Speed turns Union defense to offense

The usual concept of defensemen in hockey is one of guards at the gate, sentinels to watch over the goalie and brutally push transgressors aside as they get close to the net.

The Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara, a 6-foot-9 mountain of a man, or Dustin Byfuglien of the Winnipeg Jets, a bruiser who throws around his 265 pounds liberally, comes to mind. They play the kind of defense that leaves you with a bruise and a headache just from watching.

Then along comes a defensive pair of starters at Union College. Generously listed at 5-11, 170 pounds and 6-0, 165, respectively, Shayne Gostisbehere and Mat Bodie are sleek, nimble machines who pose a different danger factor to their opponents. Think of the T-1000 model Robert Patrick portrayed in "Terminator 2," compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger's brutish 800 Series model in the original.

The two Union defensemen will face the biggest challenge of their careers when they go up against Boston College's No. 1 line in Thursday's first Frozen Four semifinal in Philadelphia. Johnny Gaudreau, Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes have dominated college hockey like no other line this season, combining for 192 points and a mind-blowing combined plus-114.

But Gostisbehere and Bodie aren't a normal D-line. They are more likely to fight fire with fire when it comes to facing off with that formidable Eagles first line.

Gostisbehere is leading the nation in shots on goal per game for a defenseman, firing nearly five shots a night. Bodie has scored 35 points this season, the third-most of any defender in the country.

What's the key to their furtive ways on the ice? Skill, smarts and, most of all, speed. Lots of it.

Providence coach Nate Leaman singled out Union's defensive strategy after his team's regional final loss to the Dutchmen.

"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "If you go at them too hard in their zone, they'll turn it around on you so quickly that they are liable to get an odd-man rush going the other way. They are the type of defensemen who put our forwards back on their heels."

Gostisbehere has skating ability that is "seriously scary," according to Union coach Rick Bennett. Whether it's lateral movement at the blue line or straight-line speed, Gostisbehere has that unteachable explosion in his first few steps.

"Having good speed all through the lineup is a staple of our team," Gostisbehere said. "It helps a lot in our transition game. When Mat and I jump up from our defensive position, we can put a lot of pressure on the opposing team because they can't match our speed, and that helps us go from defensive to offensive transition very quickly."

Because of their emphasis on speed, these two can go up against the most physical teams and make them pay, just as they did versus Providence. The Friars were aggressive in their regional semifinal win over Quinnipiac, sending sonic booms throughout Webster Bank Arena with checks and collisions along the boards all game long. But against the Dutchmen, it was a much quieter game. The speed and deft skill of Gostisbehere and Bodie were noticeable in their lack of contact with the Friars.

"We know every team is going to go out there and try to hit us," Gostisbehere said. "But we use our speed and our smarts to get out of those situations. That's not to say we're afraid to mix it up with anyone, because we will. We won't shy away from any physical play."

Bennett said he loves the luxury of having his quick-twitch defensemen set the tone offensively with pinpoint passes and pushing the puck at all times.

"Every defensive corps has something special about them," Bennett said. "Obviously, this one has a little bit more offense to it -- offensive defensemen. And that changes how we play and how we approach every game."

Their unconventional style of play is nearly as unconventional as the route Gostisbehere took to the Union campus in Schenectady, N.Y. Hailing from the not-so-hockey-hotbed of Margate, Fla., "Ghosty," as his teammates call him, used to go to Florida Panthers games with his grandfather, a Montreal native. He was hooked from there.

"I played on a travel team in Florida," Gostisbehere said. "But I wanted better competition, so I went to [South Kent] prep school in Connecticut for my last two years of high school."

Good move.

From there, Gostisbehere was recruited by Bennett, who was then an assistant to Leaman at Union before Leaman moved on to Providence. Once in Schenectady, Bodie immediately became a mentor to Gostisbehere.

"Mat is a great leader," Gostisbehere said. "He's one class older than me and he took me under his wing when I got here. I've been lucky to learn a lot from him."

Of the teams at the Frozen Four in Philadelphia, Union has the fewest NHL prospects on the ice. North Dakota leads the field with 15 NHL draft picks; Minnesota has 13; and Boston College has 10. Union? There's only one draftee. And that's Gostisbehere.

"He's a great player," Leaman said. "He's an elite player. The kind of player that people are going to be talking about for a long time to come."

If the two Union defensemen can lead their team to a win over Boston College and another in Saturday's title game, they'll go from merely being talked about, to being legendary.