Freshman right winger Matt Wilkins came to Union with a great reputation for being a point producer after leading the Alberta Junior Hockey League last year.
But the points were few and far between for Wilkins early in the season.
Over the past month, Wilkins has found his game. While the goals haven’t come, the assists are piling up. Wilkins has collected seven assists over the last eight games, including two key helpers in last Friday’s 5-0 victory over Yale in the ECAC Hockey tournament semifinals at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.
The ECACH tournament-champion Dutchmen (21-12-5) will face defending national champion Boston College (22-11-4) in the NCAA hockey tournament East Regional semifinals at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I. The winner will take on the winner of the first semifinal between Quinnipiac and Canisius in the championship game at 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Playing for the Brooks Bandits last season, Wilkins led the AJHL with 34 goals and 65 assists, and was a finalist for league MVP. In his two years with the Bandits, Wilkins had 64 goals and 122 assists. He scored 28 career power-play goals.
However, Wilkins had just a goal and five assists in his first 20 games with Union. It was a good wake-up call for Wilkins that playing college hockey is a lot different than playing in the junior ranks
“I didn’t realize how big of a jump it was,” Wilkins said. “Everything is faster. Everyone is stronger. It took quite a while for me to get used to it. It definitely hit me right away. The first game was sort of an eye opener. I thought I could get into it quicker than I did.”
Union coach Rick Bennett had an idea that it may take some time for Wilkins to make the transition.
“The two biggest adjustments for any freshman coming in are the size of the players and the speed of the players,” Bennett said. “We knew this coming from, what Joe [Dumais, Union assistant coach] told me, in the fact it’s going to take him an adjustment period until he learns to move his feet. It’s something similar to Kelly Zajac his first year.
“Then you get older, and you start to figure it out like Kelly did. Once Matt started to figure this out, his game elevated. Over the course of time, you’ll see a guy that will slow it down to his pace and he’ll know how to adjust.”
Wilkins collected his second and third goals of the season in consecutive games. His third-period goal against Harvard Jan. 22 gave the Dutchmen a 3-1 lead, and they went on to a 4-1 win. Four days later, he scored the game-winning, power-play goal with 37 seconds left in regulation that snapped a 2-2 tie and gave the Dutchmen a 3-2 victory over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the inaugural Mayor’s Cup game.
Wilkins’ current streak has lifted his scoring totals to three goals and 13 assists.
“The coaching staff was a huge help,” Wilkins said. “Watching video, staying on the ice after with me just helping [out]. Playing on a line with [center Josh] Jooris and [left winger Daniel] Carr has definitely helped me, too. They are two junior guys who have had great careers, thus far. They’re helping me out a lot in this transition to this level.”
Wilkins played a key role in setting up goals by Carr and Jooris in the win over Yale. He was in Yale’s right-wing circle when he sent a cross-ice pass to Carr in the left circle. The puck deflected off of a Yale defender, but had plenty of momentum to reach Carr, and he fired it past goalie Jeff Malcolm to give Union a 2-0 lead with 4:50 left in the first period.
Then, five minutes into the second period, Wilkins sent a pass from the Yale right-wing boards toward the net. Jooris tipped it, and it hit a Yale player and slipped past Malcolm to give the Dutchmen a 4-0 lead.
“We’ve got three guys who see the ice pretty well,” Wilkins said. “We’re feeling each other out on the ice. Anytime you can get three guys with chemistry going, … it definitely helps.”
“I think ‘Wilks’ has a lot of skill,” Carr said. “He’s a really physical guy. He does things the right way. He takes pucks to the net. He’s certainly not scared out there, which helps him.”
Bennett has seen a noticeable difference in Wilkins’ game.
“His game has improved,” Bennett said. “He brings a lot to that line of Josh Jooris and Daniel Carr in the fact of physicality, and does a lot of backchecking, as well, to help out Dan and Josh. I think that’s underrated in those two regards. Through that, he’s playing better because he’s doing the little things right that he wasn’t doing earlier. Moreso, he’s moving his feet more.”
Bennett isn’t ready to project Wilkins as big point producer just yet.
“I’m not going to put numbers on him,” Bennett said. “I’m not going to start with the expectation stuff. Kelly Zajac was a 20-point freshman. Jason Walters and
Mario Valery-Trabucco [had] 25, 26 or 27 [points their freshmen year]. Who’s to say he can’t put up 40? I just want to see him finish out and see how he does on Saturday night. That’s going to be another great test for him.
“In the future, I see him as a 25-, 35-point guy. As he gets older, depending on if we keep recruiting strong, the sky’s the limit for him.”