SCHENECTADY -- During a rollercoaster of a season, the top line on the Union men's hockey team is at least winning at bumper cars.
As chaotic as that ride may seem, Cole Maier, Ryan Walker and Liam Morgan have brought some stability to the lineup by using a rugged forecheck for consistent production on offense heading into a road weekend against Colgate Friday and Cornell Saturday.
It's no coincidence that Maier (6-19-25), Walker (10-12-22) and Morgan (11-9-20) are at the top of Union's scoring list, with senior center Brett Supinski (8-12-20) tied with Morgan in points.
Their style was best illustrated at the end of the Dutchmen's most recent game, a 3-2 win over Princeton at Messa Rink last Saturday in which Morgan slammed home the game-winning goal with 14.6 seconds left in the third period off assists from Maier and Walker.
Instead of getting fancy, Walker rifled a pass from the corner along the goalline, Maier chipped away at it in front of goalie Ryan Ferland and Morgan charged toward the snarl of traffic to pick up the loose puck sitting inches from the goalline.
"Going out there with under a minute, we know we need to get shots on the net," Walker said. "Liam and Cole did their job by going to the net and stopping in front, so I just tried to get the puck to the net. I think that pays homage to the chemistry we've built on and off the ice and knowing where each other. But that's also our gameplan, to get traffic."
"I remember seeing it just sitting on the goalline behind the goalie," Maier said. "I was on the wrong side of the goalie's legs, so I was glad Liam was able to get to it and poke it home for us."
Union (8-8-2, 15-9-6) is in eighth place looking up, with a four-point cushion ahead of RPI (6-10-2, 9-18-3) for the last home-ice spot in the first round of the ECAC Hockey playoffs in two weeks. With four games left for everybody, the Dutchmen (18 points) are in position to improve their position, with Brown (19), Dartmouth (19) well within range.
The top five teams in the conference, Cornell, Quinnipiac, Yale, Clarkson and Harvard, are separated by all of three points after a wild weekend that saw just one of 12 teams, Yale, sweep two victories.
"We're not looking for eighth place," Union head coach Rick Bennett said.
"All we can control is what we can control over these last four to make quite a big jump," Maier said. "I'm not sure numerically, but that home ice in the first round is always big."
Whatever Union accomplishes the rest of the way, Maier's line likely will be in the middle of it.
Bennett and his staff have tweaked the other lines. They'll give Jack Adams more of a look with Supinski and Sebastian Vidmar, while putting Anthony Rinaldi with Brendan Taylor and Parker Foo, for instance.
Vidmar, by the way, is in the midst of an eight-game streak without a point since he reached 99 career points.
Senior classmates Maier and Walker have meshed well with the sophomore Morgan, so that group will stay intact for the time being.
"They bring a nice combination," Bennett said. "I think Ryan Walker's one of our smartest hockey players, works hard, puts himself in good positions. Any time he shoots it, he's got the high percentage, and he's second on our team in goals. I wish a few of our other guys would take notice of that.
"Cole's just so consistent. You know what you're going to get every game. That's a nice feeling, if you're playing with him. And Liam is another smart hockey player who has an excellent shot who puts himself in position to score goals, and he leads the team because of it."
"It's nice playing with the same guys for an extended period of time," Maier said. "You definitely have an idea what they like to do , what they want to do if you get the puck to them in certain spots. And they'll do the same for you."
"Both bring a different aspect," Walker said of his linemates. "Cole plays heavy and hard, he wins a lot of faceoffs, he can finish his hits and shoot the puck, so if you find him in shooter's ice, he's going to get a pretty good look.
"Liam is a playmaker who can finish, too. Both are really fun to play with. I think we work well off each other down low after we get in on the forecheck. We've built this chemistry where we know where each other is going to be in the zone when we're cycling. I think we can be even better and bury some more chances down the stretch."
Union's rollercoaster inconsistency was perhaps best illustrated by their home weekend against their next opponents, Colgate and Cornell.
The Dutchmen were demolished at Messa Rink 4-0 by the Big Red, a game in which Bennett used all three goalies just to spare starter Darion Hanson the punishment and to give third-string senior Joe Young just his third game action of his career.
Bennett denied player access to the media afterward and disgustedly gave his team an "F+" grade, the plus to acknowledge Young's contribution as a backup throughout his four seasons, while not allowing a goal in the third period against Cornell.
The following night, Union played one of its most complete games of the season in dismantling Colgate 6-0, as Supinski and Morgan, who has scored five goals in his last five games, each scored two.
"Yeah, we really don't like to relive what happened against Cornell," Walker said. "But I think it was a good learning lesson for us. They took it to us. We can't take Colgate lightly, especially their top line.
"We owe them [Big Red]. We're looking forward to these two games. They mean a lot for our standings and for Pairwise.
"They're both big, heavy teams," Maier said. "Cornell's always a tough building to play in, and now Colgate's got that new building that's awesome, so it should be a fun weekend."
Bennett's biggest criticism after the Cornell loss was that the Dutchmen forwards weren't trying hard enough to get traffic in front of the net against the Big Red's big defensemen.
"Like coach Bennett says, 'We're all the same size on the ice.'" Walker said. "I thought, after watching the video on that Saturday morning, we were pretty soft as a team, and we just can't play intimidated.
"That's their style, to kind of intimidate you, and their goal differential in the first period is pretty impressive. So we can't be intimidated by them, go out and play hard, battle that extra inch, battle that extra harder to get to the net."
Cornell has outscored opponents 30-7 in the first period, and shows a tie score of 44-44 combined over the second and third.