Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Know Your Enemy: Union

Do not adjust your screen. You did not die and go to hell. That actually happened. A team that most observers thought would be pretty good, perhaps among the best in the ECAC but no more than an outside shot at doing anything on a higher level played some of the best team hockey you'll ever see, proving that what was once thought impossible was only merely improbable, and the improbable happened. When everything comes together perfectly at exactly the right time, anything is possible - and given the way the last game between RPI and Union ended, it's only an element that's going to throw additional fuel on what has become (as of this very localized point in history, at least) the most heated rivalry in college hockey.

Nickname: Dutchmen
Location: Schenectady, NY
Founded: 1795
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 1 (2014)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2014
Last Frozen Four: 2014
Coach: Rick Bennett (4th season)
2013-14 Record: 32-6-4 (18-3-1 ECAC, 1st place)
Series: RPI leads, 46-33-10
First Game: February 26, 1904 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: January 25, 2014 (Albany, NY)
Last UC win: November 16, 2013 (Troy, NY)

2014-15 games: October 31, 2014 (Troy, NY); November 1, 2014 (Schenectady, NY); January 24, 2015 (Albany, NY)

Key players: F Daniel Ciampini, sr.; F Sam Coatta, sr.; F Max Novak, sr.; G Colin Stevens, sr.; D Charlie Vasaturo, sr.; F Nick Cruice, jr.; D Sebastian Gingras, jr.; F Matt Wilkins, jr.; D Noah Henry, so.; F Eli Lichtenwald, so.; F Michael Pontarelli, so.;  D Jeff Taylor, so.; F Mike Vecchione, so.; F Roman Ammirato, fr.; F Spencer Foo, fr.; F Ryan Scarfo, fr.; F Kevin Shier, fr.

Key losses: D Shayne Gostisbehere, D Mat Bodie, F Daniel Carr, F Matt Hatch, F Kevin Sullivan

Previous KYE installments:
If there was any love lost whatsoever between RPI and Union before last year's Mayor's Cup game, it ceased to exist after it. The antics that followed the Engineers' first win over the Dutchmen in some three years catapulted the rivalry to the forefront of the Capital District's attention and gained notice throughout the college world. The game itself had been remarkably free of the cheap shots, unwarranted physical play, and the usual other indicators of a game between two bitter rivals, especially considering how out of hand the game in Troy had been, but the powder keg exploded at the very end and made this year's RPI-Union games must see TV.

After their Mayor's Cup setback, Union then lost to St. Lawrence in the North Country without some key players as a result of the suspensions handed out in the melee - and then promptly never lost again. A team that most coming into the season thought would be decent but probably not the very best in the ECAC turned out to be the very best in the nation when all was said and done. To illustrate how much of a finely oiled machine Union became, look no further than Shayne Gostisbehere. In a game in which the Dutchmen scored seven goals, he was +7. In the national championship game. That's an all-time great performance no matter how you slice it, and it came in the biggest game of the year.

Without question, the "guts" of Union's run through March and April are gone, but several key elements remain. The tag team sniper duo of Gostisbehere and Bodie was a major source of power for the Dutchmen during the stretch run, one or the other was practically always on the ice, providing not only offensive juice from long range but also the ability to distribute the puck to forwards down low who could get open a little easier as defenses accounted the threat from the outside. Carr was certainly a proven offensive power in his own right, completing his career not only with a ring but with 50 points on the season.

Union is likely to drop off a little bit from last season, but mostly in the sense that it's extremely difficult to repeat as champions in the first place, and it's even harder when you're losing your top players in the aftermath. But it's definitely not a situation where the cupboard is bare, or even wanting in many places. Stevens' numbers may not be as strong as Jason Kasdorf's were from two years ago, but they're the best among returning goaltenders in the ECAC from last season. Say all you want about the Dutchmen and their defensive scheme, the reigning Dryden Award winner still does a more than competent job of keeping the puck out of the net when he's the last line of defense. That he returns for his senior season is a boost for Union, who have lost their last two starters to early departures.

Meanwhile, Ciampini returns off a 23-goal season, making him the top returning goal scorer in the ECAC. Part of that output, no doubt, stems from the exceptional transition and distribution from the blue line, but like Carr, he's proven himself a capable scorer. Novak, Vecchione, Pontarelli, and Lichtenwald all return with at least nine goals scored last season as well, giving Union plenty of offensive options. It's easier for a team to lose four of its top six scorers when it had 11 different players notching 20 points last season.

Especially if Union can find a way to make up for the loss of its blueline heroes - and Taylor may well be the next in line for the job - the Dutchmen are still going to be tough to tangle with this season. For years, even weaker Union squads have been up for the challenge against RPI, but the current condition of the rivalry may be an opening to just throw out what you know about both teams and just expect the unexpected. From a purely hockey standpoint, Union does appear the stronger of the two sides on paper, especially when it comes to offense, but these teams have just played far too many close games over the years to make any predictions about what we'll see. There are certainly some who will be looking to settle old scores, and it's going to make for an insane Halloween weekend.

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