Thursday, March 24, 2011

Union Plays Minnesota-Duluth in First NCAA D-1 Tourney Appearance

Well, here we are. The moment has finally come where Union College is playing in the NCAA Division 1 Hockey Tournament. The Dutchmen have played in the Division III tourney a few times back in the 1980s. It's pretty surreal to be here, but we can't just take in the sights and sounds. We can't just be happy to be here; we want to win. That's exactly what Coach Leaman and Brock Matheson said today after practice in Bridgeport.

The first task at hand is The University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (22-10-6), who is the #9 seed in the tournament. This is the second time in three years that the Bulldogs have received an NCAA Tourney berth. They finished fourth in the very tough WCHA this season with a league record of 15-8-5. In the most recent polls, UMD was ranked 11th by USCHO and 12th by USA Today. They did spend some time as #1 team in the country earlier in the season. UMD is coached by Scott Sandelin, the 2003-04 recipient of the Spencer Penrose Award for D-1 Coach of the Year. He has led the Bulldogs to three consecutive 22 win seasons.

Union and UMD have met seven times all-time. The Bulldogs hold a 6-0-1 advantage in the series with the last game coming on November 22, 2003 in Schenectady (Coach Leaman's first season at Union). They are also 5-1-0 vs. Yale and 3-0-0 against Air Force all-time.

The two teams also have four common opponents: Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Clarkson, and Minnesota. Union is 1-0-0 vs. UAA, while UMD is 2-0-0; Union is 0-1-0 vs. Bemidji, while UMD is 1-1-1; both teams are 2-0-0 vs. Clarkson; and Union is 1-0-0 vs. Minnesota, while UMD is 1-1-2.

UMD is tied for 13th overall in the nation in team offense (3.39 goals per game), 21st in overall team defense (2.63 goals per game), 12th in power-play percentage (21.93%), and tied for 30th in penalty killing (81.7%). They are also the 14th most penalized team in the nation, averaging 14.82 minutes per game.

Players To Watch:

Jack Connolly (#12): the junior assistant captain is the smallest player on the Bulldogs roster at 5'8" and 175lbs., but is probably the best player on the team. He is a Hobey Baker finalist and is a two time All-WCHA First Team selection, while also being on the WCHA All-Academic team. INCH also named him the WCHA Player of the Year. He leads all Bulldogs with 39 assists (second in the nation) and 55 points (tied for fourth in the nation). His 28 assists was most in WCHA play, and his 55 points was second most in league play behind North Dakota's Matt Frattin. Connolly has only been held without a point six times this season, and only once since January 14. He's going to be tough to stop.

Mike Connolly (#22): Mike is also a junior assistant captain and All-WCHA First Team selection, and plays on the same line with Jack Connolly, but they are not related. He leads the team with 26 goals, three shorthanded goals and 53 penalty minutes, and is third with 49 points. Mike has been on fire of late having scored 13 goals in his past 13 games. He is also big in the playoffs, leading all Bulldog scorers with eight goals and 18 points in post-season play. His 19 goals in WCHA play is third most in the conference.

Justin Fontaine
Justin Fontaine (#37): the senior winger is the third piece of the FCC line. Fontaine is second on the team with 20 goals, 32 assists, and 52 points (tied for seventh in the nation). He also leads the team with 10 power-play goals and a +25 rating. Fontaine was named to the All-WCHA Second Team for the third consecutive year. He is currently riding an eight-game scoring streak.

Justin Faulk (#25): the newly 19-year old freshman has been a major asset on the UMD blueline this season. He leads all all Bulldog defenders with eight goals, 19 assists, and 27 points. Faulk's six PPG's are also tied for second on the team. He is the nation's third highest scoring freshman defenseman and leads all freshman defenders in goals. Faulk was named to the All-WCHA Third Team and All-Rookie team.

Travis Oleksuk (#11): the junior forward is fifth on the team in scoring with 13 goals, 18 assists, and 31 points. But, the stat that stands out for Oleksuk is his team-leading seven game-winning goals (the closest player to him has 3 GWG). This game is going to be a barn-burner, so look out for Oleksuk late in regulation or perhaps overtime.

