PHILADELPHIA – The boards surrounding the rink at the Wells Fargo Center were stripped of their advertising and replaced with the NCAA logo and the names of the four national semifinalists for the Frozen Four.
It's just a stroke of coincidence that one of the two doors Union players had to use to get on and off the ice during Saturday night's national championship game was covered with a portion of the word "Minnesota."
The Dutchmen had to go through Minnesota to win the national title Saturday night, and they made it look as easy as walking through a door. Using a furious first-period rally, Union steamed past the Golden Gophers to a 7-4 victory, earning the program's first Division 1 national title and the first by any team in the Union athletic department in more than 80 years.
Seven players had goals for the Dutchmen, and junior defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere – a Philadelphia Flyers prospect playing on his likely future home ice – had a goal and two assists, plus a bevy of incredible defensive plays to lead Union to victory.
"This is the best hockey moment I ever had," said senior Kevin Sullivan (Darien, Conn.), whose shot early in the third period tipped off teammate Max Novak's stick and in for the eventual game-winner. "I'm on the verge of crying right now. It's awesome to spend it here with my best friends and family."
The first period was a nearly indescribable stretch of frenetic and entertaining action, and by its end, Union held a 4-2 lead. But that's hardly doing the period justice. It was nearly a three-act play unto itself. The first of those acts involved Minnesota, a five-time national champion, making a strong case for its sixth title.
Justin Kloos opened the scoring by jamming a rebound home with 2:37 gone in the game, and the Gophers clearly had the Dutchmen's number early on. In fact, it wasn't until Minnesota's Sam Warning took a hooking call 3:11 into the period that Union really got to its feet. But after several great looks from the Union power play, and a couple of heart-attack moments for Gopher goalie Adam Wilcox, it was still Minnesota's game.
Then Gostisbehere, known to his teammates as "Ghost," woke his team up, stickhandling into the Minnesota zone and firing through three Gophers who gave him too much space to beat Wilcox for a tying score.
Minnesota grabbed the next goal, when Warning pounced on a rebound off Kyle Rau's wraparound attempt and slipped it through a bad angle for a 2-1 Minnesota lead. And it still seemed that the Gophers might be able to outclass the Dutchmen.
But periods are 20 minutes long, and while Minnesota owned the first 15, Union took over for the final five, coming up with a three-goal rally that brought the Wells Fargo Center to a fever pitch.
Saugus, Mass., native Mike Vecchione got it started with a persistent effort on a rebound with 4:51 to go, and less than a minute later Eli Lichtenwald tied it by bouncing one in off Wilcox.
"We call those goals 'wolfpack goals,' just getting in the greasy areas in front, getting down low and grinding," Vecchione said of his goal. "(Minnesota) didn't really know what to do. They couldn't really handle our intensity around the net. We got three greasy goals like that in like three or four minutes, and I think it was really important to our success. "
In fact, it was even faster than Vecchione remembered. With 2:57 left in the frame, Daniel Ciampini grabbed another rebound goal, and Union had scored three goals in 1:54, effectively turning the tide and taking a 4-2 lead into the locker room.
After a slow start, the teams finished with a whopping 35 combined shots on goal, with Union taking 20.
"It's a big momentum swing," Sullivan said. "There's a lot of momentum swings in hockey, and that was huge goals. I think Eli scored, and once he scored, it really got the bottom lines going pretty good. Everyone was contributing, and that gave us a lot of momentum, those goals."
In the second, the game slowed to a more reasonable pace, and the Gophers cut into the Union lead early via a Taylor Cammarata goal. But even with two power plays in the period, Minnesota couldn't find the equalizer. Union struggled to generate as much offense as the first period, but still had some good looks.
Minnesota had the best of the period, and maybe the game, when Connor Reilly jumped up from the defense and nearly tapped a puck past Colin Stevens, but the junior netminder stuck his leg back behind him to retain Union's 4-3 lead with 4:31 to go.
Stevens (Niskayuna, N.Y./Boston Junior Bruins) finished with 36 saves, and while he'd probably like to have back the four saves he didn't make, when it was all said and done, it was him, and not Minnesota's Adam Wilcox (41 saves) who skated around the Wells Fargo ice with the national championship trophy.
"To be honest, it's still pretty surreal for me," he said. "It's every kid's dream to win a national championship, I'm just lucky enough it came true. It's a special bunch, and we proved that tonight."
The Dutchmen put it away in the third. Novak tipped Sullivan's shot 5:31 into the period, and after Minnesota's Hudson Fasching cut the lead to 5-4 on the power play with 3:40 to go, Gostisbehere went to work. Cammarata carried the puck into the Union zone, and Gostisbehere, who finished a whopping plus-7 on the night, calmly laid out and swept the puck off his stick, with Mat Bodie picking up the puck and sending Sullivan back the other way.
Sullivan crossed the blue line and zipped a wrister through Wilcox for a 6-4 lead with 1:22, and it finally became clear that the Dutchmen were simply not to be caught.
"I've never done that before to be honest," Sullivan said. "Mat Bodie kind of flipped it up, and I don't know if it was a D back for them, but he was coming at me, so I just flipped it up and it went five-hole."
Bodie stripped a Minnesota forward along the boards with Wilcox on the bench, and flipped the puck into the empty net for Union's seventh goal. The party, which would soon hit the road bound for Schenectady, had begun.
"It's hard to put it into words," said junior Charlie Vasaturo (Sewell, N.J.). "It's so amazing how everything fell into place for me, and I couldn't be happier right now. I've dreamed about this moment, and I don't even know what the emotion is. I'm just so happy and so overwhelmed at the same time."
The 2014 national championship represents the culmination of a long period of growth for Union. It began with current Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon turning the Dutchmen into a team that could compete. It continued with current Providence College coach Nate Leaman turning the Dutchmen into a team that could win.
And now, it's Rick Bennett – a Springfield, Mass., native who played four years at Providence before embarking on a long pro career, then taking an assistant spot under Leaman – who has brought the Dutchmen to the mountaintop.
"I thought winning Western Massachusetts back in high school as a player was pretty phenomenal," Bennett deadpanned. "To my coach back home who is watching and wanted to be here, but he couldn't make it, Coach Carlin, this one's a little bit better."
Long after the game, in the bowels of the arena, with the nets cut into dozens of pieces for players and staff, the confetti covering the ice surface, and the national championship trophy tucked safely in a box bound for upstate New York, senior Matt Hatch practically skipped through the bowels of the arena carrying a sandwich in his hand.
"Found the cheesesteaks!" Hatch said to a passerby.
Saturday night, despite the odds against a tiny school from a city whose name most people can't spell, with a star defenseman whose name nobody can pronounce, Union found the victory cheesesteaks – not to mention the national title.