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Commentary: In Playoffs, Road Trips are Different

On the schedule it says Michigan at Michigan State. The Wolverines’ itinerary says that also.

Instead of the normal routine of a skate at Yost in the morning and a game at Munn at night, the Wolverines took to the road for East Lansing Thursday. They skated at Munn Thursday night and for pregame Friday. It was the first time since 1996 they have done that. As Michigan sports information director Matt Trevor pointed out, that was the day before Michigan beat Minnesota in the game that saw the incredible goal Mike Legg scored against the Gophers from behind the net.

They will not go home at all until one team is left standing. This is a do-or-die trip for Michigan, and it’ll need to walk out with a pair of wins to keep alive its incredible 19-year run of NCAA tournament appearances.

“Anytime we play them we get fired up, but this time there is a big consequence attached to that and it makes it more unique,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said as his team prepared for practice at Yost Wednesday. “This is a chance for us to play the underdog role which we haven’t been in a while. Michigan State will have a say in how this weekend goes but we feel good going in there. We need to take advantage of the underdog mentality.”

Going in as the road team for a Friday night game in the regular season has at times been an advantage for teams. If you have to travel and stay over in your host’s city, the road trip mentality starts early on and the distractions of home are usually left back in the dorms.

“When you leave Wednesday or Thursday for weekend games, it takes on the feel of a business trip,” Kyle Lawson of Notre Dame said earlier this season. He was referring to that night’s opponent, Nebraska-Omaha, which was in to play the Irish. “You get on the bus and the mentality starts right away. By Friday night you are a very focused team and you have been together for a day away from distractions. It prepares you well for Friday night.”

That is the mentality that Berenson is taking with his team, but there is an added factor here and that is the rivalry aspect. While two wins are the key, there is the whole beat Michigan State vibe from Ann Arbor and the building will have quite a few of the rabid Maize and Blue.

“These series are about Game 1 and momentum, but on many occasions you see a team come back after that and lose Game 2 and 3. Game 3 is about the team playing better at the moment,” said Berenson. “In a one-game showdown it’s about having very little room for error. In a series you have a little room to make a mistake but not much.”

Michigan has been good on the road but its record doesn’t show some of that play. They have outshot MSU, Ohio State, Wisconsin and RPI (neutral site) and still lost. However this is a chance to win a pair of big games and as Berenson has said in the past, even after the game starts Michigan players don’t look across the ice and see the other team, they see the Spartans. That just adds to the weekend.

When it comes to the playoffs, the mentality changes and coaches are faced with decisions as to how they want to approach the weekend. The geography has a lot to do with it. Michigan could stay home and commute as they normally do but won’t.

“A lot of how a coach approaches that situation comes down to whether he feels the team is better in a hotel or in their own beds,” says Jack Parker, coach of the defending national champion Boston University Terriers. “That is up to the coach, who has the best feel for his team. To do it the way Red is doing it, it makes it feel more like a postseason series, which is a special time.”

Parker had a similar situation a few years ago when his Terriers owned the eighth seed in the Hockey East playoffs and faced off against Boston College in a best-of-three series. BU and BC are three miles apart on Commonweatlth Avenue in Boston. There is one hotel midway between the two schools on Comm Ave., which would be the best BU could do to attempt a road trip.

“What we did that series was skated at BC on Thursday, skated there pregame Friday morning and did that again on Saturday,” said Parker. “We treated it like a road trip in terms of not skating at home but we stayed in the dorms at BU as opposed to a hotel. I just felt like that was the best thing to do for us. We usually do the same thing for the Hockey East Championships at the Garden, we stay in our own beds.”

This weekend the Terriers host Merrimack, which is about as far from BU as Michigan is to Michigan State, maybe a little closer. The Warriors, making their first postseason appearance under coach Mark Dennehy, will make Boston their home for the weekend and not go back and forth as they would in the regular season.

“For our perspective, if it was UNH we were playing up there we’d go and camp out there for the weekend in the playoffs but we wouldn’t do that in the regular season,” said Parker. “We’d rather be at home and travel back in that situation; it’s that close.”

Michigan at MSU highlights a great weekend of rivalry series in the NCAA. Air Force hosts Army, North Dakota welcomes the hated Minnesota Golden Gophers and Harvard travels to play Cornell in what might be the best rivalry on and off ice. Another Hockey East series pits a Frozen Four finalist last season, Vermont, against neighboring UNH, a team that has had another great regular season under Dick Umile.

Minnesota and NoDak have played some epic games in postseason in the century’s first decade as well as some great weekend series. Each has proven it can win on the road in this series and that KO by NoDak in Columbus in the Frozen Four semifinals a few years ago is still very much alive in the minds of Gophers faithful. Then there is always that lovely memory I’m sure that will be shown at the Ralph this weekend of Holy Cross upsetting Minnesota in Grand Forks in the regionals a few years back.

