Union hockey coach Rick Bennett never wants to hear the following words again: expectations, should, fine.
Bennett (Springfield, Mass.) heard those words enough for one lifetime this season on the heels of the Dutchmen's run to the national championship game against Boston College last spring. "Expectations are high. Union should compete for an ECAC title. Despite the slow start, the Dutchmen will be fine."
Bennett and his players realized this season nothing good has ever come from grand declarations in college hockey. The Dutchmen needed to work their way back to the national stage. Last season counts for nothing.
Fortunately for Bennett, his players appear to have learned their lesson in time. They rallied on the final weekend to record a home sweep of St. Lawrence and Clarkson, earning the fourth seed in the ECAC tournament, which will start this weekend. The fourth seed does not figure to serve as a badge of honor for the Dutchmen (17-12-5 overall, 10-8-4 ECAC), who earned the top seed in the tournament each of the last two seasons. But the fourth seed does come with a first-round bye, something typically high on the list of goals for each ECAC team at the start of the season.
"We learned a lot of stuff as a staff and a team this season," says Bennett, who led Union to regular season and ECAC tournament titles last season in his first year as head coach. "We learned there was a lot we don't know about college hockey, like the dynamic of preparing from one year to the next. It's never going to be easy. The quicker we got over last year, the better off we were. But it took a long time. It's easy to throw that on the players, but the staff is included."
Union started the season strong while riding the momentum of a strong finish to last season. The Dutchmen were 8-2-1 heading into a November 30 matchup with Quinnipiac when their struggles began. They didn't win again until December 30 -- a stretch in which they went 0-2-3. From November 30 to January 18, Union posted a record of 2-6-3.
In the midst of the midseason malaise, Bennett took down a board that listed the ECAC standings in the locker room around Christmas. He did the same thing last year, never to post the standings again. This year, he waited until the final weekend of the season, when Union needed the sweep to earn a first-round bye, before hanging the standings again.
"When the standings are up, the players get into the habit of sitting there and staring at it," Bennett says. "We get ahead of ourselves. Each team has a different dynamic. Last year, I took down the board because I knew we had bigger goals than a first-round bye. This year, I thought we needed to take it down and focus on the next opponent. I had a gut feeling and threw it up that last weekend."
Last season, Union rode its top seed all the way to Atlantic City for the ECAC championship. However, Bennett knows a first-round bye does nothing to guarantee postseason success. In 2010-11, the top-seeded Dutchmen were swept by No. 12 Colgate in the ECAC quarterfinals before falling to Minnesota Duluth in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Union had a postseason record of 0-3-0 that season.
"You need a reason if you're going to make a run in the postseason," Bennett says. "Last season, we had Jeremy Welsh -- someone could take it upon himself to elevate his game better than he had every played in his life. Before we even think of that, we have to think about the first round. I'm not going to get ahead of that. We've had the bye with the Cleary Cup and lost in the first round. Anything can happen."
1. Quinnipiac (24-5-5, 17-2-3) – Quinnipiac remains No. 1 in the PairWise Rankings, a position it has held down since January 19. The Bobcats clinched the Cleary Cup, for the ECAC Hockey regular-season title, for the first time since they joined the league in 2005.
2. RPI (17-12-5, 12-7-3) – The Engineers have won nine of their last 10 and 11 of their last 13. The key to their recent success has been freshman goalie Jason Kasdorf, who is 13-3-2 with a 1.51 goals against average in 20 games this season with a.940 save percentage. The draft choice of the Winnipeg Jets is third in the nation in winning percentage (.778), fourth in goals against average, sixth in save percentage and 11th in shutouts (3). RPI is 4-9-3 in games in which Kasdorf is not the goalie of record.
3. Yale (16-10-3, 12-9-1) – Credit Yale for salvaging an otherwise successful season after going into tailspin in early February. From February 2 to 22, the Bulldogs dropped five in a row. They then closed out the season with wins in their final three to earn the No. 3 seed and a first-round bye.
4. Union (17-12-5, 10-8-4) – The importance of the final weekend of the regular season can't be overstated. Union, Yale and RPI all recorded sweeps on the final weekend, and all three clinched first-round byes in the tournament. The only other team to earn a first-round bye -- Quinnipiac -- already had home ice clinched heading into the weekend.
5. Dartmouth (13-11-5, 9-9-4) – Let's go ahead and put No. 5 Dartmouth on upset alert in the opening weekend of the ECAC tournament. No. 12 Harvard closed out the season with a record of 4-2-2 in its last eight games, and the Crimson made a run to the ECAC championship game last season.
6. St. Lawrence (16-14-4, 9-9-4) – Not the finish to the season the Saints were hoping for. They lost to Union and RPI by a combined score of 9-2 on the final weekend, dropping from third to sixth in the league standings. They'll host No. 11 Colgate this weekend.
7. Brown (11-12-6, 7-9-6) – Brown goalie Anthony Borelli might just be enough to get Brown past its opening-round matchup with Clarkson. Last weekend, Borelli outdueled Colgate's Spencer Finney in a 5-1 win, making 33 saves to Finney's 15.
8. Princeton (10-14-5, 8-10-4) – Princeton forward Andrew became the first Princeton junior since 1991 to earn 100 points Saturday when his overtime, game-winner against Harvard sealed Princeton's home ice against Cornell in the opening round.
9. Cornell (11-13-3, 7-10-3) – Cornell, the ninth seed in the ECAC tournament, will be on the road in the first round for the first time since 1998-99. Fittingly, Cornell opened at Princeton in 1999, a series that the Tigers won.
10. Clarkson (9-18-7, 8-11-3) – The Golden Knights have the look of a team that's ready for the season to end. They were outscored 9-0 by Union and RPI last weekend with home ice in the opening round of the tournament at stake.
11. Colgate (14-16-4, 6-13-3) – The Raiders won only one of their last 10 games. Their matchup with St. Lawrence should be a shootout this weekend. The schools both rank in the bottom three in the conference in goals against average.
12. Harvard (9-17-3, 6-14-2) – You have to think the Crimson will be playing with a lot of pride this weekend against Dartmouth after an otherwise disappointing season that was marred by the dismissal of three players due to the cheating scandal. Harvard has the talent to make some noise in the tournament.