken Dryden Award-winning goalie Troy Grosenick, who is starting to play better, and the dangerous Gostisbehere, back from a World Junior Championship appearance for Team USA.
On Tuesday, they put those pieces together.
“As a staff, we’ve kept the same message, but in different ways,” Bennett said. “So, they’re hearing it, but I think they’re really starting to buy into it now. We’re not trying to re-invent anything, come up with any new sayings. The locker room speech has been the same the past few weeks, basically since they came back from Christmas break.”
“We’ve had some gritty goals,” Bodie said. “[Matt] Hatch and Kyle [Bodie] against Cornell, both of those goals were just crashing the net. You know what, I think today we actually had some nicer goals. The offense is coming along.”