Three Keys To The Homestretch

Time is running out on the regular season. With conference playoffs and the NCAA tournament right around the corner, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about what a team needs to do to be successful at this point in the season, and improve its chances when pursuing a conference and an NCAA championship.

MIND GAMES: You’ve got to be mentally prepared coming down the homestretch. Even though the games are worth the same number of points at the end of the regular season as they are at the beginning, the atmosphere is different, and you need to match or exceed your opponent’s intensity level.

Also from a mental perspective, you need to check your attitude at the door. Certain guys will get more ice time now than in the past, and players may find themselves in different situations. As a player, you need to be ready at all times, but also, perhaps more importantly, you need to be ready to say “do what’s best for the team. I want to win.”

TO YOUR HEALTH: A team that wants to win big this postseason needs to get healthy, which means that you need to pick your spots. At most, you have six weeks left in your season. You want to have good practice habits, but you also need to know when to pull back. Coaches need to be most aware of this, and need to know when to take a day off, or do something different and/or creative to make sure the players are going to be ready.

As a player, you need to make sure that you don’t let yourself get too tired, physically or mentally. Prioritize: schoolwork is 1a, hockey is 1b. You need to find a healthy balance. College isn’t just about going to class and playing hockey – it’s also about having fun and going out with your friends – but at this point, you have six weeks left to do everything you can to become a champion. Make sure you get enough sleep. If you’ve been hurt, make sure you’re healing your injury. Talk to your coaches about any issues you may have. The bottom line is that players need to be responsible for their habits, and coaches need to recognize when their players need to pull it back.

HOT GOALIES, GET YOUR HOT GOALIES HERE: This time of year, it’s all about having a hot goalie. You can’t go into the playoffs with a goaltender who’s not on a roll and expecting to win. A team gains so much confidence from that one position, so you need your goaltender to be the backbone of your team. If you go in with shaky goaltending, whether it’s a single-man system or an alternating system, you’re in big trouble. If you’re planning on platooning two goalies, both of them, need to have ultimate confidence in system. If they don’t, you need to pick a goalie and go with him, because you need as much confidence in the net as you can get to make a run.

While we’re talking about making a run, I also thought I’d salute some of the surprise teams in each conference. Things don’t always play out as the pundits expect them to, and these teams have gone a long way toward proving that.

In Atlantic Hockey, my pick is Canisius. For everything they’ve been through – and make no mistake, they’ve brought a lot of it on themselves – the Golden Griffins have come through on the ice, and are within striking distance of the top spot with four games left in the season. Interim head coach Clancy Seymour gets big kudos for getting his team through a tough situation.

In the CCHA, no one expected anything from Nebraska-Omaha before the season started. They were picked last in the coaches’ and media polls, but now, those coaches and writers are looking pretty foolish. Mike Kemp has his team playing well, and primed to get home ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs. Former junior hockey teammates Scott Parse (18-26-44) and Bill Thomas (16-23-39) have led the way on offense, and the Mavericks have gotten solid goaltending from sophomore Chris Holt, so kudos to them for playing as well as they have. Look for them on CSTV this Friday night when they take on Alaska-Fairbanks.

The CHA season has pretty much gone according to plan, but you’ve got to recognize Robert Morris for the great job they’ve done in their first D-I season. Derek Schooley has his Colonials playing hard, and while they’ve only won three games in the CHA, they’ve won seven games overall, which is as many as Princeton has won, and more than Yale, Army, Bentley, American International, or Notre Dame.

Winding down their last ECACHL season, the Vermont Catamounts aren’t the world-beaters that they were in the fall, but they’ve put together a very impressive season. Until Jan. 8, they were fantastic, and they’re still impressive, especially when you consider that they’re riding a freshman goalkeeper in Joe Fallon. They’re moving to Hockey East next year, so it’s important to have this type of season to prove that you can come in and compete. Great job by Kevin Sneddon and his Cats.

Hockey East points leader New Hampshire had a tall order this year, having graduated a senior class that included star goaltender Mike Ayers and leading scorer Steve Saviano, and came out leading the pack. They’ve been splitting Jeff Pietrasiak and Kevin Regan in net, and they’ve done a pretty good job, but the Wildcats are winning with their offense, where they’re getting a lot of production from their sophomore class. Most importantly, perhaps, they don’t have any losses to bad teams, which demonstrates great consistency. That’s a big plus to have going down the stretch.

Finally, in the WCHA, it’s got to be Denver. The Pioneers are similar to UNH, in that they have a great program with a lot of tradition and history, but they’ve changed their style to succeed in 2004-05. Last year, Denver won the national championship with hard-nosed team defense and goaltending. George Gwozdecky lost a great senior class, and he came back with team that plays offense with best of them, and gets solid goaltending at the other end from Glenn Fisher and Peter Mannino. The Pioneers have been a top 3 offensive team all season long, and they’ve been successful because they’ve played to their strengths. This is a great skating team that is fun to watch, and I can’t wait to see them next week when they play Colorado College on CSTV.

Billy Jaffe serves as a hockey analyst for CSTV. He is a former college player at Michigan and has served as a broadcaster and an on-ice official for CCHA games.