The sequential metaphor Union hockey coach Rick Bennett uses to describe his team’s objective in any game starts with a house, progresses to a highway and ends up in a playground.
There, presumably, is where the fun is.
After four games on the road, the Dutchmen finally get to play in their actual house tonight, one with (circular) walls, just over 2,000 seats and a sheet of ice that so far has been used only for practice.
Union plays host to Rochester Institute of Technology at Messa Rink in the 7 p.m., the latest the Dutchmen have played a home opener since the 2008-09 season, followed by a 4 p.m. game against Niagara on Saturday.
That starts a string of four straight weekends in the Capital Region — next Friday’s game at RPI’s Houston Field House being the only game not at Messa — through Nov. 12.
Fans attending tonight’s game should expect plenty of offensive chances, not just because that’s how Union (2-1-1) wants to play, but it’s how the Tigers (1-1-1) play.
In three games, RIT has outshot opponents 132-74, and somehow managed to go scoreless through the first two periods against Connecticut last weekend — despite outshooting the Huskies 26-14. Each team had one goal in the third period to tie 1-1.
“RIT, they put a pretty good pumping on UConn,” Bennett said on Wednesday afternoon. “They average 44 shots a game, so pucks are flying at your net from all angles.
“It’s a very dangerous team. They went to regionals last year, and I thought they gave Quinnipiac every bit of a run for their money. And watching that film from UConn . . . boy, we better be ready to go.
RIT, which moved to Division I in 2005 and won the NCAA East Region at the Times Union Center in 2010, made it to the East Regional last year before losing to Union’s ECAC rival Quinnipiac 4-0 in the semifinals.
Except for a 4-0 loss at Michigan, Union hasn’t had any difficulty scoring, but needs to find a better balance between taking care of the defensive end first, then pushing aggressively into the offensive end, captain Mike Vecchione said.
“If we’re scoring four, five goals a game, we shouldn’t be losing or tying,” he said. “I like the way we’re playing offensively, but defensively we need to tighten it up.”
“He’s a smart man. He’s right on,” Bennett said. “Some of the things we’re trying to fix would be ‘D’ zone and penalty kill. But it’s little breakdowns on the penalty kills; it’s nothing major. It’s a clear here, getting tied up in the front there.”
“We’re making mistakes that you can’t make in order to put away teams,” senior defenseman Jeff Taylor said. “We’re giving them chances to come back on us.”
Vecchione said it’s incumbent on the forwards to read situations and make sure somebody is hedging back to at least disrupt an opponent’s counter-punch when the Dutchmen are on offense.
That should prevent odd-man rushes and give the defensemen a chance to set up without being on their heels.
Also, communication is essential, Bennett said, starting with whomever is in goal on up through the forward line.
“Defensive zone coverage, that’s just a little more going through the battles, guys getting to know each other and using their voices, because we’re always stressing talk, talk, talk,” he said. “Sometimes you’re not used to other guys.”
Union is coming off a weekend in which they beat American International 5-4 and tied Sacred Heart 4-4 despite leading 4-2 past the halfway point of the third period.
Vecchione missed the second half of that game after drawing a game misconduct for hitting from behind. The good news for the Dutchmen was that they did kill the five-minute major penalty that came with it.
“The Sacred Heart game, our first period was the best one we’ve had all year,” Bennett said. “Eighteen-to-two in shots, and we come out of there with a 2-1 score. You don’t have to go to a hockey game to figure out that that’s probably not a good recipe. Then we sort of played even hockey with them.”
No matter the outcome this weekend, Union promises to offer an entertaining brand of hockey.
The Dutchmen have their share of speed and skill; they just need to make the proper plays defensively that will send the offense on its way.
“We’re not trying to play a run-and-gun game, like going back and forth with teams, but the way we want to play is go north-south as fast as we can, and if the puck chips out to the neutral zone, we want to get it right back in and get to work,” Vecchione said. “I think the fans will be on their feet a lot, because we’re going to always be trying to come right down a team’s throat.”
“Our idea is you want to get out of your ‘D’ zone as clean as you can to start,” Bennett said. “As we call it, you’re trying to protect your house to get to the highway in the neutral zone to get to the playground in the ‘O’ zone.”
For the last two weekends, Bennett has used senior Alex Sakellaropoulos in goal on Friday and sophomore Jake Kupsky on Saturday.
The coach said he is not averse to maintaining a platoon to see who will establish himself as the clear No. 1 goalie. It’s worked for other teams, including Providence in 2000-01, his first year as an assistant coach there. That team made it to the West Region quarterfinals.
“We just felt like we want a guy who is going to take the reins and run with it,” Bennett said. “To date, we haven’t seen that. Point blank. There’s nothing really in it. We’re just waiting for someone to say, ‘This is my net.’ ” . . .
Union is 16-5-4 in home openers since joining Division I, but 1-1-3 under Bennett. . . .
The Dutchmen are 4-0-1 all-time against RIT and 4-0-2 against Niagara. Union hasn’t played either team since 2011.