October 11, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

After the Goal Rush

Union Looks to Make Most of a Rebuild Year

by Christopher Boulay/CHN Writer (@chrismboulay)

Starting off a new year on the right foot after key guys graduate or head to the pros can be difficult. Cohesion is hard when those important losses occur all over the roster. For Union, it’s reality, and there are many signs that they could be headed toward a tough transition year.

The Dutchmen were unceremoniously bounced by Penn State from the NCAA tournament last season, and the 10-3 defeat in the Midwest Regional semifinal marked the end of the road for a number of players integral to their success. Most notably, forwards Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo both left, taking 63 and 62 points with them, respectively.

These losses will put the scoring onus on junior Sebastian Vidmar, their former linemate. Last season, Vidmar racked up 14-27-41, and he’ll be expected to the catalyst that sparks Union’s offensive power.

“It’s his time now,” Bennett said. “I know he’s only a junior, but he’s played a lot of hockey for us. It’s up to him to prove to the people out there that he wasn’t just a part of that line, but a huge part of that line — which he was. Now it’s his time to start to carry the line. That’s the next progression. Carry the line.”

Vidmar will have some help to absorb the deficit. Senior leadership from captain Ryan Scarfo will help. While he may not make as much of an impact on the scoresheet as others, he’s an important utility player that Bennett wants to plug in as needed up and down the line chart. Brett Supinski and Cole Maier should also make their marks on offense.

Not only did a bulk of the scoring disappear, but there’s a different goaltender set to gain the majority of minutes for the first time since 2014-15. Alex Sakellaropoulos posted a .916 save percentage last season and a .921 the year prior. With his graduation, Bennett handed the reins to Jake Kupsky, who had an .878 in just nine starts last season.

The extra year of experience should benefit Kupsky, now a junior, but Bennett stressed that he won’t have to do it alone.

“He’s certainly going to give us a chance to win some hockey games,” Bennett said. “Hopefully, we can rally around him when he’s on those night to try to pull some of these (games) out. The nights that he doesn’t have it, hopefully we have some guys who are really going to pick him up. The way we look at it, it’s going to be a team effort.”

“I felt last year that Alex might have won us a few games hockey games here by himself. If Jake Kupsky could pull out a couple of those, it would certainly help out the cause.”

Defensively, there will need to be some adjustments. Last year, the team was tied for 33rd in the country with 2.97 goals allowed per game. Both Jeff Taylor and Matt Krug graduated, while Nick DeSimone left early. Thinning out an already-average defense isn’t a good sign, but Bennett felt that this younger group has some potential.

“I think it’s going to be a work in progress, but we have full faith in these guys,” Bennett said. “Our goaltender is part of that defense — the sacred seven — six D and a goaltender. I think (Union associate head coach) Jason Tapp does a phenomenal job working with those D and our goaltender on a daily basis.”

There wasn’t much hype around the team heading into this season, and understandably so. Selected sixth in the ECAC coaches poll, there’s reason to believe they’ll be stuck in the middle of the pack in a weak conference.

Even with the poor conference forecast, Bennett doesn’t expect any favors in his schedule.

“I think our league is very challenging, as well as the other leagues,” Bennett said. “Every year, you hear ‘this is down,’ or ‘that’s down.’ Sometimes you just have to make the most of the opportunities. It’s so early right now to even speculate how we’re going to take advantage or not take advantage of it.”

So far, the Union schedule proved to be tough, and this should continue in the coming weeks, as the Dutchmen work through the nonconference portion of the calendar. After dropping a close game at Boston University, Union failed to get a victory at the Ice Breaker tournament. A 2-0 loss to Minnesota followed a 6-3 loss to Michigan Tech, bringing Bennett’s team to an 0-3 start.

Union will try to turn it around with home games against Massachusetts and Vermont this weekend. After that, the team has trips to RIT and Niagara before kicking off the conference schedule against Rensselaer. The early part of the schedule provides Union with opponents who have different looks and styles, which Bennett envisions will make his team better prepared to face ECAC opponents.

“It’s a different, but very demanding, schedule,” Bennett said. “We’re excited for each of these games. Every team is going to give us a different test, and that’s what we’re looking for. Every team has a different style, and going into our league, hopefully we face a lot of different styles. There’s a lot of different styles in the ECAC, with the 11 other teams. Hopefully this really prepares us and we’re ready to meet that challenge.”

Even with the potential for an easier road in the conference, there are kinks that need to be worked out early on for Union. It remains to be seen if the team can adjust enough to compete in the top-half of the ECAC. Not having such a prolific offense will undoubtedly hinder success, and a young defensive corps could be problematic.

Regardless, Bennett doesn’t want his team looking backward at what could have been last year.

“The players that grasp the systems quickly go into each game preparing like a pro, forgetting last year,” Bennett said. “To me, those are the guys and the teams that do well, and not dwell on the past. We want to build on a tradition, we don’t want to rely on it. As far as I know, we didn’t win the national championship last year, so we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

While none of the players on the current roster were a part of that national championship team, many do know what it takes to get to the tournament and be successful. The problem is that this season will likely just be an uphill battle from the start.

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