It has been 44 days since the Union men’s hockey team has played a home game at Messa Rink.
The only sounds that have been generated are the pucks hitting the boards, the instruction of the coaches and the occasional 1980s’ hair-band song that is blasted.
But tonight, when the Dutchmen hit the ice, they will be looking at something they haven’t seen since Dec. 11 — fans in the stands cheering them on.
The third-ranked Dutchmen play their first home game of 2014 tonight at 7 when they host ECAC Hockey foe Harvard.
“I guess guys are excited, to say the least,” Union senior defenseman and team captain Mat Bodie said. “It feels like it’s been a long time. We’ve been pretty successful on the road, but kids across campus and faculty members are getting excited. We’re looking forward to have the crowd on our side for once.”
In Union’s last home game, it rallied from a 2-1 deficit to beat Dartmouth, 3-2. That completed a 3-0 homestand to close out 2013.
A lot has happened since then.
The Dutchmen (9-2 ECACH, 15-4-3 overall) went 1-0-1 at then-No. 1-ranked St. Cloud State. After a month off, their 10-game unbeaten streak was snapped in a 2-1 loss at Quinnipiac on Jan. 10. But the Dutchmen bounced back the next day with a 3-0 win at Princeton. And last weekend, they swept a pair of 3-1 wins at No. 17 New Hampshire.
The Dutchmen have moved up in the USCHO.com/NCAA hockey poll since they were last home, going from 10th to third, the highest regular-season ranking in the program’s Division I history and tied for the highest ever. They were ranked third in the final two polls of the 2011-12 season, which was in the postseason.
Since starting 1-3-1 at home, Union has won five straight in the friendly confines of Messa. The Dutchmen, who are 12-1-1 in their last 14 games overall, want to continue that.
“It’s great to get back,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “More importantly, it’s not what I think, it’s what our players feel, and our players are really hungry to get back here and play in front of the people they love playing in front of — the students, the faculty, our athletic director, president [Stephen] Ainlay, his wife Judith. It’s a great atmosphere to be in, and our guys love playing here.”
Goalie Colin Stevens, a Niskayuna native, can’t wait to play at home again and make it tough for visiting teams to play in Messa.
“We love playing at home in front of the best fans in the league,” said Stevens, who is the reigning ECACH goalie of the week. “We’re looking forward to the weekend. We have been playing really well in our rink, and we jump on teams early. That helps a ton.”
The last time the Dutchmen faced the Crimson (2-8-3, 5-10-3), it was Harvard which jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the Nov. 2 game at the Bright Hockey Center. Union rallied for a 4-2 victory.
Even though the Crimson have lost three straight and are 0-3-1 in their last four, Bennett knows Harvard is better than what it has shown.
“Their skill and they way they can transition, and they have a great penalty kill,” Bennett said. “Their power play looked good on tape. Just about everything [is concerning]. The game I watched versus Colgate, they jumped out quick. Harvard has a great staff. I’m sure they’ll have their guys prepared.”
Freshman center Mike Vecchione (full-body injury) returned to practice this week. He hasn’t played since the Dec. 14 game at St. Cloud State.
Vecchione is Union’s best faceoff man, winning 55 percent of his draws.
“I’ve fully practiced and doing pretty good,” Vecchione said. “I should be ready for the weekend.”
Bennett won’t make a decision on Vecchione until game time.
“He’s come along nicely, but you never know until you get into that game mode,” Bennett said. “For a guy who’s coming off a full-body injury, he’s doing pretty well.”
Tonight’s game is “White Out Night.” Fans are encouraged to wear a white shirt to the game. Free T-shirts will be handed out, and one fan will have a chance to win the Legere $10,000 shot on goal for a home improvement project of their choice. . . .
Union is 6-0-1 in its last seven games against Harvard, including a 2-0-1 record at Messa. The Crimson’s last win at Messa was Jan. 22, 2010, a 4-1 triumph. . . .
The Dutchmen face Capital Region rival Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the second annual Mayor’s Cup game at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Times Union Center.