Friday, March 12, 2010

Playoff Hockey Brings A New Beginning

Over a 36-game regular season, UMD and Colorado College were remarkably similar. The Bulldogs scored 116 goals while allowing 100. Colorado College scored 116 goals and allowed 103.

The teams finished six points apart in the league standings, with UMD winning four more games and posting a slightly better goal differential in league play. The Bulldogs get to play the Tigers at home this weekend, marking the first time UMD has hosted a WCHA playoff series since 2004.

Odds are this will be a good one.

The Tigers were swept in Duluth back in January, and they lost their last game in league play 7-3 at home to Denver. However, the Tigers won their last game on non-Olympic ice (Friday at Denver), and at the same time proved they could win a low-scoring, tight-checking game.

That sounds a lot like playoff hockey.

It's a different game, played at a different level of intensity. For UMD to succeed on home ice this weekend, the formula is really no different than it was last year against Colorado College. Only the venue will change.

The job stays the same. UMD has to play in-your-face hockey. They have to knock the Tigers off their game from the opening shift. Once you get them reeling, use your speed and creativity to make things happen in the offensive zone. The Bulldogs have plenty of playoff experience, thanks to last year's run.

It sure was wonderful watching UMD do what they did a year ago. The Bulldogs carried momentum from their road sweep of Colorado College all the way through a magical WCHA Final Five run.

But that was last year. Last year doesn't matter this year. It's a whole new season, and what happened in 2009 means nothing. The early exit UMD put on CC might motivate the Tigers a bit, but the bottom line is that there is motivation for both sides. The loser of this series is done for the year, likely no matter what else happens. Both teams need to go on a run to assure an NCAA bid, and CC has to get on one to have any chance at an NCAA bid.

They'll lean on their anointed leaders, seniors Drew Akins and Jordan Fulton and junior Mike Montgomery. They'll also look to guys like Mike Connolly, Kyle Schmidt, and Jack Connolly, all of whom can lead, by example if not in any other way.

In the playoffs, your best players have to be your best players. More importantly for UMD, they need their defensemen to step up and play smart, physical hockey while keeping it simple with the puck. Montgomery, Dylan Olsen, Brady Lamb, and Drew Olson are all bigger kids who can bring the pain. Colorado College has one big guy to watch up front -- senior Mike Testwuide -- but largely use smaller forwards who have a lot of speed but maybe not as much grit.

The Tigers tend to struggle as much as any team when playing on the DECC's smaller surface, largely because of their lack of size up front.

This time around, the Tigers may also be hurt by two other factors. They don't have any playoff experience in goal, where freshman Joe Howe plays all the minutes. He's played well, but has never seen the WCHA playoffs. Also, they don't have much depth on defense. Nate Prosser and Gabe Guentzel will take the majority of their key minutes, so the Bulldogs need to work hard to wear them down, then try to take advantage of the other defensemen Scott Owens will use when the top two need a rest.

Coaches aren't around to make major systemic changes this time of year. Instead, it's all about mentally preparing the players for the types of wars they'll endure on the ice, and it's about the leadership in the room keeping guys ready to play. There are no secrets anymore. CC isn't going to come out with a bunch of 6-2 grinders who can easily win battles on the boards. UMD won't counter with a ton of offensive flair or finesse.

Colorado College has to get out into open spaces and use their speed to be effective. UMD has to get pucks to the net and be physical to be effective.

Both coaches know this, and they will emphasize the major and minor points of hockey this weekend. In the end, it all comes down to player execution and not coaching strategery.

It's playoff hockey, and there's nothing better.

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