Friday, March 23, 2012

NCAA Northeast Regional: Where Experience Could Matter

WORCESTER, Mass. -- I've danced this dance enough to know what the typical refrain is when it comes to the NCAA Tournament and the topic of experience.

Teams that don't have it talk about how it's not that big a deal. Teams that have it talk about how it is absolutely a big deal.

I've always been on the fence. Yeah, it's nice to have NCAA Tournament experience, but it doesn't grow on trees. It isn't something you buy in a hardware store. Total Hockey doesn't have bottles of it on its shelves. You can only get it by, yes, making the NCAA Tournament.

And hearing about how you don't have any experience in the tournament.

It's like a rite of passage. So congratulations, Maine, because you've made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, allowing idiots like me to talk about how none of your players have experience in this event.

Naturally, Maine coach Tim Whitehead had an answer, and it was a good one.

"We’ve had the Frozen Fenway experience," he said Friday, "and I think they handled the distractions and the atmosphere that really reminded me of the regionals and Frozen Fours that I’ve been in. It was a very similar type of feel coming into Boston. All the excitement, four teams at the event, a lot of off-ice, good distractions. Great excitement for the game and for our league and for the state schools and we handled it very well."

Whitehead is no stranger to this event. Saturday will be his 17th NCAA Tournament game as a head coach, so he's been through all the built-in distractions. While there's more media involved in an NCAA regional than any conference event, he brings up a good point with the Frozen Fenway bit.

"When the puck was dropped they were able to keep their focus within the glass and the boards and we got to have a great victory over our arch rivals UNH in overtime – couldn’t have scripted it any better.

"So they had that experience, it was successful, and then last weekend again the experience at TD Garden is very similar to what you would get at a regional. The crowds were probably bigger there than we would even expect here, and again they handled that well so I think we’ll be fine with that."

That said, the NCAA Tournament is different than a league tournament or an outdoor hockey game. There's more pressure than in an outdoor game -- that's just a regular season game, with nothing more than maybe two points (if it's a league game) on the line -- and there's more media and outside stuff than in a conference tournament.

It's part of why UMD is confident heading into Saturday's regional semifinal.

"Coming down to this time of year, one game can keep your season going in a hurry," senior defenseman Brady Lamb said Friday. "Making sure you take care of every chance you get on the ice, whether it’s five shifts a game or 25 shifts a game, you have to make sure you’re ready to go at all times and take nothing for granted."

Senior captain, leading scorer, and Hobey Baker finalist Jack Connolly agrees.

"The experience helps a lot," he says. "We (have) some younger guys on the team this year that have never had a taste of the NCAAs, and how big of a stage it is and how difficult it is to get here. Having a good upperclass that has been through this the last few years definitely helps."

Head coach Scott Sandelin agrees to an extent, saying that teams that have been through the tournament grind still feel the excitement to get there, but it's not quite the same thing as it is for a newbie.

"When you have a team that doesn’t have that experience," the 12th-year coach -- a veteran of three previous NCAA trips as UMD's bench boss, said, "you can still have that excitement but you tend to be pretty wide-eyed and get caught up in it."

Sandelin himself has learned a few things along the way. One of them is the importance of letting his players enjoy the moment they're in.

"We can get so caught in not letting them enjoy it," he said. "I think that's one of the things I've learned from '04 to last year. We're gonna go out and play hard, and whatever happens happens.

"Obviously, the ultimate goal is to play into April. But right now I want them to enjoy tomorrow, and if we have another one on Sunday, we'll enjoy that."

None of this means that UMD's past experience will matter in the game Saturday. If the Bulldogs don't start better than they did in last week's Final Five game against Denver, it won't matter how much more experience they have on this stage than Maine does.

No one knows this better than Sandelin, and you can bet his players are well aware of it, too.

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