This week, the Old Dog thinks it’s time to talk about the issue of Olympic sized rinks and how the Huskies handle this challenge. Certainly, each year is a new set of experiences and outcomes. Still, for several years, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Them Dogs seem to have trouble playing on 200 X 100 foot sized rinks. Most rinks in North America follow the National Hockey League standard of 200 feet long and 85 feet wide. Some surfaces, though, are built in accordance with Olympic or international standards, which are 200 feet long and 100 feet wide.
Then there’s Ferris State’s ice surface, which FSU’s claims is 200 X 85, but is certainly smaller, probably no more than 190 X 75 or 80. That’s a special case, and Tech’s had trouble there in past seasons. This season, they swept the Bulldogs in Big Rapids in very close games—but that’s an exception to what’s happened in previous years, when Tech appeared to be lost on the small surface at Ewigleben Arena.
Last Friday, Tech fell to NMU in Marquette on an Olympic surface and it seemed that the size of the ice played a role. The Huskies were having some trouble with the Wildcats early in the game, but they were able to keep up with the pace and, with some nice playmaking, took a 2-1 lead late into the second period. But the usually-reliable forechecking we’ve seen this year was lacking, and the Old Dog was sitting on edge, waiting for something to go wrong.
Right on cue, the next three NMU goals were certainly aided by MTU errors. The second Northern goal, with just 1:07 left in the second period, found Tech’s defensive alignment rotated too far to one side of the ice, leaving a Wildcat with a close-in, wide open shot. While Matt Jurusik made the first save, the rebound fell behind him and NMU pounded it home.
Just under one minute into the third period, Tech got caught in the center ice zone, and Darien Craighead came in for a shot. While the Huskie defenders were clearly out of position, so was Jurusik. He was shaded much too far to the outside for a good angle, and Craighead buried it in a wide-open far side space.
Then, with less than four minutes remaining in regulation, Troy Loggins, NMU’s top offensive threat, beat Jurusik with a relative easy wraparound shot. And, once again, the Huskies were over shifted to one side of the ice, leaving Loggins with a ton of space to operate.
So, why is the larger ice surface important? In each of these three goals, Tech’s defenders had decisions to make that were strongly affected by ice size. The second and critical fourth goal came about when Tech’s backchecking was out of balance. When the ice is large, defenders—particularly defensemen but also backchecking forwards—must make a split-second decision about whether to chase the puck toward the boards or defend an area. The ice is so much wider, and the distance from the goal to the boards on the other side is so much farther, that it’s easy to make a move that would work on the NHL size ice but leaves one or more defenders far out of position if the puck is reversed. Tech fell into that trap on both goals.
The third goal, the backbreaker in the game, came when Jurusik apparently lost track of his angle, leaving a huge target for Craighead. Tiger Ellis, the Calumet native, NMU broadcaster and former goalie who occasionally does color with Dirk Hembroff on Huskie broadcasts, spotted Jurusik’s error and pointed it out on the telecast.
All three of these goals required instinctive responses, and, from the Old Dog’s perspective, Tech’s unconscious plays were out-of-whack for large ice surfaces. It’s a long way from the corner to the slot on that sized ice, and the Huskies tried to do what they normally do, and it resulted in high-quality NMU chances.
Finally, after the third goal, it seemed like Tech was tired. Joe Shawhan attributed the third period shift to a lack of trust among Them Dogs combined with a loss of mental focus. But it looked more like the Huskies got bushed trying to cover the larger space that the Olympic rink at the Berry Event Center presents—and to struggling with consistent but instinctive and unfavorable reactions more appropriate to an 85 foot wide ice sheet.
What is it about a wider ice surface that can impact these kinds of things? To some extent, every hockey player is processing visual cues during play. One of those cues is your position relative to the boards, and another is your position relatively to your teammates. In your own end, everyone knows how they should be positioned without the puck, but if you head toward the boards, you may find it’s farther away than you thought, or you might take longer to get to the boards than you think, and then your teammates reposition themselves relative to the players heading toward the boards, and in just a second, literally, the defensive alignment is no longer sound. For a goaltender, reading the shooter’s position relative to the boards and the other ice markings is part of playing the angles.
At the speed of play in college hockey, it can be easier to make a small but critical error in positioning if your visual cues are not where the instinctive parts of your mind think they should be. And so it’s not hard to be in the wrong place or the right place at the wrong time, or even both. With the additional 1-2 strides need to reach the boards in many situations, fatigue can also become a factor, as can slow reaction time after you’ve been in the wrong place a few times and doubt about your reactions creeps in.
In many ways, the game at Marquette looked more than a bit like the second night in Madison (the Huskies lost 6-2) against the Wisconsin Badgers back in October. While the rink in Madison is 97 feet wide (can’t those cheeseheads do the correct engineering?) it’s all but an Olympic size rink. Them Dogs made many of the same kinds of errors in that game, too.
In the WCHA, there are three 100 foot wide rinks—NMU, Alaska, and Alaska-Anchorage. The Old Dog believes it’s not a coincidence that the Huskies have had some really unpleasant experiences in these buildings. Anchorage seems to bring out the worst, and Seawolves really make things tough when they are hosting Tech in the cavernous gray Sullivan Arena. Even in Fairbanks, where the Huskies have owned the Nanooks, they’ve labored and had to pull a few rabbits out of the hat to win.
We can’t forget that the Huskies have had some success on “big ice” including last year’s Saurer Trophy playoff championship win at NMU. And they did beat the Badgers once in Madison. But, more often than not, it’s been a struggle.
As further evidence that the size of the rink has an effect, Tech demonstrated better control of the ice and positioning on Saturday night back in the JMac, even though two offsetting “no goal” calls due to goaltender interference caused more than a bit of nail-biting, cursing, and cheering among the Huskie faithful.
There are only three more “big ice” games left on this year’s schedule, and the next two come at the end of January in Anchorage. Let’s hope that the coaching staff and players can recognize these issues and not give up a single point to the worst team in Division I hockey.
Then there’s the last weekend of the season and the home and home series with NMU. That could be a huge trio of games. The Huskies need to show that they’ve learned how to stand up to the Wildcats and not end up making poor choices on Big Ice.
As a side note, the Old Dog will be rooting for Ferris State in the NCAA DII football championship this weekend. The game will be played in Frisco, just a hop, skip, and a jump down the road from the Old Doghouse. But I’ll catch it on TV because going to the game would interfere with watching the Huskies!