PHILADELPHIA -- So tiny Union (N.Y.) will play Big Ten powerhouse Minnesota for the 2013 NCAA Men’s Division Ice Hockey championship. Statistics and history scream “Minnesota,” right?
Hardly.Top-ranked Minnesota plays for its sixth NCAA title and third-ranked Union plays for its first beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena. It’s an error to focus on the obvious -- Union’s smaller enrollment and campus acreage compared to Minnesota’s larger Twin Cities resources.
That’s because the Dutchmen are a powerhouse under third-year head coach Rick Bennett. They also play in one of college hockey’s ultimate powerhouse leagues, the Eastern College Athletic Conference. And, they’ve already beaten the Golden Gophers.
“They're probably sick of my ‘let's not get too high or too low’ speech,” Bennett said of his team on Friday. “But I don't have to say too much at all because these guys know the drill. I mean, they act like professionals. They make it easy, basically, after games.”
The Dutchmen have blossomed into national contenders in Bennett’s third season as head coach because of talent, hard work and a vital mesh of locker room personalities.
Senior defenseman Matt Bodie, a Manitoba, Canada native and team captain, leads the way, staring unblinking into all camera and press-conference lights.
Forget the first-time significance of Saturday’s national championship game, he says; it’s a hockey game.
“Yeah, it’s huge,” Bodie said of Union’s presence. “You want to get out to a quick start, and hopefully we can learn from [Thursday] night's game [a 5-4 semifinal victory against Boston College] that you've got to bring it from the opening shift. But we're just treating it like any other game. You prepare the same way, and you've just got to be ready to go.”
The Dutchmen’s 31 wins thus far are the most in 71 seasons of varsity competition. This is their second Frozen Four (they lost in the semifinals to Ferris State in 2012). Bennett was announced as the Spencer Penrose Award winner (top NCAA Division I men’s head coach) 24 hours before Union beat Boston College in Thursday’s first national semifinal.
Union is in the midst of a school-record 11-game winning streak and stands 15-0-1 -- the nation's longest current streak -- heading into Saturday’s title game. They have two of the top collegiate defensemen in Bodie and junior Shayne Gostisbehere, a Philadelphia Flyers prospect who has answered his share of professional hockey inquiries this week.
So yes, they belong.
“They're an outstanding team,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “They're an older, veteran team. They've had a tremendous amount of success the last three years. They're balanced with Bodie and Gostisbehere. They've got two elite defensemen they're going to get to jump up to play, very similar to what North Dakota's defensemen did [in Minnesota’s 2-1 semifinal victory]. So they certainly earned their way here.”
The two teams last met in Dec. 2010, during the Mariucci Classic, an annual tournament hosted by Minnesota. Union beat Minnesota 3-2 in overtime during that tournament.
On Friday, Bennett called it “a monumental win for us,” recalling an embarrassing 8-0 loss to Minnesota in the 2005 Mariucci Classic. Saturday’s meeting will be the fourth between the teams; Minnesota holds a 2-1 edge.
Drama wasn’t confined to overtime during Union’s 2010 triumph in Minnesota.
“I know one of our defensemen at the time -- one of our better defensemen, Lane Caffaro -- found his way through the crease and ran their goalie over,” Bennett said. “I think we had to put him in a stick bag to get him out of there because it was pretty hostile. It was one of those things.”
Per his two-year captain, Bodie, another victory against Minnesota on Saturday wouldn’t be only “one of those things.”
“You know, it's great for the school, it's great for the program,” Bodie said. “It's great for players and everyone involved to get to this point. As far as winning it, it would be huge. I don't really know if you can put it into words, but it would just be huge for everyone involved.”