Union did everything right to take a three-goal lead early in the third period Friday against 10th-ranked Renssealer Polytechnic Institute.
The Dutchmen nearly did everything wrong to blow it. But unlike the previous four times when they wasted leads and either lost or tied, the Dutchmen held on.
Nick Cruice had the first two-goal game of his career, and they were two important ones, as Union built a 4-1 lead before edging RPI, 4-3, in Part 1 of their ECAC Hockey Route 7 Rivalry matchup before a standing-room-only crowd of 2,254 at Messa Rink.
The two teams will meet again tonight at 7 at Houston Field House. The third game will be the Mayor’s Cup contest Jan. 25 at the Times Union Center.
Union (4-1 ECACH, 5-3-2 overall) is 13-1-1 in its last 15 games against RPI (2-2-2, 6-3-2). The Dutchmen have won nine straight overall, and seven in a row at Messa.
But for the final 17 minutes of the game, things got hairy for the Dutchmen.
In games against Bowling Green, Lake Superior State, UConn and Colgate, the Dutchmen couldn’t sustain leads. Last Friday’s game against Colgate was particularly infuriating because the Dutchmen blew leads of 2-0 and 3-2 and lost, 5-3.
It looked like the same thing was happening against RPI. Goals 44 seconds apart by Eli Lichtenwald and Cruice gave the Dutchmen a 4-1 lead.
But Matt Neal scored twice, the second coming on a two-man advantage, to make it a one-goal difference. Union had to kill off a Matt Wilkins high-sticking penalty late in the game to protect the lead, and it didn’t give RPI much of a chance when the Engineers pulled goalie Scott Diebold for an extra attacker with 2:03 remaining.
“For our team psyche, it was very important,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “We’re going to be in these battles. They’re ranked 10th in the country. They’re a very good team. You’re going to have to weather the storm sometimes, and I thought we did that.
“We learned a pretty good lesson that RPI’s not going to quit. That’s what we learned. We have some young guys in that lineup who saw that, so that’s a good thing.”
It was a big relief for the Dutchmen to be able to hold on.
“It says a lot about our team,” said Dutchmen defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who had two assists. “We went up, 4-1, and we got a little too comfortable at the end. We battled back. We just kept battling, stuck with it and got the ‘W.’ ”
RPI took the lead 4:56 into the game on a fluky goal. During a Union power play, Dutchmen goalie Colin Stevens tried to clear a rolling puck. But he shot it into Brock Higgs’ shin pads, and it caromed into the net.
The Dutchmen got that back less than nine minutes later when Daniel Ciampini, stationed in the mid-slot, tipped a Gostisbehere high-slot shot past Diebold.
Gostisbehere set up Cruice’s first goal, forcing a turnover in the RPI left circle. The puck got to Cruice, who beat Diebold between the pads from the slot to snap the 1-1 tie.
“I pinched down low, and it went right to ‘Cruiser,’ thankfully,” Gostisbehere said. “He finished the job.”
Cruice’s second goal was similar, and it turned out to be the game-winner.
On both goals, Cruice, a sophomore right wing, wasn’t trying to go between the pads.
“Actually, I whiffed on both of them,” Cruice said. “I was trying to go upstairs, but they ended up going five-hole.”
“At least he was honest,” Bennett said. “That’s good to know because in practice, he’s usually going top shelf. It was his night. The puck had eyes.”
Meanwhile, RPI was held to 10 shots on goal through the first two periods.
“It’s a credit to Union,” said RPI coach Seth Appert, who is 4-19-3 against the Dutchmen. “They played well. It’s a good win by them.”
It took falling behind by three goals for the Engineers to get going.
“We talked a lot after the second period. We just really wanted to come out strong,” Neal said. “We had a couple of hiccups, and that kind of whacked us back into it. We decided, as a team, we needed to be better. We started talking more on the bench, and just got into it from there.
“It was a good effort by our guys. I think we came out strong. But it was a little to bit too late.”
RPI 1 0 2 — 3
Union 1 1 2 — 4
First Period — 1, RPI, Higgs 8, 4:56 (sh). 2, Union, Ciampini 5 (Gostisbehere, Taylor), 13:47 (pp). Penalties — Curadi, RPI (interference), 4:25; Zalewski, RPI (boarding), 13:21; Curadi, RPI (holding), 3:04.
Second Period — 3, Union, Cruice 2 (Vecchione, Gostisbehere), 13:17. Penalties — Leonard, RPI (cross-checking), 3:04; Vecchione, Uni (hooking), 5:51; Leboeuf, RPI (interference), 17:14.
Third Period — 4, Union, Lichtenwald 2 (Wilkins, Taylor), 1:04. 5, Union, Cruice 3 (Gostisbehere, Novak), 1:48. 6, RPI, Neal 4 (Haggerty, Zalewski), 3:40. 7, RPI, Neal 5 (Laliberte, Haggerty), 11:50 (pp). Penalties — Taylor, Uni (holding), 10:00; Bodie, Uni (hooking), 10:21; Wilkins, Uni (high-sticking), 15:28.
Shots on Goal — RPI 5-5-11— 21. Union 13-11-8— 32.
Power-play opportunities — RPI 1 of 4; Union 1 of 5.
Goalies — RPI, Diebold 5-2-2 (32 shots-28 saves). Union, Stevens 4-1-0 (21-18).
A — 2,254. T — 2:10.
Referees — Mike Baker, Chip McDonald. Linesmen — Jim Briggs, Glen Cooke.