Monday, July 25, 2016

Know Your Enemy: Union

The tables have most undoubtedly turned in the Route 7 Rivalry, and they turned rather quickly. Season after season over the last decade-plus, it was Union getting the better of the Engineers with regularity. And now, here we stand, two years removed from the Dutchmen's national championship, and RPI can now claim six wins in the past seven games with their bitter rivals from Schenectady, including four consecutive ECAC victories and two Mayor's Cup titles. Will that continue this season? Who knows. While RPI has finished ahead of Union in the final standings of the last two ECAC seasons, it still seems like all of that can basically be thrown out the window when these sides square off.

Nickname: Dutchmen
Location: Schenectady, NY
Founded: 1795
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 1 (2014)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2014
Last Frozen Four: 2014
Coach: Rick Bennett (6th season)
2015-16 Record: 13-14-9 (6-10-6 ECAC, 9th place)
Series: RPI leads, 51-34-10
First Game: February 26, 1904 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: January 23, 2016 (Albany, NY)
Last UC win: January 24, 2015 (Albany, NY)

2016-17 games: October 28, 2016 (Troy, NY); October 29, 2016 (Schenectady, NY); January 19, 2017 (Albany, NY)

Key players: F Eli Lichtenwald, sr.; F Michael Pontarelli, sr.; G Alex Sakellaropoulos, sr.; D Jeff Taylor, sr.; F Mike Vecchione, sr.; D JC Brassard, jr.; D Nick DeSimone, jr.; F Spencer Foo, jr.; F Ryan Scarfo, jr.; D Greg Campbell, so.; F Brett Supinski, so.; F Brendan Taylor, so.; F Sebastian Vidmar, so.; F Ryan Burton, fr.; D Vas Kolias, fr.; D Ben Newhouse, fr.

Key losses: F Matt Wilkins, D Sebastien Gingras, D Noah Henry

Previous KYE installments:
The ECAC tends to have some pretty distinct tiers of teams and they typically group together somewhere in the middle. Whenever there's a tier of one, it's frequently at the top (like Quinnipiac last season) or at the bottom (like Princeton in 2014 and 2015). Union, unusually, had a very firm grip on 9th place for much of the late run of the season - not close to catching a home playoff spot, yet not likely to fall even lower.

That was indicative of a team that had at least a little bit of capacity to it, but wasn't terribly strong at anything. 36th in the nation on offense (2.53 GPG), 27th in defense (2.67 GAA), 31st in power play (17.5%), 38th in penalty kill (80.8%) - pretty much perfectly average all around when put up against the rest of the country, within eight spots from the national median in each category. Not so bad any anything, not so great either.

The Dutchmen were a fairly streaky team at times. Unbeaten in their first five games (all at home, 2-0-3), they then proceeded to drop four straight (including the home-and-home with RPI) and six out of seven in a row overall. That was followed by a seven game unbeaten stretch (6-0-1), but after the first weekend of 2016, the Dutchmen won just four games the rest of the season.

The best news Union got this offseason was that Vecchione, the team's leading scorer, would return for his senior season, spurning NHL offers for the second consecutive off-season to finish up his career in Schenectady. He will be a key offensive element on a team that returns 10 of its top 11 scorers from last season, including Scarfo and Foo, who tied for the team lead in goals with 12 each. Union certainly isn't scoring goals at anywhere near the pace they had when they won the national championship in 2014, but they aren't even remotely helpless in this part of the game.

The biggest issue for the Dutchmen to overcome this coming year is in becoming more consistent. Too often, they were either getting good offense for long stretches without getting defensive support, or vice versa. For instance, in their final three games last season, Union managed to keep the opposition away from that "magic" three-goal total, but they dropped all three games while scoring only twice at Colgate and Cornell. Similarly, in six of the team's nine ties, they themselves scored three or more goals but couldn't produce a victory.

The ECAC was so deep in goaltending last season that the uneven offensive outputs can certainly be forgiven to a significant degree. Netminders stole games with such regularity last season that it's hard to fault what appears to still be a decent enough attack. What Union needs more of is stability in its own crease. Sakellaropoulos has yet to put up numbers that would rank him among the top-half of the league in net and while he's a proven, capable Division I goaltender, he hasn't been among the elite and that has been a hindrance to Union's success in the last two seasons.

But again, as we say every year when it comes to analyzing Union up against RPI, none of this even remotely matters. We've seen far superior Union teams taken down by plainly inferior RPI squads and vice versa throughout the last 15+ years. RPI-Union has reached a point where guts, heart, and attitude go farther than anything else in determining a winner - which is a reason many of their games can get chippy, since both try to bring all three in spades. The only thing that RPI's streak of six wins in seven contests means is that the Engineers know they can win these games, a serious reversal from the previous 14 out of 15 won by the Dutchmen.

There are certainly enough questions with both of these squads heading into this season that "anything goes" remains a very viable statement. It's exceptionally easy to see either of these teams being able to sweep all three games this year - or anything inbetween. In terms of Union's standing in the ECAC, however, expect at least a little bit of a bump just on experience alone, as the team was light on seniors last year. But unless they can find some more consistency, especially on defense, the possibility of continued tire-spinning is there as well.

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