First Things First: Union Reaches ECAC Final
by Eben Novy-Williams/CHN Reporter
ALBANY, N.Y. Earlier this afternoon, Union was preparing to play in the program’s first-ever ECAC semifinals game. Now, after strong goaltending from freshman Keith Kinkaid fueled a 3-1 victory over St. Lawrence (19-15-7), the Dutchmen are preparing for yet another first.
“We’re one step closer to accomplishing the goal that we set out at the beginning of the year,” said Union head coach Nate Leaman, who was named ECAC Coach of the Year this week. “Obviously this program has been making a lot of firsts in the last few years, and this is a big step for us.”
But No. 15 Union is not simply satisfied with reaching tomorrow’s finals. The Dutchmen were second in the conference in goals per game (3.54) and second in goals allowed per game (2.46) and are confident in their chances against Cornell tomorrow night.
“It feels great to get this far, but it’s not just enough to get here,” junior forward Adam Presizniuk said. “We want to win this tournament, but we are not going to take Cornell lightly. We know they are a good team and we are going to have to play our best to beat them.”
This is the last ECAC finals to be played in Albany’s Times-Union Center – the tournament moves to Atlantic City next year – and Union is looking to give the local fans one last memory. In the rink’s eight-year history as this tournament’s host, this the first time either of the two teams near Albany (RPI and Union) has made it to the ECAC Hockey’s final four.
Union fans took fully advantage of the short distance tonight, outnumbering St. Lawrence fans and creating a definite home-ice environment. There were 5,703 in attendance for the two games today, a number that should increase tomorrow, especially against Cornell.
“It was a great atmosphere tonight,” said Presizniuk, who redirected a shot from senior linemate Jason Walters for the game-winning goal. “We had the “Union” chant going all night; it was like a home game. It gives us a lot of energy in both the offensive and defensive zones.”
Union opened the scoring 10 minutes, 25 seconds into the first period with a goal from sophomore forward Luke Cain. St. Lawrence tied the game with 25 seconds left in the second period on a great individual effort from senior defenseman and captain Derek Keller. Though the Saints controlled the early parts of the final frame, the Dutchmen broke the tie with 10:34 left in the third period.
Walters took a shot from the right of the goal that Presizniuk redirected into the St. Lawrence net for his 13th goal of the year.
“I just put my stick on the ice and got to the net,” Presizniuk said. “Walters put the puck on net and I just tried to put my stick on it. I didn’t even see it go in; I just saw the [team’s] reaction.”
Union senior forward Mario Valery-Trambucco added an empty net goal with five seconds remaining in the game to finish the scoring.
One of the biggest questions heading into the game surrounded Union goaltending. Last weekend, Kinkaid started the first game against Quinnipiac – a brutal 3-2 five-overtime loss – and watched from the bench as senior Corey Milan backstopped the team to two straight wins. Tonight, he showed very little rust, stopping all but one of the Saints’ 30 shots.
“The decision to go with Corey [last weekend] was because of his strengths as a goalie,” said Leaman, who admitting struggling with the decision all week. “Keith has beaten St. Lawrence twice this year and his strengths match up better against St. Lawrence.”
Kinkaid was especially sharp when the game mattered most. In the game’s final minutes he made a number of big saves, but also made sure to limit St. Lawrence’s second chance opportunities.
“[Kinkaid] didn’t give up a lot of rebounds today,” Leaman said. “He did a good job of holding pucks and he did a good job of fighting through traffic.”
The young Union defense – three of the six defensemen are freshmen – played their part as well, tying up sticks and clearing the shooting lanes. Dutchmen blueliners blocked 12 shots on the night, seven more than their St. Lawrence counterparts.
“We are very consistent with blocking shots,” said Kinkaid, who set a Union freshman record with 12 wins this season. “[Our defensemen] do a great job of creating a pocket in front of the net for me to see through.”
Leaman insists that his team will prepare for tomorrow as if it were any other game, but admits that for many people who have been involved with Union hockey in its 19-year Division I history, the game will have special significance.
“For us it’s just a game,” Leaman said. “For the people and players who have gone before in this program and have had some struggles and taken some lumps to get us to this point, it’s a little bit more than a game.”
“We talked this week about how we aren’t just coming here for the sake of being here for the first time,” said senior forward Jason Walters, who tonight became the Union career points leader. “We are going to go home, get some rest and be ready to battle the Big Red tomorrow. It’s going to be a great game”.
It has been a weekend of firsts for Union, but why stop here? The Dutchmen will enjoy this win tonight, but Saturday at 7 p.m. they will hit the ice looking for a few more firsts, more specifically a conference title, and an NCAA tournament bid.