SCHENECTADY -- The Union men's hockey team has been buckling down on academics this week in preparation for exams next week.
They already have received a "B" -- for "Better" -- from their coach, in grading the Dutchmen's last game against Cornell, but considering that still resulted in a loss, Union will have to be even better than that this weekend.
The seventh-seeded Dutchmen (19-11-6) travel to Lynah Rink in Ithaca for a best-of-three ECAC Hockey quarterfinal series against No. 2 Cornell (17-8-4), which tied Quinnipiac for first in the regular season to share the Cleary Cup. The Big Red had a bye last week, while the Dutchmen swept Colgate in the first round.
A low point to the season for Union was a 4-0 loss to Cornell at Messa Rink on Feb. 1, during which head coach Rick Bennett pulled his starting goalie as well as his backup, then blasted his team with an F+ grade for a lack of effort.
That wasn't an issue the next time Union played Cornell, at Lynah on Feb. 23. But scoring was, against one of the biggest teams in the country who uses that size to create a fortress in front of the net, usually minded by Matthew Galajda.
If Union is to get through this round and make it to the semifinals in Lake Placid, the Dutchmen will have to figure out a way to get through or around that blockade.
"You need a bazooka to get it through, because they put five guys around their net and they're really good at shot-blocking," Bennett said on Wednesday. "They're just really aware of their 'D' zone coverage. When you score a goal against them, you've really earned it."
"Most of the league, there's plenty of hits that get thrown around," Union senior captain Cole Maier said. "But, yeah, they've got a big group of guys, so you may have to take a little bit of a beating to get to those tough areas, but that's usually where a lot of the goals are."
In sharp contrast to last week against Colgate, the second-worst scoring team of the 60 Division I teams, Cornell offers Union the challenge of trying to beat the team that has given up the fewest goals (60) in the country, although the Big Red are seventh in fewest goals against per game (2.07).
In 29 games, Cornell has given up more than three goals just five times, and two of those were against Michigan State to open the season in October.
Besides head coach Mike Schafer's defensive philosophy and the strong goaltending from Galajda, Cornell is tied for the second-tallest team in the country and is the heaviest, by average weight per player, according to College Hockey Inc. On Thursday, Galajda was named a finalist for ECACH Goalie of the Year, along with Quinnipiac's Andrew Shortridge and Clarkson's Jake Kielly.
"They're very comfortable playing in one-goal games. Very comfortable," Bennett said. "Always have been since I've been in the league and even before that, if you look at their scores. We also have to be comfortable, if it doesn't happen, in those one-goal games where the series could come down to that."
"We know it's a big, heavy team over there, so we're going to have to keep it simple," said Union sophomore Darion Hanson, who is likely to start in goal. "It's playoff hockey and anything can happen, so hopefully we can get a couple goals in there.
"I feel like we've played a lot of one-goal games, too, a lot of tournaments where it was playoff-like situations, so I think we're just as comfortable with that."
At 9-2, Union actually has a better record in one-goal games than does Cornell (6-4), although the 3-1 Feb. 23 game at Lynah nearly gave the Big Red another one, as they scored an empty-netter with 52 seconds left.
Besides the defense, Cornell has some size up front, notably leading scorer Morgan Barron (6-foot-3, 215), a 2017 sixth-round draft pick of the New York Rangers who scored two goals in the 4-0 win and had the empty-netter last time.
"He's just an excellent power forward who works extremely hard and has a scoring touch," Bennett said. "Any time you find a guy like that that can play a power forward game -- and it looks like he enjoys playing a power forward game -- that's always going to be a tough matchup in college. Because there aren't a lot of him out there that enjoy playing that real physical game and has a skill set to go along with that. I would say a guy we have who plays similar to that is Cole Maier."
In fact, of the current Dutchmen, Maier has had the most success against Cornell, with five goals in 10 games, including a short-handed one in the 3-1 loss.
Union will do well to stay out of the penalty box, and the Dutchmen's power play will be up against it, too.
Since Dec. 1, the Big Red have the best penalty kill in the country, at 92.2 percent success, and the power play is at a 27.4 percent strike rate over that stretch.
"The one thing we can't control, which we've talked about before, is the reffing," Bennett said. "One night you have a crew, and the next night you have a different crew, so you have to adjust as quickly as you possibly can. And that's on us."
Union will also have to contend with Lynah Rink, although it seems like the Dutchmen will relish the opportunity to play in front of a hostile crowd that includes a student second that sits right outside the visiting locker room.
"Cold. Loud. Fun place," Maier said. "It's always fun with their fans, and their band always gives it to you, so it'll be a fun time."
"Lynah is one of my more favorite places to play in the country, actually," Hanson said. "My freshman year was when they were No. 1 and it was sold out. That was probably one of the coolest experiences I've had. I expect that place to be rocking.
"They like to get after the goalie. Our locker room is right by their student section, so the second we come out they start chanting my name, and they spell it out and say 'Sieve, sieve, sieve,' but Liam Morgan and Josh Kosack are right with the student section chanting the same thing."