Thursday, UMD will see an unfamiliar opponent, yes, in Crimson-hot Harvard (16 straight wins, 17-0-1 last 18 games). The teams haven't met since the 1995-96 season (a UMD non-conference sweep backstopped by current Bulldog volunteer assistant coach Brant Nicklin). They haven't played in the postseason since UMD swept Harvard in a two-game, total-goals series in 1985. The two only have one common opponent this season (Boston University, which UMD beat to get to the Frozen Four, and Harvard split two games with).
But the Bulldogs aren't unfamiliar with Harvard's style, and they sure aren't strangers to a team being carried by great seniors and high-end young skill.
The Crimson might have Tyler Moy, Sean Malone, and Alexander Kerfoot up front, but UMD has Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo. Harvard has dynamic skill on the blue line with Adam Fox, but UMD has stud sophomore Neal Pionk. Ryan Donato might attract a lot of attention for Harvard adversaries, but so does Adam Johnson for Bulldog opponents. And while Merrick Madsen might tower over Hunter Miska in terms of height, both have been a huge reason for their respective teams getting to this point.
"The style they play, we've seen some of that," UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. "They do have some similarities to teams we've played. So that's good, as far as going up against that.
"Again, it's a very solid team that you've got to play a very, very -- hopefully minimize the mistakes, especially with pucks, and certainly, again, hopefully continue to do what we've done and capitalize on our opportunities, because I think we've done a good job of that this year when we get them."
Crimson coach Ted Donato, who was part of the last Harvard Frozen Four team in 1989, feels similarly.
"I think they have some size and strength and defensive prowess," he said, "kind of like Cornell at times, and certainly up front I think they have some play makers, and they have some size and strength as well. I think their goaltender is playing as well as anybody in the country."
I leave the direct comparisons to coaches whenever possible, but watching this Harvard team it's hard to not be impressed. Donato has three lines that can really go, and while Fox is their most dynamic defenseman, there's no question guys like Wiley Sherman and John Marino can bring it, too. Madsen is just a force in net. He's 6-5 and plays as positionally sound as anyone I've seen this season. The Crimson do a very good job of blocking shots, but they also clear lanes so Madsen can see shooters and square up to them.
Before the Boston University game, I chatted with Sandelin about trying to beat a big goalie in BU freshman Jake Oettinger.
"He's going to stop everything he sees cleanly," Sandelin said. "We've got to create some second, third opportunities. We've got to get him moving. Get some moving screens and get pucks there to maybe get him opened up a bit. He just takes up so much of the net."
Asked about beating Madsen, Sandelin offered this:
"First of all, let's get pucks to the net. Again, you've got to attack. We've got to get inside, you know. I think anybody will say that to try and score, but they do a great job defending. They block a lot of shots. They really do a good job inside the dots. So they don't make it easy. When you have those opportunities, you've got to try and get pucks to the net, take pucks to the net, and if you do have shot opportunities, not a lot of them are going to get through because they do a good job blocking shots too. So you might have to look at other ways."
Is this just another game?
I would say, in an ideal world, all these players are able to treat this as such while also enjoying and savoring the moment they're in. Only four of 60 teams get to be here (thanks, Cap'n Obvious), and it's a special opportunity for all these coaches and players.
"This is a great opportunity, and every time you get here, you feel pretty lucky to be in the position that we're in," Sandelin said.
Miska talked about how tall the United Center is ("That's him," Sandelin quipped about his sometimes-eccentric star freshman goalie). But while it might have been momentarily weird to be in such a big building, Miska isn't about to do anything out of the ordinary to get ready for this national semifinal game.
"I'm going to treat it like any other game," Miska said. "I'm not going to change what I do on a daily basis. Just going to go do my daily routine and play my game."
Harvard players concurred.
"I think we're trying to treat it like any other game," Kerfoot said. "It's really exciting to be here at the (Frozen) Four. It's our goal all year long. Especially us three being seniors, it's pretty exciting just to end our college careers here.
"I think, if we get too caught up in everything else, we won't be as focused on our game. So we're just trying to treat this like any other weekend."
"We've played in really big games this year with the Beanpot and ECAC tournament and things like that," Malone added. "I think we could use our experience there and know that we have to come out playing our game hard right away."
(And look at what Harvard did to Boston University in the Beanpot championship game. Beat the Terriers 6-3, outshot them 46-17, including 18-2 in the first period. BU coach David Quinn said his team was "fighting an uphill battle" all night, even when it briefly had a 2-1 lead in the second period.)
While none of these players can draw on Frozen Four experience, there's other big-game experience out there. As an example, there's Harvard's win in the Beanpot, its first Beanpot title in 24 years. UMD won its first conference playoff title since 2009 and its first-ever North Star College Cup title. And individual players with national team experience can draw on that, too.
"You have to take the crowd out of it," UMD freshman Joey Anderson said. "You have to calm down and stick to the game, make sure there aren't too many ups and downs. Keep an even keel."
Ted Donato, however, knows this isn't just another hockey game.
"This is certainly a different game," he said. "I think you can always try to -- in your mind, just think of it as a different game. It's not just another game. But mentally, they're preparing as if it's another big game that they're playing."