Wednesday at the Frozen Four
by Dane DeKrey/Staff Writer
ST. LOUIS The Barry Melrose spotting made it official; the 2007 NCAA Frozen Four has begun. All four teams hit the ice then heralded questions during the two-pronged practice/new conference session on Wednesday.
Maine Black Bears
Drill of Choice: In what appeared to be an effort to force his team to maintain offensive puck control despite agonizingly close proximity, head coach Tim Whitehead implemented an single-zone diddy that essentially created a 2 x '3 on 2'. By putting both goals on the end line and separating the zone in two, Whitehead fashioned a double-micromanaged 3 on 2, which pitted respective Black Bear offensive lines against fellow defensive pairings. The kicker? With nothing but an imaginary line cutting the zone in half, errant pucks are gobbled up and played by the 3 on 2 waiting on the other side. Clustered, sure, but also an extremely useful tool for, oh say, the nation's most prolific power play unit. How Whitehead's genius goes unnoticed is perplexing.
Practice Grade: C
By failing to opening things up, whether unintentionally or to protect his team's cardio, Whitehead and crew earn a C, as the Black Bears skated to the day's second to worst practice. But, who knows, perhaps leaving some in the tank will pay off for the team, because if anyone in St. Louis knows when to peak, it's Maine. Case in point, the squad winning the NCAA playoff berth-deciding fifth game against the Massachusetts after having gone 0-4 in the two's previous four encounters. Them's some icy veins!
"We're certainly as mixed a bag as you'll ever see in a college hockey team." — Whitehead, on his team's eclectic blend of talent, which spans from all corners of the U.S. and Canada
"I would give him the MVP." — Michel Leveille, when asked to assess goaltender Ben Bishop's importance to the team's success in 2006-07.
"I'm 100%." - Bishop, on how he feels post-return from a groin injury that kept the St. Louis, Miss. native out of the Black Bear lineup for nearly two months.
Press Conference Grade: B+
The only complaint with the Maine press conference was the difficulty in hearing/understand Whitehead, a notorious quiet talker, and Leveille, a native of Quebec. Decibels and accents aside, however, candid and well spoken overall. Plus, Whitehead was hilarious when asked to "dissect his team's power play", to which he emphatically replied, "Do you really think I'm going to answer?" Good stuff.
Randomly: The Maine press conference was the fullest of the day; ironically, Maine's press contingency traveled the longest distance in getting to St. Louis, the 2007 Frozen Four host city.
Michigan State Spartans
Drill of Choice: Not to be out 'short-sided' by Maine's Whitehead, head coach Rick Comley's Michigan State Spartans skated their own single-zone odd man drill to perfection. With nets on either side of the face-off circles' boardside hash marks, and two lines of offense and defense on the zone's blue line, respectively, Comley created chaos, punished selfishness, and rewarded creativity in this '2 on 2 and then some' scheme. The idea is simple enough — two forwards start out against two defensemen. Then it gets tricky; whomever wins the initial battle for the puck is faced with two decisions; a) take the puck to the net via a 2 on 2, or b) make a pass to a fellow line mate, whom, upon receiving the pass, may then enter the play, thus creating an odd man situation. The more passes, the more players; the more players, the smaller the ice gets; the smaller the ice gets, the more skilled the play becomes; the more skilled ... well, you get the picture.
Practice Grade: D
Due to the lackadaisical nature of its practice, Michigan State won the 'Stinkeroo' award as Wednesday's worst practice. One thing worth mentioning, however, was the surprisingly light atmosphere on the ice — it almost seemed as though the players were having too much fun the day before their biggest game of the year. But, hey, that's why they pay Comley to coach, not me.
"Hockey today is all about goaltending." — Comley, when asked how important riding a hot goaltender is in reaching the Frozen Four.
"I don't know because we don't have a goaltender that's 13 inches taller." — Chris Lawrence, responding to a comparison question between Maine goaltender Ben Bishop and teammate Jeff Lerg (see Randomly for more).
"I've thought about Maine for 360-plus days." — Tim Kennedy, on whether or not last year's season ending loss to the Black Bears was a motivating factor.
"I don't know how he can get beat under the crossbar." — Lerg, on what he sees puzzling about Bishop's 6'7" frame.
Press Conference Grade: B
A good mixture of anecdotes and serious answers bolstered the grade of the Spartans, in spite of what came off as a cluttered conference; three players and a coach is just too much (Boston College made the similar mistake). Nonetheless, one could get a sense that Michigan State was genuinely excited to be in the Frozen Four, but, further, eager to prove their worth among the top ranks of college hockey.
Randomly: Spartan goaltender Jeff Lerg is some 13 inches shorter than that of 6-foot-7 Maine netminder, Ben Bishop. That's like a whole Ryan Duncan.