Keith Kinkaid: Keith didn't have his best performances in the Colgate series. Maybe he was nervous, or maybe the talks of him leaving early to go to the NHL got to him. Either way, he has to be on the top of his game if Union is going to win. A hot goalie can take you all the way to the national championship game.

Wayne Simpson: Personally, Union has to capitalize on the power-play if they want any chance to win. Wayne (9 PPG) is one of Union's big three snipers on the PP, and he will have to produce. Union is 13-2-0 when the younger Simpson scores a goal. Also, I heard he's had a great week of practice. Wayne scored three goals in the Colgate series.

Justin Pallos & Andrew Buote: I'm basically going to say the same thing as I did for the Colgate series here. Pally and Bootsie are two of Union's best defensive forwards and I bet they'll have to handle the FCC line for a good part of the game. Hopefully, Pally is strong enough and Bootsie is fast enough to keep up with these guys. They will also play a major role in stopping UMD's power-play unit, which Coach Leaman called underrated. I think it would be interesting to have Prezie-Zaj-Hatch match up against the FCC line. Yes, they score a lot, but they also have two of the ECAC's top defensive forwards (Presizniuk and Zajac). Plus, Prezie is big, Hatch is fast, and Zaj is very smart in the defensive zone. It's just a thought.

Jeremy Welsh
Jeremy Welsh: During the playoffs your best players need to step up. Welshie is one of Union's top forwards and he needs to step up, along with the rest of his line (Josh Jooris and Daniel Carr) who was shut down for the most part against Colgate. Welsh has been on a bit of a cold streak lately accumulating just one goal and two assists in his past seven games. He is also seven shots away from breaking Mario Valery-Trabucoo's '10 record for most shots in a season.

Kelly Zajac: Zaj is following in the footsteps of his older brothers Travis and Darcy by becoming the third of the Zajac children to play in the NCAA tourney. He has the chance to break a few Union records this weekend: three points away from tying Mario Valery-Trabucco '10 for points in a season (45), one game-winning goal away from breaking Scot Seney's '03 record for most GWG in a season, and one assist away from breaking Joel Beal's '02 record for most assists in a season.

Keys To The Game
For Union: 1) Limit the FCC line any way possible. They were three of the top four scorers in a very tough WCHA this year. 2) Don't be nervous. Yes, this is their first ever tournament appearance, but you have to play like veterans and not let your emotions take over. The team also has to be over the loss to Colgate. Good thing they're 6-2-0 this season coming off a loss. 3) You have to capitalize on the power-play. Union has the top ranked PP in the country and they have to prove it. They are 23-5-3 this season when scoring a PP goal. On the other side of the puck, they have to be solid on the penalty kill. Union is 14-2-4 when keeping the opposition scoreless on the PP.

For UMD: 1) The FCC line must produce like they have all year. They have scored a ton in the WCHA this season and theoretically should produce the same result against the ECAC. 2) Stay out of the penalty box. The Bulldogs have been one of the most penalized teams in the country, but if they want to win they have to keep Union's prolific PP off the ice. 3) Use your experience to your advantage. Many of the Bulldogs have been to the tourney twice.

Other stats to keep an eye on: 1) Both teams are very successful when scoring first. Union is 18-4-3, while UMD is 16-3-2. So, who ever scores the first goal has a good chance of winning the game. 2) Union is very good on Friday, while the Bulldogs are just ok. Union is 14-2-1, while UMD is 9-6-2.

As you can see, this is going to be one heck of a game!

For more check out:
College Hockey News
Ken Schott's Podcast
College Hockey Inc.
Times Union (Mark McGuire)
Connecticut Post
Union Athletics --> with Cover-It-Live
Quotes From UMD Press Conference
Jack Connolly Blog
Sounds From Bridgeport (USCHO)
Rink And Run
Runnin' With The Dogs
The Ciskie Blog

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