Adjusting to the Big Stage

If there’s one thing that defines the 2009 NCAA Tournament field, it’s new faces.

With tournament regulars Boston College, Michigan State, Colorado College, Minnesota and Wisconsin all staying home this year, it opens the door for several teams whose players had never been to the NCAAs; Ohio State is back for the first time since 2005, Minnesota Duluth is in the field for the first time since 2004, and Northeastern is in after the longest absence, having last made the tournament in 1994.

However, while those teams all drew first-round opponents with recent tournament experience-Boston University, Princeton and Cornell, respectively-first round opponents Vermont and Yale were in a different situation.

With the Catamounts and Bulldogs in the tournament for the first time since 1997 and 1998, respectively, the second first-round matchup at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport had an added competition: which team would adjust to the NCAA Tournament atmosphere first and/or best?

With Vermont moving on to the regional championship against Air Force, the answer to that question is fairly obvious, and Yale captain Matt Nelson confirmed it.

“It’s absolutely a different stage to play on,” Nelson said. “You have the big rink, you have all the hype surrounding the tournament, and a lot of distractions when you’re here. Obviously, none of those are excuses, but for a team like us that’s never been there, it’s definitely something different to get used to. You learn from experience, and hopefully, when [future Yale teams] get back there in the future, they’ll be able to get right down to business.”

The Catamounts, meanwhile, had two weeks to get focused for Friday’s game after dropping their Hockey East quarterfinal series to Mass.-Lowell, and with their focus on wiping away all memories of that disappointment, there was no time to be dazzled by the big-time atmosphere of a sold-out NCAA regional.

“We had a lot of time, not playing last weekend, to get mentally prepared for the weekend,” Vermont forward Peter Lenes said. “I thought our guys did a good job of settling down and not getting carried away with being in the tournament. We were obviously happy to be here, but we didn’t really worry about it, that it was the tournament or anything. We just calmed down and played our best hockey.”

That calm demeanor served the Catamounts well in killing two Yale five-on-threes, the second of which Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon referred to as “the key moment in the game tonight,” in getting the program’s first NCAA tournament win since beating Lake Superior State in 1996 to advance to the Frozen Four.

Now they’ll be in another mental contest with Air Force: who can refocus fastest and most efficiently after a historic win on Friday?

Let the mind games begin.

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