The Union College hockey team salvaged what was an otherwise quiet first semester for ECAC Hockey teams on Saturday with a 3-1 road victory at Merrimack College.
The Dutchmen's victory over the fifth-seeded Warriors was by far the biggest of the season for an ECAC team. Prior to that victory, ECAC teams were 1-10-3 against top-15 teams in the RPI ranking. The lone other ECAC victory came opening weekend, when Quinnipiac took one of two from Ohio State.
Now, the ECAC has its signature victory of the first semester.
And for Union, it's a victory that bodes well for its NCAA tournament hopes. Facing a situation in which ECAC teams' first-semester play dictated a potential situation in which only one conference team -- the ECAC tournament champion -- would earn an NCAA Tournament invitation as a No. 4 seed, Union made a case that if it does not win the conference tournament at season's end, it should still be considered for the NCAA Tournament as the second ECAC invitee.
After all, the 3-1 victory over Merrimack was no fluke. Union outworked Merrimack at Lawler Arena, beating the Warriors at their own game. They won the battles in the corners, outshot the home favorites, and converted on mistakes with power-play scores.
The Dutchmen (9-3-5) limited a Merrimack team that pent time ranked as the No. 1 team in the country to 20 shots -- a new season low for the Warriors.
"It was a great test for us," said Union goaltender Troy Grosenick. "Playing a Hockey East team on the road, it was a measuring stick. Every team presents challenges, but we knew Merrimack was a hard-working team like us. We let the results come through our process."
Grosenick says the approach of focusing on the process rather than the results has benefited the team under first-year coach Rick Bennett. Union's first semester shapes up as impressive as any team in the ECAC with non-conference victories at Merrimack and Michigan, and two ties with Western Michigan.
Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) was certainly impressed with Union's competitiveness in a tough environment.
"I thought throughout the game (Union played with a purpose," Dennehy said. "It was as if they knew what they wanted to do and they were ready to do it from the get-go."
Union also appears to know what it wants to do in terms of a season-long goal. After winning the ECAC Hockey regular-season title last season before suffering an early exit in the ECAC tournament, the Dutchmen will measure this season's success not on regular-season wins, but postseason victories.
"Obviously, winning the NCAA tournament is the ultimate goal," Grosenick said. "We didn't fare well as we would've liked during last year's playoffs. That's something fueling our fire -- proving that we're a good playoff team."
At this point, there's not much left to prove for the Dutchmen.
ECAC Hockey power rankings
1. Union (9-3-5, 3-2-2 ECAC): The Dutchmen have two more chances to boost their RPI ranking this calendar year with road games at Denver and at Colorado College.
2. Colgate (11-4-2, 6-2-0): Not really fair for Colgate to slide one spot on an idle week, but the Raiders tied Merrimack one week before Union upset the Warriors.
3. Cornell (7-3-1, 6-1-1): The Big Red lead the ECAC with a 1.69 goals-against average.
4. Harvard (4-3-3, 3-3-2): Not a bad semester for the Crimson, who finished 12-21-1 last season.
5. Yale (6-5-1, 4-2-0): The Elis aren't dead yet. Their disappointing first semester does include victories over Colgate and Union.
6. Quinnipiac (11-6-3, 3-4-3): The Bobcats are 8-1-2 at home, but 3-5-1 on the road.
7. Dartmouth (5-5-1, 3-3-1): Dartmouth is 2-4-1 in its last seven games.
8. St. Lawrence (7-10, 4-5): The Saints are 2-4 in their last six games.
9. Clarkson (9-7-4, 3-4-2): Warm weather is in Clarkson's future at the Florida College Classic.
10. Brown (4-6-1, 3-3-0): Brown had first-semester wins over Cornell, Union and Yale, and losses against St. Lawrence, Harvard and Princeton.
11. Princeton (4-9-2, 3-7-1): Princeton's best wins came against Harvard, Clarkson and Providence.
12. RPI (3-13-0, 1-6-0): RPI has vowed to be more competitive in the second semester.
Dan Guttenplan can be reached at email@example.com.