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Union switches focus to NCAAs

Union switches focus to NCAAs

Union switches focus to NCAAs
Cole Maier of Union is sandwiched between goalie Mitch Gillam and Alec McCrea of Cornell during Friday night's ECAC semifinal.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

The moment was raw, so no one on the Union men’s hockey team was in the mood to consider a consolation prize on Friday night.

The Dutchmen had just been manhandled by Cornell in the ECAC Hockey semi­finals at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, so there didn’t appear to be much of a bright side.

A new day dawns today, though, and, while Union is coming off one of its worst games of the season, the Dutchmen are still in position to secure an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.

The conference tournament may have been finished for them, but the season won’t be. The 16-team NCAA field will be revealed at noon today on ESPNU, and Union (25-9-3) has every reason to believe it will be in it.

After the Cornell loss, senior captain Mike Vecchione described “that feeling that we had sitting in our stalls, that quietness. We don’t want that to happen again.”

The Dutchmen will have more to say on the 2016-17 season next weekend, when four-team regionals will be held in Manchester, N.H. (Northeast, Saturday-Sunday); Providence, R.I. (East, Friday-Saturday); Cincinnati (Midwest, Saturday-Sunday); and Fargo, N.D. (West, Friday-Saturday). The Frozen Four will be held in Chicago on April 6-8.

Sixteen teams make the NCAA field, including automatic bids to the six conference tournament champions from the ECACH, Atlantic Hockey Association, Big Ten, Hockey East Association, National Collegiate Hockey Conference and Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

PairWise Rankings that are the benchmark for how the field will shake out dropped Union to No. 8 after the Cornell loss.

The final word on selecting the field is the responsibility of a committee with a representative coach or athletic director from each conference.

The current committee includes Union AD Jim McLaughlin, Army coach Brian Riley from the AHA, Min­nesota AD Tom McGinnis from the Big Ten, New Hampshire coach Steve Metcalf from the HEA, North Dakota AD Brian Faison of the NCHC and Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson of the WCHA.

No matter what Union’s fate is, they’ll need to be determined to turn around recent performances that saw them smothered by Cornell a week after scraping by Princeton in Game 2 of a best-of-three ECACH quarterfinal series.

It wasn’t just the loss on its own merit that had the Dutchmen glum on Friday, it was the way that it went down, indicating that this week of practice will have to be a pivot point if Union is to keep its season alive. Union finished second trimester exams just prior to the Princeton series and don’t have any academic obligations this coming week.

“Whoever we get next week, our biggest hope as a coaching staff is that we get their attention,” head coach Rick Bennett said grimly after Friday’s loss. “I’m not going to use ‘It was finals week’ and all that jazz as an excuse. “You know what? You’re a student-athlete, and I get that you want to be a student first at Union College. That is what we promote as a coaching staff. But when it comes time to be an athlete, you be an athlete. Tonight, we were not athletes, and that’s disheartening.”

Against Cornell, Union’s first semifinal appearance since the Dutchmen won the 2014 national championship, the Big Red used their larger bodies to push Union’s offense to the perimeter, where the Ducthmen had to settle for low-percentage shots.

At the other end, meanwhile, Cornell took advantage of its size to muscle its way in for quality scoring chances over and over, while also benefitting from a Union defense that looked shaky at times.

The result was 21 shots in the first period, all of which were stopped by Union goalie Alex Sakellaropoulos, and two goals on just six shots in the second period. The Dutchmen showed a sign of life when Cole Maier cut it to 2-1 early in the third, when the Dutchmen defensemen desperately tried to force it deep to create chaos, but the Big Red calmly banged home two more goals to put the game away.

“I think our goaltender played great and gave us a chance to win tonight,” Bennett said. “We were just never able to rebound. For what­ever reason, I think a word was thrown around that we underestimated this team. I have no idea whoever would think that, going into this. That is something we have to fix this week.”

“It is tough to get mad, when we totally got outplayed by that team. It really is. Looking at those faces in the locker room, we have to separate that. We won’t have that excuse, we’re off [from school] next week. So, hopefully, we get those guys’ attention. I believe we will, and we rebound and move forward.”

“I don't think there is much to take out of this game,” Vecchione said. “The only positive for us was sitting in that stall, realizing we had lost and hoping it’s a wake-up call for us.”

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