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Rick Bennett understands the curiosity associated with his Union hockey team. But that doesn't mean the first-year head coach thinks that his small liberal arts college is in any way out of place when it comes to playing in the Frozen Four.
"There's a lot of parity in college hockey, so it's nice to see the smaller schools make it to this stage," Bennett said. "We're kind of living off this small school thing but a lot of people here think it's big time and that's all that really matters to us."
|Despite the high stakes, Union coach Rick Bennett won't prepare his team any differently at the Frozen Four.|
On Thursday, "big time" will take on a whole new meaning for the skating Dutchmen from Schenectady, N.Y., when they face Ferris State in the first NCAA hockey semifinal at the Tampa Bay Times Forum (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU/ESPN3).
Union (26-7-7), with a student enrollment of 2,200, enters college hockey's final weekend with the fewest losses in Division I. The road to Tampa started when the Dutchmen won not only the ECAC regular-season title but also the conference tournament. Those accomplishments garnered Bennett's club a No. 1 regional seed and the No. 3 overall seed in the 16-team NCAA tournament.
From there it was wins at the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., over Michigan State and UMass-Lowell that extended the season for a couple of weeks and moved Union into a much brighter spotlight.
In reality, the road to the school's first Frozen Four trip started last year on the three-hour bus ride back to campus following a 2-0 loss to eventual national champion Minnesota-Duluth in Union's first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament.
"You do a lot of reflecting on the season," junior center Jeremy Welsh said about the quiet ride from Bridgeport back to upstate New York. "At that point you're pretty disappointed. We kind of got to a point last season where we made the tournament and didn't know what to expect. Our inexperience showed and there was a realization that we wanted to get back there and fix it."
Before Welsh and his teammates would have an opportunity to fix anything, they would have to deal with two other significant losses.
On April 18, sophomore goaltender Keith Kinkaid signed a professional contract with the New Jersey Devils' organization, taking his 25-10-3 record, 1.99 goals-against average and .920 save percentage with him.
Just four days later coach Nate Leaman, who gets most of the credit for building Union's hockey program into what it is today, also left Schenectady behind when he was tabbed to turn around a Providence College program that was routinely found at the bottom of Hockey East.
Union athletic director Jim McLaughlin wasted no time in finding a new coach. Within 30 minutes of finding out that Leaman was leaving for PC, McLaughlin had signed Bennett to move up one spot from associate head coach and run the program.
"The transition itself was pretty seamless but the weekend it happened it was a pretty big shock to most of the guys," Welsh said. "You have the initial shock of Coach Leaman leaving because he's a terrific coach who built the program up.
"And then shortly thereafter we got the news that Coach Bennett is the new head coach. So it wasn't a huge surprise coming into camp what to expect and where we were going. Coach Bennett played a major role in helping to establish the culture and bringing in a lot of the guys [who] are on the team now. It was business as usual once we got to camp, and there hasn't been a huge change in philosophy."
That philosophy focuses on defense.
Bennett refers to it as the Sacred 7, meaning his six defensemen and goaltender. And it's hard to argue with the results.
Union enters the national semifinals ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 1.80 goals per game.
"Our style is keeping it simple and keeping the puck down low," senior center Kelly Zajac said. "When we do that we can use our size to work teams. Our big guys hit and when we do that we create a lot of turnovers. It really hasn't changed too much. We still preach hard work, and that's our main asset around here. The systems have stayed the same and we're still a defensive-first team and that's how it's always been."
It also helps to have a top-notch goaltender. Troy Grosenick picked up where Kinkaid left off, and the sophomore backstopped his way to a lot of national recognition. His winning percentage (22-5-3, .783), GAA (1.64) and save percentage (.936) all rank second nationally, and he was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.
That's not to say Union can't play at the other end of the ice.
The Dutchmen are fourth in the nation in scoring offense at 3.55 goals per game, which also gives them the best scoring margin (+1.75) in the country.Union is led in the scoring department by Welsh (27 goals, 16 assists, 43 points), Zajac (8-34-42), sophomore left wing Daniel Carr (19-20-39) and junior right wing Wayne Simpson (18-13-31).
"We're not a high-flying kind of team but we've got a lot of offensive skill," Welsh said. "When we get our chances we capitalize. But we're real detailed to the D side of the game."
|Jeremy Welsh was third in the nation this season with 27 goals, and also had 17 assists.|
Both Union and Ferris State are making their first trip to the Frozen Four, which continues a recent trend started by Notre Dame (2008), Bemidji State (2009), Miami (2009) and RIT (2010).
But the category the Dutchmen would most like to find themselves in is first-time Frozen Four participant that goes on to win the national title. That hasn't been done since Lake Superior State pulled the trick in 1988.
Those stakes and the spotlight aren't impacting Union's approach to this new environment.
"We're just preparing the same way we have the whole year," Bennett said. "We're pretty simple here; we don't try to reinvent the game at all. Our focus has to be about us. Both teams appear to be in uncharted waters being here for the first time, so the team that comes out and executes their systems, has their feet going and has the energy is the one that's going to come out on top."
Unlike Boston College and Minnesota, the other semifinalists, Union hasn't played in an NHL building. It did face Harvard this season in an outdoor game at Fenway Park, but the largest indoor crowd Union has played in front of was 6,053 at Denver.
The Tampa Bay Times Forum has a listed capacity of 19,500, meaning there could be some wide eyes in the opening minutes for both Union and Ferris State.
"It's going to be a whole new animal down there but once you get on the ice it's same old, same old," Welsh said. "Bridgeport was kind of a pro barn too, so I don't think the atmosphere is going to be too big of an impact on the game. But obviously everything surrounding the event is going to be something new. We've done a good job as a team staying level-headed so I don't think the guys will get too carried away."
After Union beat UMass-Lowell in the East Region final, several of the players talked about how the win not only meant a trip to the Frozen Four but it also meant two more weeks together at the rink -- as a team.
"There was a different feeling around the room this year," Zajac said. "It was a good atmosphere, we're a tight-knit group and the guys are having a lot of fun right now. It's kind of that moment where you don't want it to end."
On Thursday afternoon Union serves as the opening act of the Frozen Four. Time will tell if the Dutchmen are good enough for Saturday's prime-time stage.
David Albright covers college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.