North Dakota Fighting Sioux
Drill of Choice: The Sioux came out flying during their scheduled practice time, and their drill of choice was reflective of that. Known for his ardent work ethic, head coach Dave Hakstol led his squad to the most intense practice of the day. His primary method — a fusion of skating and passing. However, unlike that of Maine and Michigan State, UND ran the majority of its drills full ice. The best of the day is almost too difficult to transcribe. With forwards on the boards of both blue lines and defensemen clumped together on the boards of one side of the redline, the Fighting Sioux put together an impressive mixture of passing, criss-crossing, more passing, then shooting, as this 'tape-to-tape 2 on 1' allowed onlookers to really get a feel of just how far the team has come since taking a sub-.500 record into the Christmas break. So far, that is, that the team is currently riding the nation's longest consecutive Frozen Four appearances streak, which now stands at three. Hakstol, you sly devil, you.
Practice Grade: A
Most intense; least sloppy - enough said.
"It's a lunch pail group - this group shows up and their best characteristic is their work ethic." — Hakstol, when asked to assess this year's team.
"Personally, I don't think it's acceptable not to be here at the end of the year." — Ryan Duncan, on the expectations that come with playing at UND.
"With last year's team, there was sort of a satisfaction just coming into the Frozen Four — this year is different." — Chris Porter, on the change he sees in the locker room from last year to this year.
Press Conference Grade: C
No surprise here; with Hakstol at the helm, reporters cannot expect anything more than mere lip service. Not to throw Hak under the bus, as often times his concise, to-the-point answers are best for damage control, but in doing so, he is also establishing his reputation as the iciest interview in college hockey. As for the players, it's quite hard to want to be candid when your commander in chief refrains from doing so. Not good but never bad earns the Fighting Sioux a C, nothing you would bring home to your parents, but passing nonetheless.
This now his third Frozen Four appearance in as many years, head coach Dave Hakstol is still looking for his first national championship. Fate, however, may not be on Hakstol's side, as no head coach named Dave has ever won an NCAA ice hockey championship in the tournament's history (ironically, neither has a team coached by a Tim; sorry Maine, it appears you're up a crick as well).
Boston College Eagles
Drill of Choice:
Taking a page out of UND's playbook, the Eagles put their noses to the grindstone as the last team to take the ice for practice on Wednesday. Utilizing the whole sheet of ice, veteran head coach Jerry York had his team do something that no other squad did — play a full-speed, out-and-out 5-on-5 scrimmage. Simplistic yet gutsy, it was a move by a coach who knows what he's doing, having led the Eagles to the Frozen Four in four of the past six seasons. Couple that with another gutsy move by York in the moving of gargantuan center Brian Boyle to defense, and Hockey East's perennial powerhouse may just find themselves atop college hockey's podium on Saturday night.
Practice Grade: B
Overall great practice, good speed and work ethic throughout. Given the silver medal simply because the Eagles had the disadvantage of having to skate after the likes of UND. With both teams practicing this intense, one can only imagine how phenomenal tomorrow night's game is going to be. I'm salivating already.
"The only thing missing is Virg Foss." — York, on the year-after-year matchup between his team and Fighting Sioux of UND (Foss covered UND for the Grand Forks Herald for some 175-plus years).
"If we're not out there, it's not the end of the world, obviously." — Brian Boyle, downplaying the 'everybody's-talking-about-it' matchup between his defensive pairing and college hockey's best line, UND's Duncan-Oshie-Toews.
"They're shiftier than they used to be." — Joe Rooney, when asked to assess this year's UND squad.
"It must be the Midwestern hospitality." — Cory Schneider, on the helpfulness he has witnessed the past two Frozen Fours his squad has competed in (the 2006 Frozen Four was held in Milwaukee, Wisc.).
Interview Grade: A+
Can you say Boston accent circa The Departed? If it's good enough to win Scorsese an Oscar, it's good enough to earn the highest marks here at College Hockey News (York's is so old-school Southie, I swear he's straight out of the movie).
Randomly: Known for its historically undersized but overproductive forwards, Boston College seems to have had the tables turned coming into Thursday's game against UND, as the Fighting Sioux are led by Hobey Baker finalist, Ryan Duncan, who just so happens to be one of the NCAA's smallest skaters, sizing up at 5-foot-6 and weighing 158 lbs. It's a small world we live in, isn't it?
Maine: Most creativity
Michigan State: Most team chemistry
UND: Most intensity
BC: Most color coordination - The Eagles were the only team with no more than two practice jersey colors
Best individual effort: Tie
- Tim Kennedy of Michigan State; the lone spark to an otherwise blah Spartan outing. Could be a product of almost losing his power-play job mere weeks ago.
- North Dakota's Duncan-Oshie-Toews line; the trio skate with such effortless speed and fusion, it seems they have been together since they were in diapers.
Team Practice Hobey Baker: North Dakota
Wisest use of practice time; actually skated rather than simply 'going through the motion.' Runner up: Boston College
UND 4, BC 3 (OT)
Maine 3 Michigan State 1
Hobey Baker: Duncan, UND
UND 4, Maine 2