All year, the Union College Dutchmen have played excellent hockey, but no matter what, the team has been dogged by doubters. Make no mistake, this is a good hockey team.
Union is a highly-disciplined, well-coached team that can beat you at both ends of the ice and possesses some underrated skill players. There are no NHL Draft picks on this team, but that hasn’t stopped Union from piling up wins.
In its first Frozen Four appearance, Union will meet fellow first-timer Ferris State in what could be a defensive struggle or at the very least a solid goaltender’s duel. While many might look at this game as an appetizer for Minnesota-Boston College, it will be a highly intriguing contest, introducing two little-known teams to hockey fans nationwide, and it will be on ESPNU Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Weathering the Storm
It was a bit of a tumultuous off-season for the Dutchmen. Head coach… gone. Starting goaltender… gone. Two big pieces of Union’s recent success and an ECAC regular-season title last year, gone.
Head Coach Nate Leaman, who led Union to Division I prominence in eight years at the helm, left to become head coach at Providence College in Hockey East. Losing a head coach that helped build a program into an annual ECAC contender and potential tournament team seems like a rather significant setback, one would think.
Another perceived setback for success this year was the early departure of goaltender Keith Kinkaid, who signed a free-agent contract with the New Jersey Devils upon the conclusion of his sophomore season.
This is to say nothing of the annual attrition caused by departing senior classes that every team goes through.
Questions swirled heading into the season. Was Leaman’s departure a speed bump or a road block to future success? Could Rick Bennett, Leaman’s longtime assistant coach keep the program moving in the right direction?
The answers to those questions became clear rather quickly as the Dutchmen went unbeaten in eight of its first nine games.
Bennett, who had been credited for helping turn Union into a defensively stout team, kept things moving. Having been an assistant at Union since 2005-06, the players have clearly taken to their new head coach and the strong play from Leaman’s tenure has simply carried over to the Bennett era.
Bennett, a former standout forward at Providence, has guided this team through what many believed would be rockier path to success. Union is fundamentally sound and highly successful on special teams. Bennett may have inherited a very talented hockey team, but it’s not often a rookie head coach takes a team to the Frozen Four
Union is just one win away from setting the school record for overall wins in a single season. The current mark was set just last season. Looks like a pretty seamless transition.
Bennett took home the Tim Taylor Award as the ECAC’s best coach and is a finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award, which goes to the national coach of the year. Not bad for a rookie.
From Question Mark to Catalyst
The other big question mark coming into the season was goaltending after Kinkaid’s departure. Having only appeared in three games as a freshman at Union last year, Troy Grosenick was a bit of an unknown commodity.
With only 84 minutes of college hockey action to his name prior to this year, some wondered if Grosenick would be able to keep Union competitive. You really can’t fault anyone for that train of thought. Conventional wisdom would suggest that a goalie with little experience wouldn’t fare as well as his All-American predecessor.
Shockingly, the sophomore goaltender posted better numbers than Kinkaid’s All-American season. Comparing side-by-side….
Keith Kinkaid 2010-11: 25-10-3, 1.99, .920, 3 SO
Troy Grosenick 2011-12: 22-5-3, 1.64, .936, 5 SO
How many teams get to replace an All-American with an All-American? Especially a school that most would consider a “mid-major.” Not only is Grosenick a sure-fire All-American, he was one of the 10 Hobey Baker finalists after his historic season.
Once a concern, Grosenick has become the catalyst for Union’s 2011-12 success.
Very Special Teams
Union’s power play can be straight up deadly. Converting on 24 percent of its power-play chances, Union makes it count when it gets the man advantage. The Dutchmen have posted 46 total power-play goals. Three separate players, Jeremy Welsh, Daniel Carr and Wayne Simpson, have recorded nine power-play goals this year.
The PK has been stingy as well, allowing just 26 power-play goals on the year, a 15 percent success rate for opponents. Union has also buried six shorthanded goals on the year, three of which came off the stick of Carr.
Players to Watch
Jeremy Welsh — The big junior forward has 27 goals this season leads Union with 43 points. Watching Welsh play is rather exciting. He plays with pace, he’s big, he hits, he has good hands for a big man and shows that scoring touch. At 6-3, 200, he has pro size and should find himself in high demand among several NHL teams when this season is over. With the lights shining bright at the Frozen Four, this is a big chance for Welsh to showcase himself for a wide audience.
Kelly Zajac — The senior centerman has 34 assists this year, which ranks fifth in the nation. He’s also second on the team with 42 points. It is Zajac’s second consecutive 42-point campaign. Over his four-year career, Zajac has posted 128 points, all while playing in the particularly stingy ECAC.
Daniel Carr — On the verge of his second consecutive 20-goal season in just his second year of college hockey, Carr has shown he can consistently put the puck in the net. Over the last two years, Carr has posted 74 points including 39 goals. It’s hard enough to score in the ECAC, harder still for underclassmen. Seven of Carr’s 19 goals this year have come at even strength. He has nine power-play tallies and three shorthanded markers.
Nolan Julseth-White — The senior defenseman and team captain is a big part of Union’s staunch defense. More of the stay-at-home type, Julseth-White put up just four assists. The strong defenseman is a steady presence on the back end.
Troy Grosenick — See above.
Shayne Gostisbehere — This is a freshman you should be aware of. The 1993-born Gostisbehere (pronounced GOST-iss-bear) has some dynamic elements in his game. He put up 22 points from the blue line and looks more like a seasoned veteran with the puck on his stick, than a wide-eyed freshman. He’s eligible for the NHL Draft still, so perhaps this extra exposure at the Frozen Four makes a few extra pro clubs take note. As an added bonus, Gostisbehere gets to participate in the Frozen Four in his home state. That’s right, he’s a native Floridian.
Union By The Numbers
Goals For: 142 (3.5 per game)
Goals Against: 72 (1.8 per game)
Power Play: 46-189 (24.3%)
Penalty Kill: 129-152 (84.8%)
Offensive Leaders: Jeremy Welsh (27-16–43); Kelly Zajac (8-34–42); Daniel Carr (19-20–39)
Class Breakdown: Seniors – 4; Juniors – 6; Sophomores – 8; Freshmen – 10
NHL Draft Picks: None.
How They Got To Tampa
East Regional Champions
Regional Semi: Defeated Michigan State – 3-1
Regional Final: Defeated UMass-Lowell – 4-2
For more Frozen Four info, including storylines, notes, stats and more, visit College Hockey, Inc.
Next Up: Ferris State Bulldogs