Last year, Union made it to the NCAA hockey tournament Frozen Four for the first time.
Although the Dutchmen lost in the semifinals to Ferris State, the euphoria of making it to the national semifinals carried over into this season, and expectations were high. The Dutchmen were picked to win a third straight ECAC Hockey regular-season title in the coaches’ and media preseason polls.
But the Frozen Four appearance hung over the Dutchmen for most of the season, and it took some time for the team to shake off the haze.
Although the Dutchmen didn’t complete a hat trick of ECACH regular-season titles, they did capture a second straight ECACH tournament title and reached the NCAA tournament for the third straight year. The Dutchmen missed out on a second straight trip to the Frozen Four when they dropped a 5-1 decision to ECACH-foe Quinnipiac in the East Regional final Sunday in Providence, R.I.
Union finished the season with a 22-13-5 record.
“Anytime you have a program that goes to the Frozen Four for the first time, you’re going to have these lofty expectations,” Union coach Rick Bennett said Tuesday at Messa Rink. “I thought our guys handled it well. But maybe, deep down, we felt we were a little bit better than we thought we were for the first half of the season, and even going into January and a little bit of February.
“But by the same token, we only had one losing month of hockey throughout the whole time. We were at .500 once or twice. I know we talk about these peaks and valleys, but it wasn’t as bad as we thought.”
The Dutchmen did struggle, at times, with holding leads in the third period. There were also times that they had slow starts and couldn’t recover in time.
“It’s tough because it was a different year [and] the psyche of the group,” Bennett said. “They had it a lot harder than any other team previous to come into a season and try to meet everybody’s expectations. I’m throwing the word back at everyone with expectations. I’m not sure what they thought or how they felt, but I thought this group did an excellent job this season of taking everything that was thrown at them.”
With the departures of centers Jeremy Welsh (to the Carolina Hurricanes) and Kelly Zajac (to graduation), Bennett juggled the forward lines for most the season in an attempt to find the right combinations. And there were even struggles to find the right defensive combinations. It wasn’t until late in the season that everything came into place.
The chemistry was discovered just in time. The Dutchmen closed the regular season with wins over St. Lawrence and Clarkson to clinch the final ECACH tournament first-round bye. They swept Dartmouth in the quarterfinals, and then beat Yale in the semifinals and Brown in the championship game. Union then ousted defending NCAA champion Boston College in the East Regional semifinal.
“We learned a tremendous amount, as a coaching staff, in our second year, a lot more than we did in our first year,” Bennett said. “It was an absolute battle trying to find three consistent lines, and a fourth line that we felt comfortable with down the stretch. The thing that threw it for a loop, too, was the fact of [sophomore defenseman] Charlie Vasaturo getting hurt, because he was playing really good hockey, the best he’s ever played here, in the end. And it’s nice that [freshman defenseman] Sebastien Gingras really stepped up his game in the last bit.”
If there is a major lesson for the Dutchmen, it is that they can never take a game off. Had they not won the ECACH tournament, they would have been shut out of an at-large bid for the NCAAs.
After being a No. 1 seed in last year’s East Regional, the Dutchmen were the third seed this year. They played the 9 p.m. game Saturday and took a 5-1 decision over BC. But Union had less than 24 hours to prepare for top-seeded Quinnipiac, which had the early semifinal against Canisius. The Dutchmen didn’t have the same energy against the Bobcats that they had against BC, and the Bobcats rolled over them.
“That is the one area that will be addressed this spring,” Bennett said. “It will be addressed in the opening meeting come September and throughout all of next year. As much as we say keep it simple and talk out on there on the ice, that will be point No. 3, never take a game for granted.”
Union could have some players leave with eligibility remaining.
The two most prominent are junior goalie Troy Grosenick and sophomore defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere.
Grosenick, who is a free agent, didn’t have the same numbers he did last year, when he won the Ken Dryden Award as the ECACH’s top goalie and was a first-team All-American. Still, Grosenick posted a 17-10-5 record with a 2.12 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage and two shutouts.
“He deserves everything that he possibly gets through his play,” Bennett said. “He sets the tone through his work ethic for his team.”
Gostisbehere is a Philadelphia Flyers prospect after being selected in the third round of last June’s NHL draft. He had eight goals and 18 assists this season, and was named to the second team All-ECACH. Gostisbehere was also a member of Team USA’s gold-medal winning squad at the World Junior Hockey Championships in January.
Some NHL squads could look at three juniors — forwards Daniel Carr and Josh Jooris and defenseman Mat Bodie.
“I think it’s a good problem if you have players that the NHL is talking about your players because I’ve been here when there were no scouts in the building,” Bennett said. “Dealing with it as a staff, we want to be in the know and know what’s going on. In the past, I didn’t think we were in the know. Now, I feel that with our players and our relationship with our players, I feel that we are. We just don’t want to get caught with a player signing in June and July because we can’t replace that. If it happens early, we’ll do the best we possibly can.”