by Matthew Conyers/CHN Staff Writer
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. In the first regional played at Bridgeport’s Harbor Yard arena two years ago, Vermont, the three-seed at the time, showed up beaten and humbled.
The Catamounts were swept in two games by Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East quarterfinals and arrived in Bridgeport refocused and reminded of how quickly fortunes can change.
The new lease on life paid off for Vermont, which won two games in Bridgeport, including a double-overtime thriller against Air Force, to get to the Frozen Four.
Friday, Union hopes to take one out of the Vermont playbook.
Union, set to play Minnesota-Duluth at 3 p.m. in the East Regional at Webster Bank Arena, won the ECAC regular-season championship for the first time. But instead of rolling from the ECAC championship game into the NCAAs, instead it's trying to overcome a surprise defeat to Colgate in the ECAC quarterfinals.
And like Vermont, the Dutchmen (26-9-4) are trying to make another statement in what has become a benchmark season. But don’t tell Union coach Nate Leaman that.
“I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t advance to be quite honest,” Leaman said Thursday after the Dutchman’s practice Thursday at the East Regional. “I don’t think it’s a benchmark. There’s more the program has to offer, no doubt about it. There’s one senior in our top seven scorers. This team has a lot to improve on and the program has a lot of improvement (to make). It’s is not a consolation to get here.”
Union won’t get any sympathy for being the new guy on the block from Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs (22-10-6) are making their second tournament appearance in three seasons and enter Friday’s game coming off a 3-2 overtime loss to Bemidji State in the WCHA’s Final Five.
“We know we’re going to have our hands full,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “Hopefully we can play the type of game we need to — very up tempo, control the puck and stay disciplined.”
The Dutchmen, who haven’t played Minnesota-Duluth since 2003, know they’re also in for their money’s worth with the Bulldogs. Minnesota Duluth has three players currently in the top four in the WCHA scoring charts. Junior Jack Connolly is second with 55 points (16-39), Jack Fontaine is third with 52 points (20-32) and Mike Connolly is fourth with 49 points (26-23). Together the trio, which represents the Bulldogs top line, have combined for 43.5 percent of the team’s scoring this winter. It is a nation-leading 156 of 358 points.
“They have a great top line but with anyone you see at this time of year you’ll see someone special,” Leaman said. “Their top line is good, very good in the neutral zone...I think they have a good power play, maybe a little underrated.
The job of matching Minnnesota-Duluth’s talent could depend on how quickly Union’s freshman adjust to the excitement of an NCAA tournament game. The Dutchmen freshmen, including Daniel Carr (20-15—35) and Josh Jooris (9-23—32), have contributed significantly to the team’s success. But tomorrow won’t just be just a new event for the underclassmen.
“We’re very excited to be here but with the NCAA format, a one-game format, we have no choice but to be focused on the game,” senior defenseman Brock Matheson said. “We’ve used the past few weeks to prepare for this tournament here and we think we’re ready.”
During those two weeks, Leaman feels he has learned plenty about his players and what tomorrow could bring for Union.
“This has been the best team that I’ve had from learning from losses,” Leaman said. “We had a rough film session, a rough first few practices back. What I mean by rough is that we clearly got the message of what we didn’t do well in the series. We got a little [relaxed] in some areas to be honest ... It was healthy for us. It was a good experience and we’ve learned from that experience.”
Union was eliminated from the ECAC tournament on March 13, giving the Dutchmen more than two weeks to prepare for Friday.
“It definitely lingers,” sophomore forward Jeremy Welsh said. “If anything you could say it was a learning experience for us. I feel with the team there’s a different mindset here. We’re ready to play hockey.”
For Union, those two losses to Colgate could end up being the most important of the season.
The Dutchmen believe they’ve arrived at Yale more energized and prepare and most important — eager to make their conference tournament results a side note to a bigger story.
“We’re not patting ourselves on the back to get here,” Leaman said. “We want to go out and play our best hockey. We want to advance, no ifs, ands or butts. We’d love to advance and play for another championship and another trophy.”