Union women’s hockey has always been the team on the outside looking in. Way outside.
In their first Division I season, the Dutchwomen lost 29 games, and they’ve equaled that twice in the nine seasons since.
They’ve never been to the ECAC playoffs.
Coming into this season, their record was an unsightly 39-268-20.
It’s a cold, cold world out there.
After a bitter few days, the sun finally sparkled down on their barren ghost town campus on Saturday, and the Union women were on the inside … looking up.
OK, it was only a 1-1 tie at Messa Rink, but a glimmer of hope and belief in the growing program continued over the weekend in two games against RIT during which Union tied its Division I record for wins in a season on Friday and nearly broke it on Saturday.
The record is only seven, but it was set last year, and Union has 14 more games to break it. And who cares about that sort of record, anyway? The proof that the program is starting to gain a foothold in Division I is best illustrated by some of its results this year (even losing ones) and by the fact that the Dutchwomen are a serious playoff contender.
That was an unthinkable prospect not too many years ago.
The shift has come in some subtle ways, such as drawing benefits from seven-year head coach Claudia Barcomb’s experience as a USA Hockey development coach. Union is simply getting some better talent, too, most notably junior goalie Shenae Lundberg.
It adds up to a very strong chance to finally crack their way into the top eight of the ECAC for the first-ever glimpse of the postseason.
“The history of where we’ve been is hard to forget,” Barcomb said. “And there’s always habits of winning. I talk to teams all the time who say, when you’re successful, it’s easy to stay there because you’re used to it. The same thing happens when you’re losing.
“You have to break the cycle.”
The Dutchwomen are 7-12-1 overall and 2-6-1 in the ECAC after going 7-23-4 and 0-18-4 last year.
They took seventh-ranked Boston University to overtime before losing, 3-2, on Oct. 12, one day after losing to Northeastern, 2-1.
They beat RIT, which won the Division III national championship two years ago before moving to Division I, 2-1, in overtime on Friday to get to seven wins with half the season left.
On Saturday, with about 100 people in the stands, the Dutchwomen led after one period, 1-0, despite being outshot, 26-11, and a five-on-three power play for the Tigers that lasted 1:32. A breakaway goal midway through the third period cost the Dutchwomen their eighth win.
“I think the Boston University game was [eye-opening] moreso for everyone else than for us,” Lundberg said. “It shocked other teams. Everybody started noticing those scores. Northeastern was almost the same thing the night before.
“Even though we didn’t capitalize and take those home, it definitely was a turning point, because we know we have more and can keep going from there.”
Lundberg is a keystone to Union’s progress, not just because she plays goalie, but because she’s been a top player in the USA Hockey development camps since the U12 level, played for prep powerhouse Deerfield Academy and could’ve chosen any number of colleges over Union.
She was recruited by Princeton, Yale and some of the schools in Minnesota, but wanted to stay close to her parents in Peterborough, N.H., and saw an opportunity at Union to see a lot of ice time and get better.
Heading into the weekend, she ranked sixth in the country in time-on-the-ice percentage (89.3).
She got a rest on Saturday while sophomore Madeleine Dahl was terrific in net with 48 saves.
Lundberg had 45 saves in the overtime loss to BU.
“I think she’s one of the best goaltenders in our league,” Barcomb said. “You always look at a goal and ask did it go in because of the goalie or because of what we did in front of her? It’s hard to sort through that, but she’s been very consistent.
“She wanted to be a program changer. I think that’s a lot of what she has done. And she wants to do more, like the rest of our team does.”
Lundberg was one of 12 goalies invited to USA Hockey’s Warren Strelow Goaltending Camp in Ann Arbor, Mich., last May, and was a member of the world champion USA U18 National Team in 2011 and the USA U18 Select Team in 2010.
“I’ve matured a little bit since last year,” she said. “A little bit more patient, and I feel like I know the game a little bit better, just small things like paying attention to the ref more and icings and stuff like that.
“The attitude’s just different around here. The people we’ve been bringing in are really positive and excited.”
Barcomb has been the coach for two of the 29-loss seasons, but her ability to teach and make players better is starting to pay off.
A captain on Harvard’s 1999 ECAC tournament championship team as well as an assistant coach for the Crimson when they went to the Frozen Four championship game from 2003-05, Barcomb has supplemented her coaching career by working at five USA Hockey development camps.
She has applied that experience at Union, where the school can’t attract the top-level players in a recruiting class, but can still figure out ways to make the ones they do get better.
“When I first got here, we just weren’t competitive in a lot of ways,” she said. “It’s been hard, it hasn’t been an easy road. Without scholarships and financial aid, you have to find the right niche of kids, and you have to find depth.
“You have to believe in developing players. You’re not going to get the perfect player when they arrive. I think we’ve really bought into the development and getting better, and it’s beginning to show.”
Union is still a lower-tier team in the ECAC, which has already seen some separation between the top six and the bottom six.
They’re not being swept under the rug by everyone else anymore, though.
Lundberg has friends at Northeastern and BU, and after those close losses, “what they told me was we’re going to see you guys in playoffs,” she said.
“There’s no harm in going into every game thinking you can win.”