When it comes to skating on an Olympic-sized ice sheet, one takes the good with the bad.
More open space on the 200-foot by 100-foot surface (as opposed to the 200-by-85 NHL-sized sheet in most arenas) is good for a fast-skating group of forwards like those assembled by UNO.
But it’s also a difficult proposition for UNO defensemen trying to keep opposing skaters in check. And that will be a test this weekend as the Mavericks play a two-game series at Northern Michigan.
The puck drops at 6:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette, Mich.
“I absolutely hate it,” UNO defenseman Michael Young said of playing on Olympic sheets. “I don’t think of myself as a bad skater, but I’d rather be able to hit guys and play that way instead of trying to skate around everyone and beat everyone. It’s a lot easier when you can control someone in a smaller space instead of worrying about where they can slip away.
“... But for the rest of the team, I think it’ll be better.”
The challenge for defensemen is to stay closer to the players they are covering, and yet not overcommit and get out of position.
“Your checking scheme ... you’ve got to play better defense,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “You can’t run around. You can’t be 10 feet away from the guy you’ve got to cover. Don’t let him get the puck instead of allowing him to receive it and then moving over — by then he’s already got a guy or two ready to receive a pass. We can’t get into a chess game and a chasing game.”
Jaycob Megna, UNO’s junior defenseman, said that, more than ever, Mav blueliners have to focus on staying between the (faceoff) dots in their defensive zone.
“You really have to be in the right positions and not overcommit anywhere on the ice,” Megna said. “One bad step and a guy could be gone or a breakaway, or you can get stretched out too far in your own zone and it leaves a huge lane for someone to fill.”
After some shaky defense in a 6-4 season-opening home loss to Bentley on Oct. 11, the Mavs shored things up in a 4-2 win the following night. Now they’re facing a 0-2 Northern Michigan team that fell behind quickly in a 5-2 season-opening loss to Wisconsin but then lost to the Badgers only 2-1 Saturday after tying the game in the third period. Wisconsin moved up to No. 2 in the national ratings this week.
“They’re fast,” Blais said of Northern Michigan. “Their recruiting has changed (over the years). They used to be big and physical and not too fast, but I think with that Olympic-sized rink they needed more speed — and they’ve got it. They skated right with Wisconsin. The only difference was that Wisconsin was more skilled.”
UNO split with the Wildcats last season, breezing to a 5-2 win in the opener before losing 2-1 the following night at CenturyLink Center.
Northern Michigan, which wound up finishing 10th in the final season of CCHA play, returns all four players who scored goals against UNO (Reed Seckel, Darren Nowick, Ryan Daugherty and Ryan Aynsley) as well as players who accounted for six of its seven assists in the series.
Picked to finish sixth in the new-look WCHA, the Wildcats must replace No. 1 goalie Jared Coreau, who signed a year early with the Detroit Red Wings, and leading scorer Matt Thurber (six goals, 20 assists). But Seckel (13 goals, 12 assists) led the team in goals last season, the top five goal-scorers are back, and transfers Luke Eibler (Northeastern) and Barrett Kaib (Providence) should shore up the Northern blue line.
UNO, which hit the road by bus after Wednesday’s practice, practiced Thursday on the Olympic ice. Teams that typically play on NHL sheets, Blais said, have a tendency to not take advantage of the extra 15 feet.
“You can’t be quite as aggressive on the penalty kill, but you’ve got more room to execute on the power play,” Blais said.
Blais is looking for the Mavs’ power play to be more effective after a 1 for 11 success rate in the opening series.
“Some of it was our positioning — we didn’t seem to have the right guys in the right place at times,” Blais said. “It shouldn’t be that difficult because they played together last year — especially (Josh) Archibald, (Dominic) Zombo and (Ryan) Walters. That unit should be intact and ready to go.”
Blais also said UNO skaters stayed on the ice too long — both on even-strength and power-play shifts — limiting their effectiveness as fatigue set in.
“When they’re getting over 40 seconds, that’s too long,” Blais said. “It was 50, 55 and close to a minute some of them.
“On the power play, instead of the first unit on for a minute and the second on for a minute, I’d just as soon see 40 (seconds), 40 and 40.”
Blais said some of that is players early in the season trying to do too much to help the team. But at some point the line crosses over into selfishness, he said.
“It’s got to be taken care of this time of year, and it can’t be an idle threat,” Blais said. “You either get off the ice in a timely manner, or you won’t get back out there.”
» NOTES: Blais said Kirk Thompson, the winner in Saturday’s game after stopping 25 of 27 shots, would likely be back in goal Friday night. “I think Kirk deserves the start,” Blais said. “That’s how we’ll go (alternating) for quite awhile, until one of them really appears to be the No. 1 goalie.” ... Blais said the Mavs will likely break up the Zombo-Archibald-Walters line for the road series. “We’ll see how much whining they do,” Blais said, laughing. “But they’re easy to defend (on the road) — they can put an older group (of forwards), plus their two best defensemen, out there against them every time. If it doesn’t work we’ll put them back together pretty quick, but we’re hoping that breaking them up works.” ... The initial road trip of the season is one of just two the Mavs have in their first seven series. “I think we can get going on the road, get a good mentality that could set us up for the year,” Megna said. “We have a big stretch of home games in November, so we won’t be back on the road much for a while, so it’s important to have success for this first one, set the tone for what happens on the road and how we carry ourselves.”