March 7, 2007 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Road Warriors

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

Maybe it's the bonding over a long bus ride — the microwavable dinners, the reading for classes, the long hours staring out the window. Perhaps it's the mentality during warmups, hearing insults from opposing fans, and the hope that, during the game, they'll be silenced by a timely goal.

Or maybe, for the best teams, it's none of that.

But what seems to separate a good team from a great team — a national championship contender, even — is the ability to be successful in high-pressure situations on the road.

And this weekend, several teams in each of the six conferences will find out just how good at that they are.

"When you go into a UNH, a Michigan State, or a Cornell, you sort of get the feeling that you are the underdog right off the bat," said St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh, who has led his Saints squad to a first-place regular season finish in the ECAC. "I think that, sometimes, that helps teams to stick together and focus, and to play hard for one another, to play hard defensively, to block shots and do whatever it takes."

That type of focus has certainly been evident in recent national championship teams. Last year, in a season that culminated in a national title triumph, Wisconsin enjoyed an impressive 11-3-2 record in road games.

The two years prior to that, Denver boasted a .630 winning percentage in games away from Magness Arena. And, of course, in both of those years, the Pioneers won the national championship.

A similarity between those Pioneers teams and the Badgers team of last year?

Other than having to play in lots of tough opposing rinks in the WCHA, they both had a lot of upperclassmen to lead the way.

Said Denver coach George Gwozdecky, "It's always an advantage to have a team with experience, a team with a strong junior and senior class that you can rely on for leadership. There are some very hostile environments you have to play in when you go on the road in this league. Not only hostile, but loud and large. You have to keep the opponent from generating a lot of emotion, intensity, and enthusiasm from their crowd.

"It's very, very difficult, and you can only do it from experiencing it over and over again."

And as experienced players know, mistakes on the road often tend to be magnified. And knowing that seems to require a higher level of focus in order to be successful.

"The key is to be ready to go at the start of the game, the onset of the game," said Colorado College head coach Scott Owens. "You can't do things to beat yourself — taking dumb penalties or turning the puck over carelessly."

Of course, success on the road during the regular season means that a team can stay at home later in the season, during the playoffs. Marsh, Gwozdecky and Owens have been successful enough in road games during the course of the year that, this weekend, their respective teams will host playoff series instead of having to travel to other rinks.

One team, however, that will have travel to a hostile environment this weekend is Rand Pecknold's Quinnipiac Bobcats, who face off with Cornell in a best-of-three series in Ithaca, N.Y.

And while it might be easy to talk about all the things that make a road game different from a home game, Pecknold is keeping his road mentality quite simple, saying, "Goaltending and special teams are the key to any playoff series — home or away."

Certainly, each coach has his own unique philosophy when it comes to road games. Some focus on trying to take the crowd out of it; others focus on playing a strong defensive game; still others know that, in the end, it's basically the same as a home game without worrying as much about line matchups.

And, sometimes, no matter how good the team is, things on the road might not go smoothly.

Said Marsh, "It's not always going to go your way, and you can't panic. [On the road] is where you learn good game management and damage control. You learn to take control in games that can very easily get out of your control."

Now, as teams across the country control — at least, to some extent — their own destiny, it's time for the playoffs in all six conferences.

And for exactly half the teams involved, it's time to hit the road.

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