“The dynamic doesn’t change in the room, but it certainly does with the fans,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said on the topic of playing a big rival in a playoff series. “However in the dressing room it does put some extra jump in your step. When you get out of bed in the morning the anticipation of playing a rival gets you jumping.”

Then you have Harvard and Cornell. The coaches played for their schools and played against each other during their time there. Much like Parker and Jerry York, whose competition against each other goes back to their high school and college playing days, these two coaches very much understand that these games are about moving on in postseason but more than that there is the rivalry to define the series. Harvard coach Ted Donato and Cornell assistant Casey Jones both played against each other in this great rivalry.

“My last college game was a loss to Cornell; that still bites at me a bit,” Donato said as his team prepared for its first playoff trip to Lynah on his watch. “It is more than just a series when we play them; the history of the programs comes into play and that just makes it bigger.”

Cornell and Harvard have had some of the legendary games in college hockey and in the past few years there have been some classics, just like in the Michigan-MSU and NoDak-Minnesota series. These two seem to meet almost annually in Albany at the ECAC Championship weekend and Harvard has had some big wins at the expense of Cornell.

“The way I see it, it usually comes down to one of us having to go through the other to win the ECAC championship,” said Donato. “This is the first time I have had the chance to go there for a best-of-three series. This should be a great test for our kids and I’m looking forward to it. The atmosphere, the rivalry, the intensity, the do-or-die aspect of it. I can’t wait.”

Cornell coach Mike Schafer comes into the series as the favorite but as Donato pointed out, “when these two get together, forget everything else.” It has been a game that when played at Cornell factors the crowd into it as much as anything. Many ECAC coaches have said that Lynah, like Yost in Ann Arbor, is good for about a goal a game advantage.

Schafer sees it a little different while still paying homage to the great fans at Lynah.

“No matter who comes in here to play, it is always tough. We are a team that everyone wants to beat, especially here,” said Schafer. “It is the building, the passion of the fans here, and our history of being a good team. It doesn’t matter who is favored or who the underdog is, when the puck drops it’s us and Harvard. There has been excitement in the room about the playoffs since September, since the ECAC’s last year and the loss to Bemidji State in the regionals.”

Schafer points out the familiarity of the two teams and that Harvard has experience up front and on the back line and that could be pivotal in a short series. He also feels that when it has room to play, Harvard can be dangerous.

“We need to be physical, we need to be aware of momentum changes and we need to know one game doesn’t mean the series,” said Schafer. “I’ve seen a team win Game 1 and lose the next two at home. The composure of our group is pretty good, we’ve done well in tight games.”

Donato also referenced momentum swings but from a different side of it.

“That rink gets loud and gets behind Cornell,” said Donato, a member of Harvard’s 1989 national title team. “No matter what, when we do something good we won’t hear a sound in the rink but our kids will know that every time Cornell touches the puck the crowd will be with them. That’s a factor.”

The players also feel the intensity. Playing on the road gives a player the chance to do his thing, not be too creative and shut the crowd up. Some revel in that opportunity. Michigan will need to do just that.

“It is great to have this series on the road,” said Michigan forward Louie Caporusso, who has started to heat up offensively. “Munn has great energy but we have the luxury of keeping it simple, playing our game and keeping their crowd out of it. We don’t have to get fancy, we just have to execute.”

Caporusso said that Michigan feels this rivalry inside and outside of the dressing room.

“There is history there and some bad blood,” said Caporusso. “We have each won big games against each other. It’s an in-state rivalry and we both want to get to The Joe next weekend. This is what you play for.”

Trying to get some marketing homework done wasn’t easy for Matt Rust as the series approached. Overthinking this series can add pressure, so Rust worked hard on his studies. However, the conversation shifted to Michigan State and the weekend. That added to the pressure of getting his school work done as the big games approached as well as the unusual early departure for East Lansing.

“We’re getting there early, we are getting into the proper mind-set,” said the junior center. “We are still close to home but we are not home. You don’t have to pack like it’s a big trip but you still aren’t in your comfort zone. There is still some familiarity with it being East Lansing but it’s not a home game and we know that.”

Army has been to Air Force many times, as have the Wolverines to Munn, the Gophers to The Ralph, the Catamounts to Durham and the Crimson to Lynah.

This is playoff time and that ramps up intensity. Even road buildings you are used to will look different. For a first-time playoff performer, that could be intimidating.

“For those who are rookies to NCAA playoff road series,” Parker said, “they’ll know in a minute it isn’t their rink.”


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