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Union hockey gets Penn State in NCAA Tournament opener

Union hockey gets Penn State in NCAA Tournament opener

Matchup set for Saturday in Cincinnati
Union hockey gets Penn State in NCAA Tournament opener
Union goalie Alex Sakellaropoulos watches as Cornell's Alex Rauter tries to get a clean shot Friday.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

SCHENECTADY — Mike Vecchione’s tweet was perfect.

Upon learning that the Union men’s hockey team would be sent to Cincinnati to play Penn State in the NCAA Midwest Regional next Saturday, the Dutchmen’s senior captain — a devout New England Patriots fan from Saugus, Mass. — posted a Bill Belichick photo meme with the caption “We’re on to Cincinnati.”

“Bill said it best...#RollU,” was the accompanying comment from Vecchione.

Yes, the Dutchmen (25-9-3) are on to Cincinnati, and, like Patriots coach Belichick in 2014, that destination represents the first opportunity to move on from an ugly loss.

In the Patriots’ case, Belichick was gruffly shaking off questions about a 41-14 loss to Kansas City and a 2-2 start to the 2014-15 season by forcing the attention to New England’s next game.

In the Dutchmen’s case, they’ll need to shake off a 4-1 loss to Cornell in the ECAC Hockey semifinals in Lake Placid last Friday as they look ahead to a 4:30 p.m. game on Saturday against the Big Ten Tournament champion Nit­tany Lions (24-11-2) at U.S. Bank Arena, home of the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL.

“After watching film this morning, it wasn’t as bad as we thought,” Union head coach Rick Bennett said. “We didn’t score early and then took a careless penalty.

“It’s got to come from the locker room, which we believe is in there. We wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t. Hey, only one class had been to Lake Placid, so we’ll take our lesson. Everyone’s a hockey player, and you can’t be worried about what happened in the past.”

On the other side of the Midwest bracket, overall top seed Denver will play Mich­igan Tech prior to Union-Penn State.

Two other ECACH teams —  Harvard and Cornell —  made the 16-team NCAA field. Harvard, which defeated Cornell 4-1 for the ECACH champ­ionship on Saturday, will play an East Regional game against Providence on Friday in Providence, R.I., and Cornell gets UMass Lowell at noon Saturday in a Northeast Regional game in Manchester, N.H.

With a better performance in the ECACH Tournament, Union likely would have stayed closer to home, but at this point, Bennett chose to shrug that off.

“As far as the venue, we’ll chalk it up to just being happy to be in the NCAA Tourn­ament,” he said.

Penn State has only been a Division I program since the 2011-12 season, after billionaire alum Terry Pegula, who owns the Buffale Sabres and Buf­falo Bills, pumped $90 million, the single largest don­ation in school history, into the program and built a new rink that bears his name.

The Dutchmen are 4-0 all-time against the Nittany Lions, but haven’t played them since Dec. 1, 2013, the season in which Union won the national championship.

Penn State, coached by former Princeton head coach Guy Gadowsky, won double-overtime games in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals and finals to get the automatic bid to the NCAAs. Bennett compared the Nittany Lions to a team like the current Princeton Tigers, whom Union beat in the ECACH quarterfinals.

“If we allow it to be a track meet, that will spell trouble for us,” Bennett said. “So we have to be focused, and we have to be detailed. And we have to be better. They showed a lot of resolve as far as the conference championship.”

Union could be without one of its top forwards, Sebastian Vidmar, for the Penn State game. He was injured early in the Cornell loss and is questionable to be ready for Saturday.

“If he’s in, good for us,” Bennett said. “It will absolutely be a game-time decision.”

In a phone interview with ESPNU during the bracket show, Gadowsky described the rise of Penn State hockey in five short years, emphasizing how much the Roar Zone, the 1,000-seat student section at the 6,014-seat Pegula Ice Arena, has reinforced with its enthusiasm what the school is trying to build in college hockey.

“The atmosphere is off the hook,” Gadowsky said. “It’s better than I ever imagined it could be. Our Roar Zone is absolutely the best in the nation, and it’s so motivating. It’s a blast to play in front of it. The community here in Happy Valley — Hockey Valley — has really gotten behind it.”

Statistically, the Nittany Lions are similar to Union, each with 37 games.

Penn State has outscored opponents 147-99, compared to 140-103 for the Dutchmen, and each team has five players with at least 30 points, although Penn State’s player totals are more evenly distributed.

Each team also split a pair of games against teams from the other’s conference to begin the season, Union against Mich­igan and Penn State against St. Lawrence.

“They’re an incredibly gritty team, they always have been,” Gadowsky said of Union. “They have a great culture, so it’s going to be a heck of a game. We’re just happy to be in it, but they’re a tough team, they’re a gritty team, they’re a high-character team, so I think it should be a lot of fun.”

The Nittany Lions started the season 13-1-1, then were off for a month to end 2016 and suffered a rocky stretch in which they were 3-5-1 when they came back.

They also were 3-7 after the break in games against the three teams they would face in the Big Ten Tournament, including 0-4 against Minnesota, but Penn State beat Michigan 4-1, Minnesota 4-3 in double overtime and Wisconsin 2-1 in double overtime to win the tournament.

“They came out guns a-blazing and then hit a blip, they were off for 30 days or something and got beat up a little in the press,” Bennett said. “But they rebounded nicely.”

Union is on trimester break, so with no classes, the team can concentrate on hockey.

The Dutchmen went into a long Thanksgiving break off a bad loss to Clarkson, and used the time off from academics to straighten out their game and came back from the holiday to rattle off six straight wins.

“We’ve never used the ‘We’re young’ or injury trick, and we’re not going to start now,” Bennett said. “School’s off, and all they have to think about this week is hockey.

“You have two fulltime jobs, and one of them is school. Now you have to focus on hockey. It’s nice to have just one focus. It’s up to the players to put the families and the advisors and everything else aside.”

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