Union Comes Up Empty
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. Twenty years of building to this point, and it all ended with a whimper, not a bang.
Such is the cruel nature of sports sometimes.
Union set a school record for wins, won its first ECAC regular-season championship, and earned its first NCAA bid. But in 60 minutes of frustration, it ended with a 2-0 loss to Minnesota-Duluth in an NCAA First Round game Friday.
"I thought we played pretty good, but in the speciality teams, obviously we got outplayed," Union coach Nate Leaman said.
Indeed, Minnesota-Duluth scored two power-play goals. Meanwhile, Union went 0-for-9, its worst showing of the season in special teams.
"It's a little frustrating," Union senior Adam Presizniuk said. "We were expecting to have success tonight. They blocked a lot of shots and didn't allow many rebounds.
The numbers Union put up on its power play this year, certainly stood out to those just catching up on the small ECAC school from New York's Capital District — 31 percent.
So when the Dutchmen got three early power plays, it seemed to play right into their hands.
But despite some great opportunities, Union couldn't convert on those early chances. And as the game went on, with power play after power play coming up empty, Leaman would just as soon not had them all.
"We like to get into a four-line game," Leaman said. "We like to roll and get into our forecheck. There was so much special teams tonight, it was tough to get into that rhythm. In the third period, we got it going a little bit, and got some shifts — but it kind of got away again. It's just how this game goes sometimes."
Union did a good job holding Minnesota's high-powered top line — Justin Fontaine, Mike Connolly and Jack Connolly — in check, though Fontaine did get a power-play goal in the third period that put the dagger in.
"We did a good job of making it not an up-and-down game. There was some odd-man rushes, but not a lot of odd-man rushes," Leaman saidl. "(Most) of the game was speciality teams. I'll be honest, I didn't expect that. But that's what happens when you come to these games."
But, for Union, it was more about what it couldn't do than what UMD was doing.
"We had some good opportunities," Matheson said. "I don't think at any point in the game we got down on ourselves or felt we were out of it. We stayed positive. ... It can be frustrating, but we were still confident."
Leaman said, "We had opportunities on the power play, we just couldn't cash it in. They won all the penalty kill draws. We've been very good at that this season, but they dominated that area tonight and that took away from our power-play time."
Union's players dismissed any notion that nerves or inexperience in the NCAAs was an issue.
"At the end of the day, it's just another hockey game," Presizniuk said. "The same boards, the same ice, the same refs ... There's a tendency to get built up a bit, but I think we did a good job seeing it for what it was. Obviously we weren't successful tonight, but I think we did a good job preparing and had the right mindset going into it."
Leaman, however, did think it played a part at times — especially when Union had trouble on its power-play breakout often.
"I thought we looked a little young out there at times," Leaman said. "They're really good on the penalty kill, you have to give them credit. They're a good team. ... The second period we got two or three really good cracks around the net. Their second goal, they got two second chances on it. They banged their second chances and we didn't."
The loss is disappointing, and will sting for a while. But Union tried to take comfort in knowing how far the program has come. There were few people who believed 20-win seasons, ECAC titles and NCAA appearances were even possible when Leaman took over eight years ago.
"Five years ago, this team was last in the league," Matheson said. "I'm very optimistic in the direction this program is headed. I think we have the best coaching staff in the nation. This program isn't even close to its potential yet. I think it's going to steadily improve. It's too bad Prez and I won't be a part of it, but I was privileged to be part of it the last four years."
Matheson's words were emotional, and were something Leaman felt compelled to address.
"You're always going to be part of it," Leaman said, correcting Matheson. "They were looked up on to carry the mail, and they've done a tremendous job of leadership, a tremendous job of representing our university.
"He's the best captain I've been around, bar none. It's funny because our staff got staff of the year, but that's the kid that got it done for us. In my opinion, he's an All-American. That's the piece I'm hoping carries on for our program, his leadership, how he brought our program together — everything he did for us, he led by example."
Union now must prove it's not a one-trick pony. It has to show that it can come back to the NCAAs, build on this, and win a game next time — the way Yale did from 2009 to 2010. But sophomore goalie Keith Kinkaid will be wooed by the pros (even though he said after the game that he's coming back). Assistant coach Rick Bennett, a Providence graduate, is a candidate for the coaching vacancy at his alma mater. And Leaman's name has been mentioned in other high-profile openings.
"It's a learning experience," Leaman said. "We got a lot of it over eight years — you have to use it as a laerning experience. We'll get better from this. We had a lot of freshman and sophomore players — who will learn not just from the individual game, but the whole week, what to expect here and how to go forward when you get in (this) situation."