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Union gets back into ECAC Hockey action

Union gets back into ECAC Hockey action

After losing Three Rivers Classic, Dutchmen hit the road to play Clarkson, St. Lawrence
Union gets back into ECAC Hockey action
Union's Anthony Rinaldi (8) tries to work his way through the Clarkson defense at Messa Rink on Nov. 3.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

" ... What has to change for us is we're a situation-motivated team.

"We lose, we get embarrassed, we get motivated. That isn't a playoff team, that isn't a playoff attitude, and we have to change. This can't be acceptable."

Union men's hockey coach Rick Bennett?

Nope. That was veteran NHL head coach Ken Hitchcock, quoted in the Edmonton Sun last Saturday, after his Edmonton Oilers were ripped 4-0 by the L.A. Kings, the last-place team in the Oilers' division.

But Bennett sees some parallels between Hitchcock's assessment and the Dutchmen, at least with regard to how Union dropped a stinkbomb in its last game, a day after the Dutchmen enjoyed one of their most impressive and important victories of the season.

So he showed that article to the four players who make up what Bennett alternately refers to as his leadership or unity group.

He and his staff are curious to see what impact it will have on a team that begins the bulk of its ECAC Hockey schedule this weekend on the road against Clarkson on Friday and St. Lawrence on Saturday.

The 10-5-4 Dutchmen have shown flashes of being a really good team, but that identity has been offset by a Jekyll-and-Hyde counterbalance that revealed itself in full at the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh. Union dominated the No. 1 team in the country, St. Cloud State, 7-2, and followed up with a 6-3 loss to Brown in the championship game, in which Union gave up back-to-back short-handed goals in a span of just under three minutes to fall behind 4-0.

"Probably, as a coach, we're not going to figure out this team until about mid-February," Bennett said with a rueful chuckle on Tuesday. "And that's OK."

Heading into the Three Rivers Classic, the Dutchmen twice this season had been riding waves of success that crashed into a breakwater of overconfidence.

Last weekend, Union clearly identified the St. Cloud State game as a worthy goal, but perhaps didn't assign the same value to the Brown game, and the Bears -- an improved team that gave Union problems in a 3-3 tie earlier in the season -- took advantage.

When Bennett came across the Hitchcock quotes, the article struck a familiar chord that he believed needed to be shared with his senior captains, Cole Maier, Brett Supinski, Ryan Walker and Jake Kupsky.

"It was an interesting article, especially coming off weekend and how it applies to us, sort of the highs and lows and how we need to find a way to neutralize that and make sure we bring it every night," Maier said. "The Oilers have the same kind of issue, I guess. I don't follow them as much, but from the article, it sounds like they have a similar issue that we had going on last weekend. It's something we've talked about quite a bit this week, and we're looking to change that."

"I think we need to learn to handle highs," Supinski said. "We got a little too emotional. Beating the No. 1 team, that's going to be emotional, but we have to learn how to handle that and bring the same energy the next night.

"We really didn't bring it that Saturday, so that basically flushed out our Friday win, it doesn't mean anything. Highs and lows happen. It's just learning how to manage them. We have to get better at that."

The Dutchmen face a similar scenario this weekend, starting with a game against what is supposed to be one of the best teams in the conference, followed by a game against a team that is in the ECACH cellar and will be hard-pressed to get out of there before the end of the season.

It's also a critical point in the conference season, since, although there are 14 games left, there's no time like the present to work on a sub-.500 record in a 12-team conference that looks up for grabs. Union is tied for seventh with Brown and Princeton behind co-leaders Yale and Quinnipiac.

The Dutchmen (3-4-1 ECACH, 10-5-4 overall) swept the Golden Knights (3-3-0, 12-6-0) and Saints (1-4-1, 3-14-1) at Messa Rink in earrly November.

"We've got some ground to make up," Maier said.

"You've got to bring urgency every single night because every point counts, and you never know which game is going to hurt you at the end of the year," Supinski said.

"I know, as a freshman, it's kind of more difficult to understand that there's only 34 and how much each game means, and we try to preach that. Getting older now, I understand it a lot more and more clearly. With 14 league games left, we've got to have that urgency every night."

Because having a situation-motivated personality is a "very dangerous" way for a team to go about its business, Bennett said, he's pressing upon his leadership group to help their teammates maintain that sense of urgency, no matter who the opponent is.

Supinski and Maier each said that that starts with how the seniors conduct themselves in practice and games.

Locker room speeches may seem like a good idea in theory, but setting an example to follow is the priority for the time being.

"It's our job to fire up the team before games and get the team together," Supinski said. "We just try to enforce the game plan and rally the troops. Every night is a battle, and we need to set the tone with our play on the ice. Start there, and then help with talking in the locker room."

Bennett, meanwhile, has never suffered for lack of forcefulness in what he wants from the team.

"He just expects a lot, I'd say," Maier said with a chuckle. "There's a high standard, and I think everybody understands that. You just can't take anything personally. Everybody's in the same boat here, and that's to win hockey games. That's what everybody wants, to be held to a high standard. Sometimes you're not going to love the things you need to hear, but that's how it goes."

"If we're going to be a so-called playoff team, we need to not only get up for the games that they feel are important, but every game," Bennett said. "Until we figure that out, as a team, that's as far as we can go."

UP IS DOWN

One illustration of how Union has played up or down to any given opponent is the Dutchmen's performance based on where teams are ranked in the Pairwise Ratings, which attempt to project how the 16-team NCAA Tournament field is shaping up.

The Dutchmen are ranked No. 15 across the board in the Pairwise, USCHO.com and USA Today lists among the 60 Division I teams.

Against the top third of those teams in the Pairwise, the Dutchmen are 5-1-1 (5-0-0 against the top 16), and against the bottom third, they're 3-3-2.

WEEKEND SCOUT

Clarkson, ranked one notch below Union, has won four straight, while outscoring those opponents 12-3, with shutouts against St. Lawrence and Arizona State.

As well as goalie Jake Kielly has been playing, the Golden Knights limited the opponent to an average of 17 shots on goal in three of those games.

In a 3-2 win over Clarkson on Nov. 3, Union freshman Michael Ryan broke a 2-2 tie early in the third period, and Kupsky got the win while facing just 15 shots.

"Clarkson was a tough game," Maier said. "They're going to hit you every time you touch the puck. It's been like that the last three years.

"And I know St. Lawrence has beaten Clarkson this year and has some good wins, so that's not going to be an easy one, either. That rink [Appleton Arena] is a tough place to play."

Jack Adams scored two goals for the Dutchmen in a 4-1 win over St. Lawrence on Nov. 2.

The Saints beat Clarkson at home 4-2 on Dec. 7, one of just five games this season in which St. Lawrence has scored more than two goals.

With two goals against St. Cloud State, Walker has taken the Union team lead with eight, followed by Sebastian Vidmar with seven and Adams with six.

Maier continues to lead the Dutchmen in points (5-14-19).

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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