Union had plenty of the usual reasons to want to beat Quinnipiac on Saturday night.
The ECAC Hockey season isn’t half over, but first place was on the line.
You don’t get extra credit for winning streaks, but the Dutchmen came in having won six straight, and you don’t want anyone disrupting that.
There was something extra, too, and it showed in the extra stuff on the ice, the chippiness, the yapping, the jostling after whistles.
The teams hadn’t played each other in 81⁄2 months, but the last one was a doozy in the burgeoning rivalry between the schools. There were hints that something lingered from that last game, so it was with a little extra satisfaction that the Dutchmen beat the Bobcats at Messa Rink, 6-4.
Quinnipiac was responsible for ending Union’s 2012-13 season, 5-1, in the NCAA East Regional final, sending the Bobcats to the Frozen Four, while Union went home. On Saturday, the Dutchmen took an important step in this season. No one seemed to mind enjoying a little payback in the process.
“Yeah, we definitely were looking forward to this one. We owed them,” Union sophomore Matt Wilkins said. “There’s bad blood there. For us to get that back tonight, and the way that we did, was huge and says a lot about our leadership.”
The East Regional final in Providence, R.I., on March 31 was over not long after it started.
Matthew Peca scored three goals in 3:12 of the first period, the fastest hat trick ever in an NCAA tournament game.
Union never recovered.
“Devastating,” Wilkins said. “After the run that we had down the stretch going into the playoffs and ECACs, we were a little disappointed with our effort against Quinnipiac. But they are a good team, and they showed that.”
Many of the key contributors to Saturday’s win are freshmen and didn’t have to experience the NCAA gut punch first hand, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t watching.
Mike Vecchione, who had a goal and an assist on Saturday, said he could sense during the week that the older players had a little extra edge for this one.
“That’s out there,” he said. “They [Quinnipiac] knew we had to owe them one after what they did last year. I was watching the game, and I was pretty discouraged to see that, Quinnipiac going up so early and then ending up going so far. The upperclassmen did a great job of preparing for this game and getting us really amped to go out there and get two points.”
Payback and revenge are concepts that may enter a player’s mind, but don’t carry much weight with a coach trying to get his team ready to play two games in a weekend.
From Rick Bennett’s vantage point, the Dutchmen had enough on their plate without introducing that stuff.
“It’s a different year, and we never even brought it up once,” Union’s head coach said. “If you have to bring something like that up, to a hockey player, they don’t have too much pride. These guys have tremendous pride.”
That showed not only in how Union beat Quinnipiac, but in how they played on Friday against Princeton, a seemingly overmatched opponent.
The Dutchmen dominated, 3-0, in a game they could’ve overlooked while salivating for the Quinnipiac matchup.
“It is hard. It’s at the back of everyone’s mind that Quinnipiac is coming in on Saturday,” Wilkins said. “But Princeton showed that they’re not going to let up, and it was a hard-fought game [Friday] night. I do think we were looking forward to this game.”
Saturday’s game had a little bit of everything, including an empty-net goal for each team.
The Bobcats scored a bizarre goal to tie it at 2-2 in the second period when junior defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere mishandled a puck that somehow angled toward the net vacated by Colin Stevens on a delayed penalty.
Gostisbehere desperately dove to sweep it out of harm’s way, but the puck continued on its merry way for a goal, as Gostisbehere wiped out the net and found himself caged inside it up against the endboards.
It could’ve been a deflating moment, but instead, Union continued to pound away at the Bobcats as the roar from the capacity crowd got louder with each passing minute in the third period.
Down, 4-3, the Dutchmen kept their poise and won it on Wilkins’ goal with 5:29 left, followed by an empty-netter from freshman Eli Lichtenwald.
By repeatedly shrugging off adversity, Union showed maturity, Bennett said.
With 2:25 left, Gostisbehere got a good shove in the back of the head from Travis St. Denis after Union was whistled offsides, leading to some more shoving in the corner.
“Games like this, there’s always going to be stuff like that,” Wilkins said. “Emotions are flying. We’ve felt that with RPI, too, and you can see it all throughout the ECAC every night.”
For at least a few more nights, Union will be in first place.
It’s relatively early in the season, with the bulk of the ECAC schedule still out there, but “this is the one we wanted, to prove that we’re a team to be reckoned with, not just in the ECAC, but on the national level, as well,” Wilkins said.
“It says we’re on a roll. That’s a good team over there. They’re ranked nationally for a reason. It was just a statement game that we’re a force to be reckoned with, too.”
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 395-3146 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at @Mike_MacAdam.