ORONO, MAINE -- It's a new year and several main characters are gone, but the story is much the same. No. 2 Union played sound fundamental hockey and controlled the play en route to a 3-0 shutout win over Maine on Friday night in front of 4,895 at Alfond Arena.
The Dutchmen defense did a terrific job forcing Maine to the outside and allowing senior goaltender Colin Stevens to see the puck. The Niskayuna, NY native made 33 saves for his 10th career shutout.
"The guys in front of me did a great job [Friday night]. We can always be better, but they did a really good job of keeping them to the outside," said Stevens.
"I thought Colin Stevens was our best player tonight. Sometimes you need your goalie to steal a game and that's what he did for us tonight," said Union head coach Rick Bennett.
"He stands his ground back there. He's the backbone of this team. Without him we'd be a struggling team. He does his job back there and helps us out a ton," said sophomore center Mike Vecchione, who had a goal and assist.
"[Union] is a veteran team that plays well defensively and has some patience. They let the game come to them," complimented Maine head coach Red Gendron of his team's opposition.
Vecchione took the home crowd out of the game early on a fluky goal from outside the blue line. Vecchione took what appeared to be a harmless slap shot on goal as the Dutchmen were changing, but the blast hit Maine goaltender Matt Morris' glove before glancing over it and slowly trickling into the net. The goal, 6:26 into the game, was a real deflating moment.
"I was just trying to get it in and get a chance. I turned around and the guys said I scored. The last time I saw it, it was going into his glove. I turned around and the red light was on," explained Vecchione.
"[The Alfond] is a tough atmosphere to play in. It was a fluke goal that took the crowd out of it. It gave us a little momentum," said Vecchione.
"In an environment like this, the first goal is crucial. We were fortunate enough to get it," said Bennett.
Maine gained some momentum back and got the Alfond crowd cheering again when the Black Bears killed a five-minute major penalty against freshman Malcolm Hayes who had been whistled for charging.
"We had to kill off that five minute penalty in the first period and we did a pretty good job of doing that," said Gendron.
Each team had some good chances over the next period-and-a-half, but both goaltenders were up for the task. Morris really settled down after a first period that saw the redshirt sophomore give up quite a few juicy rebounds in addition to the soft goal he'd surely like to have back.
With the score still 1-0 in the third period a defensive blunder by the Black Bears allowed for an easy Union goal on an odd-man advantage to give the Dutchmen some breathing room. Defenseman Jeff Taylor pushed the puck up ice to Kevin Shier who brought the puck down the left boards. When a Maine defender jumped out of position to challenge Shier on the two-on-one, the freshman forward found a streaking Matt Wilkins who tipped the centering past easily into the back of the net.
"We made a mistake running out of position," explained Gendron. At that point it's 2-0 and we dug ourselves a big hole."
Union added an empty-net goal with 1:11 to play in the game to seal the deal. Vecchione intercepted a Maine pass in the neutral zone and patiently slid it to freshman Spencer Foo who deposited the puck into the empty net.
The Dutchmen's dominance on the faceoff dot was a significant piece of the puzzle in Friday's game. Officially Union held a 36-25 advantage on the draws, but it didn't really seem that close. Vecchione went 17-6 while Eli Lichtenwald went 11-8.
"It's an area that Aaron Bogosian, our volunteer assistant, really focuses on in practice. He's taught them some small things that's really help us out a lot from last season," explained Bennett.
[Bogosian] gives us a few pointers here and there. It's just who wants it more. We battle everyday in practice doing faceoffs back there. It's something we're getting better at and coach Bogosian is a big reason for that," said Vecchione.
Maine's incredibly talented two-way center Devin Shore went 5-17 in the circle. Steven Swavely was Maine's lone bright spot in the faceoff circle, going 10-4.
Shore, Maine's captain and a returning All-American, was limited to just two shots on goal by Union's stellar defense. "He's an exceptional hockey player. We just contained him a little bit, but he certainly had his chances tonight," said Bennett.
It certainly wasn't the complete effort Gendron was looking for in the team's home opener. The Black Bears lost just three times on home ice last season, but were a perfect 6-0 outside of Hockey East at Alfond Arena.
"At the end of the day it was a pretty even game five-on-five, but we made a couple mistakes that wound up in the back of the net and we didn't capitalize on our chances," said the second year head coach.
When asked about his team's effort, Gendron didn't mince words. "It was better than it was in Alaska so that's a positive, but it's no where near enough to win at this level. We had certain players in the lineup that didn't compete at the forward position," said Gendron.
The two teams will meet again Saturday night at 7 p.m. in the series finale.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.