Union enters the NCAA hockey tournament in some unfamiliar territory.
Sure, the Dutchmen were the No. 1 seed in the East Regional two years ago at Webster Bank Arena. But this time around, they are not only the top seed in the regional, but the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
The pressure is there, but so is the experience of playing in the NCAAs.
The ECAC Hockey regular-season and tournament champion Dutchmen (28-6-4) face Vermont (20-14-3) of Hockey East in the regional semifinals today at 2 p.m. in the same area where they won the East Regional title two years ago. At that time, Union was the third-ranked team in the country.
Union ascended to the top of the USCHO.com/NCAA hockey poll on Monday, the first time in the program’s 23-year history that has happened. But Union coach Rick Bennett knows being the top-ranked team in the country won’t mean anything with the puck drops at the opening faceoff.
“Obviously, we’re here in uncharted waters being ranked No. 1,” Bennett said after the team’s practice Thursday. “But if I walked over to that locker room at UVM and asked those players and asked their coaching staff if we’re hunted, I’m sure they don’t care one bit, and that’s just the attitude that we have, too. We don’t feel we’re No. 1. It’s just another matchup [today], and we just have to be ready to go.”
Union is in the NCAAs for the fourth straight year, while Vermont is making its first appearance since 2010. The Dutchmen know what to expect at this time of year.
“Experience, for us, is definitely helpful as a team,” Union junior goalie and Niskayuna native Colin Stevens said. “All of our leaders have been here before, and our leadership’s really central to our team. We all feed off our leaders. I think it’s going to help a lot.”
This is Union’s third trip to Webster Bank Arena. The Dutchmen, who enter the game with a 13-game unbeaten streak (12-0-1), have become used to the surroundings, how to prepare to play an early-afternoon game and handle the pressure. They are in the same locker room as they were in 2012.
“There’s just a difference when you get here from the first year to the fourth year to the regionals and the distractions that go along with it,” Union senior left winger Daniel Carr said. “Going forward, we’ve just got to focus on playing hockey.”
For Dutchmen senior defenseman and team captain Mat Bodie, the game comes down to what team makes the most plays to help them win.
“At any level, experience plays a role,” Bodie said. “But at the end of the day, both teams are playing the same game. We’ve both been playing hockey for as many years as they have.”
If the Catamounts were nervous about facing the top-ranked Dutchmen, it didn’t show during their one-hour workout.
“As a young group, with 10 freshmen, we got our nerves out against UMass in the first playoff game we hosted,” said Vermont coach and former Union coach Kevin Sneddon. “It was pretty nerve-racking, one and done, season on the line. We played with a lot of nervous energy. We got better as the game wore on.”
The Catamounts won that contest, 2-1. They faced UMass-Lowell in the best-of-three quarterfinals, and took the eventual Hockey East tournament champions to three games before losing.
While the Catamounts are relaxed, they know that they will have to be aware of the Dutchmen’s all-around game. Sneddon realizes that Union can beat a team in a variety of ways.
“We talked a lot about that this week,” said Sneddon. “They’re a very determined team, hard working, competitive and battle-hungry team. They can play an up-and-down style, or they can grind it out. That makes it tough on anybody. They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. As our guys have said, we have full respect, zero fear, but respect.”