April 4, 2012

ECAC Journal: Union a sentimental favorite at Frozen Four

By Dan Guttenplan

So much for this being a down year for ECAC Hockey. 

Sophomore goalie Troy Grosenick played a huge role in the Dutchmen reaching their first Frozen Four. (Photo courtesy of Union College Athletics)

After a season where parity was the theme of the regular season in ECAC Hockey, the postseason has provided an opportunity for the conference to showcase its front-end talent.

Union (26-7-7) will be the first ECAC team to compete in the Frozen Four since 2003 on Thursday, when it faces off with Midwest Regional champion Ferris State at Tampa Bay Times Forum (4:30 p.m.).

The next night, for the first time since 2005, an ECAC player -- Colgate senior forward Austin Smith -- will be one of three finalists when the Hobey Baker Award is presented to the nation's top player at the Davis Conference Center at MacDill Air Force Base.

Union is two wins shy of becoming the first ECAC Hockey school to win a national title since Harvard in 1989. Smith, the first Hobey Baker finalist in the ECAC since Cornell goaltender David McKee in 2005, joins Minnesota-Duluth senior Jack Connolly and Maine's Spencer Abbott in the final three.

For Union's part, it has paved its way to the Frozen Four with a defensive philosophy that has been established under first-year coach Rick Bennett. The Dutchmen enter the Frozen Four as the nation's top defensive team, averaging 1.80 goals against per game.

That is what Bennett has in mind when he speaks of the “Sacred 7” -- a collection of the team's top six defenseman along with sophomore goaltender Troy Grosenick, who has logged a record of 22-5-3 this season. His GAA (1.64), save percentage (.936) and winning percentage (.783) all rank second nationally. Grosenick was in the final 10 for the Hobey Baker voting.

Union will make its first appearance in the Frozen Four in school history, only one year after making its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history. The Dutchmen have become a bit of a sentimental favorite nationally over the past 10 days, as more casual hockey fans have become familiar with the program's story.

Union plays in Division 3 in 23 of its 25 intercollegiate sports, with men's and women's hockey being the lone exceptions. The school of 2,200 students has only had a Division 1 hockey program since 1991, and still does not offer athletic scholarships. Union had a total of two winning seasons in its first 18 years in ECAC Hockey from 1991 to 2007.

Union's scoring leaders include junior center Jeremy Welsh (27-16-43), senior center Kelly Zajac (8-34-42), sophomore left wing Daniel Carr (19-20-39) and junior right wing Wayne Simpson of Boxboro, Mass. (18-13-31).

The Dutchmen had quite the send-off from Schenectady, N.Y., on Tuesday morning when they gathered at Messa Rink. Union graduate and Schenectady assemblyman Jim Tedisco delivered a parting address only a week after arguing with New York governor Andrew Cuomo that the Union College hockey team was the state's biggest story of the year -- not the on-time budget.

In what could be a good twist of fate, personnel at Albany International Airport told Union officials that the school used the same charter plane that the national champion Kentucky men's basketball team used earlier that morning. Upon landing in Tampa, Fla., the Dutchmen were greeted on the tarmac by a long line of applauding youth hockey teams.

Union will be the lone team that will not be sporting playoff beards in Tampa. Bennett enforces a team rule that players must shave each day before class. That will not be broken for a Frozen Four appearance.

Smith, ECAC Hockey's first 30-goal scorer since 2001, would seem to have as good a chance as Abbott or Connolly to claim the Hobey Baker. The ECAC Hockey Player of the Year led the nation with 36 goals and added 21 assists. He also led the nation in short-handed goals with six.

Maine's Abbott, the Hockey East Player of the Year, had 21 goals and 41 assists, leading the nation in scoring and assists. Connolly, the WCHA Player of the Year, had 20 goals and 40 assists.

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.