A Relentless 'Wolfpack'
Union's Four-Line Depth Overwhelmed Minnesota
by Jashvina Shah/Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA Sam Coatta and Nick Cruice sat in the locker room after Union’s national championship victory, taking off their equipment as their teammates celebrated around them.
Cole Ikkala sat in the same row, still dressed in all his gear. Next to Ikkala, Sullivan took off his equipment with a smile after Union’s 7-4 victory over Minnesota.
The Dutchmen scored six goals on a Minnesota team that hadn’t allowed more than three in 15 of its last 16 games. It was the first time Gopher goaltender Adam Wilcox allowed six goals in his career.
Seven different Dutchmen recorded a goal in the win, including third-line forward Sullivan and his center, Max Novak. Union received scoring from three different Dutchmen lines, and two different defensive pairs.
“Anyone from our first to fourth line can score,” Sullivan said. “I honestly don’t know who our fourth line is or our first line, so I think it says a lot about our team and who we are. I think that’s why we’ve found success.”
It doesn't hurt that Novak's line has essentially played together intact for three years.
In the Frozen Four, the Dutchmen scored 12 goals over both games combined. In the semifinal win over Boston College, Union’s top line of Daniel Carr, Mike Vecchione and Daniel Ciampini recorded four goals.
While Carr and Vecchione led the Dutchmen in scoring this season, seven Dutchmen finished with at least 30 points. In the NCAA tournament, the third line combined for 18 points. Sullivan, who ended the season on a seven-game point streak, netted eight points in the NCAA tournament.
“It just makes it easier for everybody,” senior captain Mat Bodie said. “No one’s carrying the weight of the team on their shoulders. Everyone’s able to just contribute, chip n and focus on playing their game and we were successful tonight.”
This depth is one reason Union never seems to get rattled in a game. The importance of scoring the first goal in a game is a hockey cliche, but mainly because it's true. It makes sense if for no other reason than, mathematically speaking, that team is now ahead of the game.
But Union defied the odds this weekend, allowing the first goal within the game's first three minutes both times, before eventually winning the game and a national championship.
In both cases, it looked like Union would be unable to keep up with its opponent's speed and skill. And in both cases, Union completely turned it around by staying composed, and maintaining an unwavering belief in itself that its game would come.
Against Minnesota on Saturday, this manifested itself with three goals in under two minutes that turned the game around. Once Union got its forecheck going, Minnesota's speed the other way was irrelevant, because the defense couldn't handle what the Dutchmen were throwing at it.
The result was a swarm of shots, all from in tight, rebound after rebound, all lines contributing to drive Minnesota crazy, and to eventually pot a bunch of goals.
"We call those goals wolfpack goals," Union freshman Mike Vecchione said. "Getting the greasy ones in front of the net, just being a pack of wolves. Once we started cycling down low, grinding and getting the pucks to the net, they didn't really know what to do. They couldn't really handle our intensity around the net. We got three greasy goals like that, that was very important to us."
Union didn’t play perfectly in both games. The Dutchmen made mistakes and surrendered the first goal on both nights. Against Minnesota, the Dutchmen struggled at times, turning the puck over.
But the despite the mistakes, the Dutchmen recovered. In fact, both coach Rick Bennett and Vecchione both said the early goal by the opponent woke the team up, and flipped the switch.
"He's a phenomenal goalie," Vecchione said of Wilcox. "He did the best he could, but we just kept digging at him like a wolfpack."
Minnesota coach Don Lucia described his team's defensive meltdown:
“I told them after the first, 'Guys, you're physically trying your rear off, but you're trying a little bit too hard,'” Lucia said. “All of a sudden, you start to chase instead of just doing your job. Whether that's nerves or not, you know, who knows. But you just can't chase.
"You’re leaving your guy to maybe go help out another guy who doesn’t need help."
But Union has done it to a lot of teams, because of the way it forces the issue, and doesn't stop.
“That’s something that’s been big for us all four years,” Ikkala said. “We built four lines that can play against any other top lines. That’s huge when you can roll all six D-men and all four lines all game. It really wears out the other team.”
Ikkala, who’s linemates with Coatta and Cruice on the fourth line, didn’t score much this season. No member of the fourth line finished with more than 11 points this season, but their presence has helped stabilize Union.
“It’s just our role to try to chip pucks in and just create some energy for the guys,” Coatta said. “You saw Cruice out there, had a big hit. We had a couple shifts we were buzzing down low and it just gives a lot of energy for the guys."
In the third period against Minnesota, Novak — the third line center — tipped a Sullivan shot as he was driving to the net. The puck found its way past Wilcox for Union’s fifth goal, and the game-winning tally.
After the win, Novak walked around the locker room with a piece of the goal net attached to the back of his National Championship hat. Novak said he saw UConn’s basketball players do the same thing. First-line center Vecchione was another Dutchman walking around with net sticking out of his hat as players jumped from stall to stall for pictures with championship hats and the NCAA trophy.
“Our depth, it’s what got us here,” Novak said. “[Having] all four lines going and all three D pairs just playing good hockey consistently on a nightly basis. Today was just another one of those days when you know everyone was chipping in.”