Eli Lichtenwald, Michael Pontarelli and Mike Vecchione are three of Union’s talented freshman forwards. And in a showdown with the team the Dutchmen are chasing for first place in ECAC Hockey, Quinnipiac, the trio played with the poise of upperclassmen.
Thanks to them, the 11th-ranked Dutchmen own a share of the conference lead.
Lichtenwald and Pontarelli had two goals and an assist each, and Vecchione had a goal and two assists as the Dutchmen overcame an own goal by defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and took a 6-4 victory over the fifth-ranked Bobcats at Messa Rink in the first meeting between the two teams since last year’s NCAA tournament East Regional final, which was won by Quinnipiac.
It was the seventh straight win for the Dutchmen (7-1 ECACH, 10-4-2 overall), who have two games in hand on the defending ECACH regular-season champion Bobcats (6-2-2, 13-3-3). Union is off to its best ECACH start since opening the 2009-10 season 7-0-3.
And the Dutchmen can thank the freshman sensations for that.
“In a big game like that, [and] I’m not saying that they’re all not big, but I think everyone knew it was a battle there trying to tie them and get first place,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “I thought it was a good test, and it happened to be the freshmen tonight.”
Union needed the steady play of the freshmen trio during a game that saw the Dutchmen lose three one-goal leads, and then fall behind, 4-3, on goals by Travis St. Denis and Kellen Jones 62 seconds apart early in the third period.
“I think we can agree that we’re just recipients of the great play by the veteran players,” said the 6-foot-6 Lichtenwald, who has at least one point in eight of the nine games he has played. “They’ve taken us under their wings, and shown us the ropes. It was a night where everything kind of clicked for us.”
Vecchione scored the game’s first goal, putting in the rebound of a Sebastien Gingras shot past goalie Michael Garteig 4:42 into the first period. Shortly after Bryce Van Brabant’s power-play goal with 1:27 left in the first period tied the score, Vecchione dug a puck out of a scrum to the right of the Quinnipiac net. He slid it across to Pontarelli, who fired it home.
The Bobcats got a gift goal at 3:51 of the second when Gostisbehere accidently shot the puck into his own net during a delayed penalty against Quinnipiac’s Devon Toews.
Goalie Colin Stevens was on the bench for an extra attacker when Gostisbehere took his eyes off the puck as he tried to make a pass in the Union zone. It slid off of his stick and headed toward the vacated Union net. Gostisbehere tried in vain to get it, but failed. Michael Peca was credited with the goal, as he was the last Quinnipiac player to touch the puck.
But Lichtenwald got Gostisbehere off the hook when he scored with four seconds left on a power play to give the Dutchmen a 3-2 lead.
Gostisbehere made up for his mistake later in the period, stopping a Peca drive from the right circle when Stevens was out of position.
“We all make mistakes,” Bennett said. “He responded, and he saved a goal. As I look at it, it’s even. And for our guys to come back and get a power-play goal after that just shows the push back. That’s a sign of maturity.”
Just 41 seconds after the Bobcats took the lead, Vecchione and Pontarelli teamed up to tie the score.
Vecchione won a faceoff in Quinnipiac’s left circle. Pontarelli got it and skated to the high slot, where he fired a wrist shot that eluded a screened Garteig.
“I was struggling on draws tonight,” Vecchione said. “I just found a way to get it back to him. He did a great job of picking the seam and finding the top shelf.”
Pontarelli, who has six goals on the season, came into the game having not scored a goal in his last nine contests.
“It’s nice to put a couple in tonight,” Pontarelli said. “ ‘Vechs’ did a great job of winning the faceoff. It found its way to my stick. The coaching staff has been telling me a lot to shoot more. I just tried to throw it on the net. I guess good things happen when you shoot.”
The game-winner came on nice passing between Lichtenwald and Wilkins.
Wilkins sent a pass to Lichtenwald in the left circle. It looked liked the puck would elude Lichtenwald, but thanks to his big reach, he got it.
Lichtenwald sent it back to Wilkins, who went to the net. The pass was a couple of feet off the ice, but Wilkins batted it home to give Union a 5-4 lead with 5:29 to go.
“It started with ‘Carsie’ [left winger Daniel Carr] on the blue line to get the puck in,” Wilkins said. “It sort of went up, and I just grabbed it. It’s lucky that Eli’s [6-6] because I passed it a little far in front of him. He made a nice back-door pass to me, and I was lucky enough to get a stick on it.”
Lichtenwald sealed the win on an empty-net goal with 2.5 seconds left, making Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold most displeased.
“I thought we stunk tonight,” Pecknold said. “I thought we were absolutely atrocious. We’re running around, our ‘D’ didn’t do what it was supposed to do, our forwards didn’t do what they’re supposed to do. We blew two backchecks, blew a faceoff coverage.
“It was chaos. That’s not how we’re supposed to play. Real disappointing.”
Quinnipiac 1 1 2 — 4
Union 2 1 3 — 6
First Period — 1, Union, Vecchione 5 (Gingras, Pontarelli), 4:42. 2, Quinnipiac, Van Brabant 5 (St. Denis, Tolkinen), 18:33 (pp). 3, Union, Pontarelli 5 (Vecchione, Sullivan), 19:38. Penalties — Toews, Qui (hooking), 8:24; Taylor, Uni (holding), 12:37; Coatta, Uni (interference), 17:53.
Second Period — 4, Quinnipiac, Peca 5, 3:51 (en). 5, Union, Lichtenwald 4 (Carr, Bodie) 5:48 (pp). Penalties — Toews, Qui (tripping), 3:51; Henry, Uni (holding), 6:26; Toews, Qui (cross-checking), 16:32.
Third Period — 6, Quinnipiac, St. Denis 7 (Van Brabant, Samuels-Thomas), 4:18 (pp). 7, Quinnipiac, K. Jones 9 (Sherbin), 5:20. 8, Union, Pontarelli 6 (Vecchione), 5:20. 9, Union, Wilkins 3 (Lichtenwald, Carr), 14:31. 10, Union, Lichtenwald 5 (Sullivan, Carr), 19:57 (en). Penalties — Vasaturo, Uni (interference), 4:00; Carr, Uni (interference), 6:36; K. Jones, Qui (interference), 7:16; Van Brabant, Qui (hooking), 8:52; Samuels-Thomas, Qui (interference), 16:37.
Shots on Goal — Quinnipiac 12-7-5 — 24. Union 7-11-12 — 30.
Power-play opportunities — Quinnipiac 2 of 5; Union 1 of 6.
Goalies — Quinnipiac, Garteig 13-3-3 (29 shots-24 saves). Union, Stevens 8-1-0 (23-20).
A — 1,921. T — 2:10.
Referees — Cameron Lynch, Kyle Allen. Linesmen — Andy Petrus, Mike Emanatian.