Thursday, February 13, 2014

Olympic Sheet Not Huge Adjustment for UMD

I'm sure Bob Motzko is tired of hearing about it, because I'm guessing he does. Constantly.

His St. Cloud State Huskies play home games at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, featuring an ice surface that is 200 feet by 100 feet. That's Olympic ice, in case you were unaware. Amsoil Arena and scores of other college hockey arenas are 200 feet by 85, the regulation surface in the NHL and other pro leagues.

Most of the time, when his team goes on the road, it's to play on a sheet of ice smaller than the one it plays its home games on.

"I think the teams that are on big and go small can make the adjustment fairly well," Motzko said this week. "We do practice on it (NHL surface)."

It probably helps to have to make this adjustment as often as the Huskies do in a normal season. They're a strong team on all surfaces because of their skill level, leadership, and ability to move the puck out of their own zone and establish speed up the rink.

Teams have shown that they can make the adjustment from the small sheet to the big sheet, too. Western Michigan went to St. Cloud last month and took five points from the Huskies.

"I think the big thing is a lot of teams make too much of the big ice," WMU coach Andy Murray told me recently. "They change their game to play on the big ice and try to play like a European team playing on big ice.

"All we did with our players was we measured between the dots, kind of like the 'Hoosiers' movie where they measured from the floor to the basket when they got to the big gym. It's the same distance between the dots. The extra room's on the outside."

UMD heads to St. Cloud Thursday, will get in a practice and a morning skate on the big sheet, and the Bulldogs open a two-game series against St. Cloud State Friday night. Until 2010, UMD played home games at the DECC, which was smaller than a standard NHL surface. But even then, Scott Sandelin's teams began to show a keen ability to adjust to the extra space.

In fact, since the start of the 2008-2009 season, UMD has played 52 games on big ice. For purposes of this discussion, rinks at Minnesota, Minnesota State, St. Cloud State, Alaska Anchorage, Northern Michigan, Colorado College, and Wisconsin count as big sheets.

(All those rinks are listed at 200 by 100, except Wisconsin is 200 by 97. And while CC is listed 200X100, it's actually about 300 feet by 150, or so it seems.)

While UMD is "only" 2-2 on the king-size surface this season, with splits at CC and Minnesota, Sandelin thinks it's good preparation -- in a way -- for this weekend.

"How we've played on those rinks is a good confidence builder for our guys," he said this week.

Why the success on the bigger surfaces?

"We're a team that can skate," Sandelin said. "We need to skate to be effective. We've got to get our feet moving and play the game with speed and put some pressure on them that way. When we're doing that, we can play on any rink and with anybody."

Motzko agrees.

"The thing with Duluth is they skate so well," he said. "I don't think it affects them very much. They've got great speed. They've got a lot of talent. They want the puck.

"It won't affect the Bulldogs at all."

Despite UMD's 1-10-2 record at the National Hockey Center since the start of the 2005-2006 season, there's plenty of reason to believe that Motzko and Sandelin are dead-on here.

There are styles that might not lend themselves to the big sheet, but UMD's isn't one of them. Honestly, more of a concern for UMD is probably the fact the Bulldogs take almost twice as many penalty minutes per game -- on average -- than the Huskies do. Getting short-handed constantly against St. Cloud State is a recipe for disaster, no matter how well UMD has been playing on the kill.

In order to succeed, UMD has to do what Sandelin says. Get the feet moving, use the big ice to its advantage, and get in the Huskies' faces. Be relentless in all zones, hound the puck, and good things will happen.

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