At 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, it’s hard to miss Union freshman center Eli Lichtenwald. It’s also not difficult to realize he has been very productive in the games he has played.
Lichtenwald has been a surprise for the 11th-ranked Dutchmen, who return to ECAC Hockey play tonight at 7 when they host Princeton at Messa Rink. League-leading and No. 5 Quinnipiac comes to Messa at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Lichtenwald had at least a point in his first five games. The streak ended in Sunday’s 5-4 win over Penn State. He has three goals and three assists. Two of his goals have come on the power play.
“He brings an element of hockey sense,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “He was a top-six forward right away. You’re asking a freshman to come in, in one of the toughest positions, for our program and what we require the center to do. He’s adjusted to it quite nicely, and it’s kind of a pleasant surprise.”
Finding a tall, physical player was a priority for the Union coaching staff on the recruiting trail. They found that in Lichtenwald, who started last season with the U.S. Hockey League’s Omaha Lancers and had five goals and 14 assists in 19 games. Midway through the season, he went to the Nipawin Hawks, the team he started his junior career with in 2010-11 and was the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year when he had 21 goals and 24 assists in 56 games that season. Lichtenwald finished last season with nine goals and 13 assists in 19 games.
“[Assistant coaches] Joe Dumais and Jason Tapp are the once that recruited Eli, and they saw something in him we needed,” Bennett said. “Eli provided the need. It’s nice that he’s come in and made a nice adjustment, so far, in the games that he has played. I’m not going to say we never had [a big player] because Jeremy Welsh was a 6-3 centerman, but a 6-6 centerman is different, size-wise.
“Hopefully, he can progress and be the same, dominating force that Jeremy was.”
Lichtenwald scored a goal in his collegiate debut Oct. 11 against Bowling Green. However, he suffered a lower-body injury later in the game that kept him out of the next seven games.
He returned to the lineup Nov. 9 against Cornell and promptly got two assists to help the Dutchmen to a 3-0 win. The next weekend in the home-and-home series against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he scored a goal in each game as Union swept the Engineers. Lichtenwald had an assist in last Saturday’s 4-3 win over Penn State before having the streak snapped the next night.
“Things started off good,” Lichtenwald said. “I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a spot in the lineup. The guys I’ve been playing with help out a lot. It just made the transition easier for me.”
Lichtenwald knows he needs to use his size to his advantage, especially when stationing himself in front of the opposition’s goalie.
“It’s big,” Lichtenwald said. “Obviously, if the goalie can’t see the puck, he can’t save it. Just take his eyes away, and good things come from that.”
The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said he never had a growth spurt.
“I was pretty steady all 21 years of my life,” Lichtenwald said. “I never had one year where I grew much more than any other year.”
Bennett was never concerned that Lichtenwald would be slowed down by his size.
“His skating is excellent for a guy his size,” Bennett said. “That was never a question.
The second-place Dutchmen (5-1 ECACH, 8-3-2 overall) seek to extend their winning streak to six games against the Tigers (2-6, 3-10), who have been decimated by injuries. Eight players are out, including last year’s top two scorers, senior forward Andrew Caloff and junior forward Tyler Maugeri.
It would be easy for the Dutchmen to overlook this game and worry about Saturday’s showdown with Quinnipiac, the team that swept the regular-season series and then knocked them out of the NCAA tournament in the East Regional final.
“I want to make this 100 percent clear. We aren’t looking past Princeton at all,” Bennett said. “We haven’t even thought of Quinnipiac. Princeton’s given us more than enough of fits here in the past. They’re a tough matchup, and we have to be ready to go, unlike our first period at Penn State on the second night.”
RPI back in action
After a two-week break, RPI (2-3-2, 7-5-2) returns to action tonight when it hosts Quinnipiac (6-1-1, 13-2-2) at 7 at Houston Field House.
The Engineers haven’t played since their 5-2 win at Mercyhurst Nov. 16, which snapped a three-game losing streak.
RPI gave Quinnipiac fits in the two meetings last year. The Bobcats needed a short-handed goal by Matthew Peca while down two men to snap a 1-1 tie midway through the third period and take a 3-1 victory in Troy on Nov. 30. In the second game in Hamden, Conn., goalie Bryce Merriam stopped 26 shots as RPI earned a 1-1 tie.
Quinnipiac is led in scoring by freshman left winger Sam Anas, who has 12 goals and 12 assists.