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Union Busting: Dartmouth Hockey Takes Aim at Another Tourney Upset

  • Dartmouth College goaltender Charles Grant, left, and his defensemen has been crucial to the team's late season surge. The junior from Nova Scotia was the ECAC's goaltender of the month for February. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Dartmouth College goaltender Charles Grant, left, and his defensemen has been crucial to the team's late season surge. The junior from Nova Scotia was the ECAC's goaltender of the month for February. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

  • Dartmouth College forward Jesse Beamish scored twice last weekend at Rensselaer, helping push the the Big Green into an ECAC quarterfinal series at top-seeded Union. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Dartmouth College forward Jesse Beamish scored twice last weekend at Rensselaer, helping push the the Big Green into an ECAC quarterfinal series at top-seeded Union. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

  • Dartmouth College goaltender Charles Grant, left, and his defensemen has been crucial to the team's late season surge. The junior from Nova Scotia was the ECAC's goaltender of the month for February. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)
  • Dartmouth College forward Jesse Beamish scored twice last weekend at Rensselaer, helping push the the Big Green into an ECAC quarterfinal series at top-seeded Union. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

Hanover — The Dartmouth College men’s hockey team practiced at Thompson Arena on Tuesday beneath a hanging scoreboard that read “Dartmouth 5, RPI 4”. It was two days after the Big Green had rallied in improbable fashion to win a playoff series in the Engineers’ arena and the glow hadn’t yet faded.

The minutes after the final triumph in the best-of-three series encapsulated why it’s worth months of effort and pain to be part of a high level hockey team.

“We were jumping up and down and screaming, and the smiles were all around,” said junior forward Eric Neiley, who produced five points in the series. “Being in the locker room after a big win with all your best friends is pure joy. Coach Gaudet walked in after the game and he didn’t even give a postgame speech. Nothing else needed to be said.”

The opening round triumph in the ECAC playoffs lifted Dartmouth into a quarterfinal round, best-of-three series against top-seeded Union, the No. 3 team in the country. The Dutchmen swept the Big Green out of the postseason at the same stage last winter, but Neiley said he’s hopeful the RPI excitement can help drive a different result this time. Game 1 is today at 7 p.m.

“That feeling is why we play, and we want it again,” Neiley said. “We’ve turned this season around from the horrible start we had and we don’t want it to end now that we’re playing the way we thought we’d be playing from the start.”

Dartmouth began the season 0-8 and finished 10th in the 12-team ECAC. Standouts Eric Robinson and Brett Patterson were lost for the season to injury and captain Tyler Sikura was out for a long stretch as well. Even last weekend, the Big Green played a defenseman short, the remaining five rotating amongst themselves, which throws off the usual comfort of playing in a predetermined pairing.

“The resiliency of this team is something I’ve really respected and admired,” Gaudet said.

The biggest difference of late might be sophomore goaltender Charles Grant, who’s climbed from solid to downright spectacular at times. The Nova Scotia native and ECAC goaltender of the month for February had games of 33, 20 and 35 saves against RPI and blocked 28 shots during the series’ final two periods.

“He came up with an unbelievable glove save in third period of the Saturday night game,” Gaudet said. “It was on a puck across the goal mouth and he reached back and dove for a save as good as you’ll ever see. He’s made the sensational save and the ones he feels he should make. He’s stolen a couple for us and our team defended really fiercely around the net.”

Neiley, a scrappy and skilled wing from the northern Philadelphia suburbs and Philips Exeter Academy, entered this season with 15 goals but has scored 16 this winter. That’s twice as many as the next-closest sniper on the Dartmouth roster.

“Once guys go down, you put a little more pressure on yourself,” Neiley said. “Someone had to step up and get some more goals and (Brandon) McNally and I have been playing really well together.”

McNally is a hard-nosed junior who, like Gaudet, hails from Saugus, Mass. Earlier this season, his fiery temperament and frustration contributed to his becoming the team’s penalty-minute leader, but he’s cooled his jets without losing his effectiveness.

“He’s adapted his game and showed maturity,” Gaudet said of a player who is the team’s second-leading scorer with six goals and 14 assists. “He wants to set a physical tone, but he’s learned that if you keep your stick on the ice, you can usually play through someone.”

Dartmouth has never lost a postseason matchup to the same opponent two years in a row but Union (24-6-4) got last weekend off after ending the season on an eight-game unbeaten streak and won its third ECAC regular-season title in the last four years. The Dutchmen have captured four consecutive games against the Big Green after Dartmouth posted a victory and a tie against Union during the 2012-13 regular season.

“We’re not looking at them as the No. 1 seed in the tournament; they’re just the next team we need to beat to get to where we need to be,” said Neiley, whose squad would advance to the ECAC semifinals in Lake Placid, N.Y., with a series triumph this weekend.

“We played a close game with them (a 3-2 loss) at their rink in December, so we know we can play with them. We have all the confidence in the world heading into these games.”

Sikura said that although Union is one of the country’s top teams, he and his teammates view the Dutchmen with respect but not awe.

“There’s not the wow factor like you might get with playing (No. 1) Minnesota or something,” he said. “There’s familiarity because we’ve played against them. It’s not some huge feat that we’re trying to tackle. We’re very confident we can come out of there with a series win.”

Notes: The team is mourning the passing of longtime faculty adviser Bob Gross, who died Sunday after a surgery. He had been a member of the Biology Department since 1977 and stood on the Big Green bench alongside Gaudet for a preseason scrimmage at Thompson Arena earlier this season… Dartmouth’s victory last weekend meant that it overcame an opening loss in a best-of-three series for a second consecutive season and for a fifth time since 2003… The Sunday victory over RPI came on Gaudet’s 55th birthday… The Big Green’s injured players have missed a combined 110 games this season, the highest total in the conference. During 26 years behind the bench, Gaudet had never been unable to suit up the maximum allowed number of skaters (18), but he’s now dealt with using 17 in four consecutive games. Eighteen players are expected to be available for the Union series… Grant’s 1.18 goals-against average during February was the second-best among Division I netminders and his .964 save percentage was the best among them. He posted the first shutout at Cornell by a Dartmouth goaltender in 54 years… Dartmouth finished second in the six-team Ivy League standings at 5-3-2, trailing 8-1-1 Cornell… Union is 11-3-1 at home this season.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.