Kevin Sullivan’s three seasons with Union College hockey have followed the same pattern — slow starts in the first half, followed by strong play in the second half.
While Union coach Rick Bennett would love to see Sullivan play consistently well the entire season, he’s very happy that the junior left winger has his game going at the right time.
After collecting just two assists in his first 21 games this season, Sullivan has caught fire for the defending ECAC Hockey tournament-champion Dutchmen (19-12-5), who will face Yale (18-10-3) in the second semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.
Sullivan has collected five goals and four assists in his last 11 games. He has had a pair of two-goal games in the last three contests. Sullivan scored twice in the Dutchmen’s 4-0 win over Clarkson on March 1 that clinched the final first-round bye spot. And he helped end Dartmouth’s season on Saturday, scoring the first and last goals of the game in a 5-2 victory that completed a quarterfinal-round sweep for the Dutchmen.
“He did have a couple of sit-downs throughout the season,” Bennett said, “and maybe he learned a little bit from that, that you don’t want to sit up in Section B and be chomping on the hot dogs and the popcorn. He decided he wanted to be a player.”
Once the calendar changes from December to January, Sullivan gets his game going. He had three goals and six assists in the second half of the 2010-11 season, and last year, he had four goals and three assists during that span.
“I don’t think it has much to do with it being the second half,” Sullivan said. “It has to do with our team pushing for [the] playoffs, and it’s getting a little bit more intense. There’s no excuses for [the slow starts], but I’m picking up my game a little bit.”
And he’s picking up his confidence. Being placed on a line with center Matt Hatch and right winger Max Novak has helped.
“The beginning of the year, I struggled a lot,” Sullivan said. “Ever since, my line with Hatch and Novak has been going well. We’ve been coming together pretty well. It’s helping our team a lot. We grind a lot of teams down. We’re starting to do what a third line should do, for the most part.”
While Sullivan scored twice against Dartmouth, it was his assist on defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere’s early second-period goal, making the score 3-0, that may have been the most impressive.
Defenseman Greg Coburn, as he was falling at the right point, sent the puck into the right-wing corner. Sullivan picked up the puck, skated back toward the right point, drawing a Dartmouth defender to him. That left Gostisbehere open. He skated from the left point to the left circle. As Gostisbehere was going to the circle, Sullivan slid the puck to him. Gostisbehere fired a shot over goalie Charles Grant’s shoulder.
“He’s really playing tremendous right now,” Hatch said. “He’s helping our whole line out, getting in and getting pucks. He’s using his big body. This time of year, he really steps up, and that’s what we need from him.”
Bennett never gave up on Sullivan.
“Just believing in him,” Bennett said. “The coaching staff has stuck with him. He’s only sat a few games here and there. He got the message loud and clear. He’s kind of rewarding the team by the team rewarding him when he was going through his tough times.”
Bennett credited former Union assistant coach Ben Barr for recruiting Sullivan, who was playing at the Berkshire School.
“He did a tremendous job with Kevin Sullivan,” said Bennett, who was the associate head coach under Nate Leaman at the time Barr was an assistant. “I know it’s a team effort in recruiting, but Ben was the guy behind him. He did a super job.”
Sullivan is very appreciative of the coaches keeping the faith in him.
“That’s one of the keys,” Sullivan said. “It helps give me motivation, for the most part. When I’m down, it helps bring me back up a little bit. It helps me still get after it.”