Friday, July 24, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Union

Finishing in 10th in the ECAC is pretty much never an easy season, but if there was one year where a 10th place team could probably just let it roll off their backs pretty easily, that would be Union from last season. They could likely finish in the bottom four for the next five years and it wouldn't hurt that much, but they're now moving on from the ultimate glory and after failing to win hardware for the first time in a few seasons, re-setting for what they're surely hoping will be a new opportunity to make some noise.

Union
Nickname: Dutchmen
Location: Schenectady, NY
Founded: 1795
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 1 (2014)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2014
Last Frozen Four: 2014
Coach: Rick Bennett (5th season)
2013-14 Record: 19-18-2 (8-13-1 ECAC, 10th place)
Series: RPI leads, 48-34-10
First Game: February 26, 1904 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: November 1, 2014 (Schenectady, NY)
Last UC win: January 24, 2015 (Albany, NY)

2014-15 games: October 30, 2015 (Schenectady, NY); October 31, 2015 (Troy, NY); January 23, 2016 (Albany, NY)

Key players: F Nick Cruice, sr.; D Sebastian Gingras, sr.; F Matt Wilkins, sr.; D Noah Henry, jr.; F Eli Lichtenwald, jr.; F Michael Pontarelli, jr.; G Alex Sakellaropoulos, jr.; D Jeff Taylor, jr.; F Mike Vecchione, jr.; F Roman Ammirato, so.; D JC Brassard, so.; D Nick DeSimone, so.; F Spencer Foo, so.; F Ryan Scarfo, so.; F Cole Maier, fr.; F Brett Supinski, fr.; F Brendan Taylor, fr.; F Sebastian Vidmar, fr.

Key losses: F Daniel Ciampini, F Max Novak, G Colin Stevens, D Charlie Vasaturo, F Sam Coatta

Previous KYE installments:
The Dutchmen were very uneven in their title defense season, yet by the end of the year they still needed to be killed with fire in order to be put to bed. They came out of the gate on fire, extending the long unbeaten streak they finished the previous year with to 22 games by winning their first five in a row to open the year, then they turned around and went winless in 6 straight, including getting swept by RPI.

February was especially rough. While RPI had their own struggles scoring goals at times last season, it paled to the struggle the Dutchmen endured in a five game stretch wherein they scored a grand total of two goals, losing all of them by a combined 14-2 margin. Union went 223:40 without lighting the lamp even once during that five game run.

Then, like flipping a switch, they were back. After pair of 3-2 home wins to end the season, the Dutchmen basically strolled into Lynah Rink and smoked Cornell with 4-2 and 7-0 victories to sweep the first round series. Top-seeded Quinnipiac awaited in the quarterfinals, but even there, Union wouldn't go down without being put down. Because it's Union, they had to lose Game 1 in multiple overtimes as they are wont to do in multiple overtime games, but they bounced back for a win in Game 2 before falling in Game 3 of a tough-fought series.

The major question in Schenectady will be in net. Colin Stevens had basically the worst season of his collegiate career as a senior with top blueliners he'd worked with gone, and Sakellaropoulos put up some tough numbers when Stevens was sidelined with injury. The top job isn't necessarily going to belong to Sakellaropoulos, as Union brings in Jake Kupsky, who the San Jose Sharks took a flier on in the last round of the NHL Entry Draft last month. Either one will need to shore up a defense that looked a bit deflated at times last year, although the blue line does have a couple of solid elements in Gingras and Taylor.

On offense, losing Ciampini is a hit for the Dutchmen, but there's still plenty of demonstrated talent among the forwards, led by Vecchione, Wilkins, and Foo. Taylor also contributes offensively, which is important to success in the Union system. But if Union is going to have success this season they're going to need to get more out of Pontarelli, who managed only five goals and three assists last year after a solid freshman campaign thanks in part to injuries.

10th place was a pretty unexpected finish last season for the Dutchmen - but despite looking like a team that might not really have as much on either side of the puck as they had even last season, 10th would probably be a shock again this year. Last year's team battled a lot of issues at different times of the year, between injuries and inconsistency, and this year's squad, if they can avoid those pitfalls, has the potential to do better than that. They're probably not going to be a strong peg for the top four, but they've at least got the talent to be a solid pick for the middle of the pack and a first-round series at home.

As usual, you can pretty much just toss records out the door when RPI and Union play. Going into the league games last season, the Engineers had just been swept at home by Bentley, and Union had only just lost for the first time in 23 games - and RPI swept the weekend. Heading into the Mayor's Cup, the Dutchmen were looking down and out and the Engineers had just produced perhaps their most impressive weekend of the year in sweping Cornell and Colgate. Six-goal third period for Union. So whatever you think about RPI-Union coming into the games, just expect anything else to happen.

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