By Dan Greene
The unthinkable has happened. Union has won the Cleary Cup, the trophy awarded at the end of the season to the first-place team in the ECAC. It was just five seasons ago that the Dutchmen finished last in the league. For the majority of Union’s 20-year Division I history, the hockey program was ridiculed and seen as a joke. Some people even wondered why Union went D-I, and if it would be better if they just went back to Division III.
But look at the Dutchmen now. They are the top team in the ECAC and the fourth best team in the country. Most people would have been happy to see the Dutchmen finish fourth in the league this year. Coach Nate Leaman has built this program to a national power, which centers around this year’s senior class. The Class of 2011 has accumulated the most wins of any senior class in program history.
Brock Matheson, Justin Pallos, Adam Presizniuk, Luke Cain, Stephane Boileau, John Simpson, Corey Milan, and Andrew Buote came to Union the year after the last place 2006-2007 season, and instantly turned the program around.
In their first season Union clinched their first-ever top four finish in the league. The following season the Dutchmen won their first-ever playoff series, which was followed up by Union’s first appearance in the ECAC Championship game in 2010.
This season has been a dream. Who thought that Union College would be a power in the college hockey world? How can one of the smallest schools in NCAA Division I hockey, a school that does not give out athletic scholarships, be so successful?
Only Leaman knows the answer to that question. He has built a team that leads the nation in many facets of the game.
The Dutchmen have the top ranked power-play unit in the country (30.97%), as well as the nation’s best defense (allowing 2.03 goals per game) and the third best offense (3.75 goals per game). The seniors have provided the leadership, while the younger guys have put up some huge numbers.
Sophomore goaltender Keith Kinkaid leads all of college hockey with a 1.94 goals-against average, while freshman Daniel Carr is tied for tops in the nation with 12 power-play goals. Carr also leads the ECAC with 20 goals, and his line mate sophomore Jeremy Welsh is third in the league with 36 points.
Also, freshman blueliner Mat Bodie leads the ECAC with a +27 plus/minus rating, and is on his way to becoming one of the best offensive defenseman in the history of the program. The combination of seasoned veterans and young stars has been lethal this season.
It has been a long journey that has seen the Dutchmen travel to Alaska, Michigan, and Minnesota in the first half of the season, and play 16 straight ECAC games to finish the regular season. That span of 16 games was the key to the season, and saw Union go 14-1-1 during that time.
The 16-game stretch culminated this past weekend against Quinnipiac and Princeton. Heading into this final weekend the Dutchmen were clinging on to first place in the ECAC with Yale sitting in second place just one point behind. All Union had to do was win both games and they would clinch the top seed.
On Friday it looked as if Union lost their hold on the top spot. The Dutchmen blew a two goal lead and tied the Bobcats 2-2, while Yale hosted last place Colgate.
But this team is a team of destiny, and, shockingly, just one minute before the game in Schenectady ended, the Bulldogs tied the Red Raiders 1-1 to keep Union in first place.
Before this game, Yale had won every game at home and had not tied once during the season. This was a sign from the hockey gods that the Dutchmen were destined to win the Cleary Cup.
The following game, Union took care of business early, capitalizing on their first two power-play opportunities of the game on goals by Carr and senior Luke Cain. Carr added a goal later in the period to give the Dutchmen a 3-0 first period lead.
They never looked back as seniors Stephane Boileau and John Simpson added a power-play and short-handed goal, respectively, in the third period to seal the deal.
One of the highlights of the third period was when senior Corey Milan replaced Kinkaid in goal for the Dutchmen. Milan received a standing ovation before finishing up the 5-0 shutout.
After the game, senior captain Brock Matheson was presented with the Cleary Cup by ECAC commissioner Stephen Hagwell in front of a raucous crowd at Messa Rink. The scene was filled with pure joy as the Dutchmen held the cup with their loyal supporters applauding them for what seemed like an eternity.
Once the championship photo was taken, the Senior Night festivities took place where each senior was honored along with their families. Matheson and senior assistant captain Andrew Buote then addressed the crowd and thanked everyone who had to do with Union hockey. Applauding their champions, the Union hockey community came together during this historic moment, a true sight to see.
Even though the Dutchmen have accomplished so much this season, there is still a lot more to do. They have their sights set on an ECAC Playoffs championship, their first berth in the NCAA tournament, and a Frozen Four appearance. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but the Dutchmen are destined for greatness.
They are off this upcoming weekend because of their first round bye in the playoffs, and will return to the ice the following weekend for the ECAC Quarterfinals. Their opponent will be determined by the results in the first round of the playoffs.
Union hopes to win the playoff tournament, which would guarantee them an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. But they seem to be in line for a bid to the big dance since they sit tied for sixth in the Pair Wise Rankings, which is a computer-based ranking system that decides who makes it into the tournament.
You do not want to miss a second of this season. Who knows what will happen next?