Playoff practice

Absolutely nothing beats the excitement of playoff hockey. After an incredibly exciting regular season, the stakes are much higher now, as it is now win or go home for the teams remaining in the conference tournaments. This week I thought it important to focus on how the teams are preparing for Saturday, the playoff prep.

The Bowdoin College Polar Bears saw some interesting highs and lows over the final three weeks of the season, where they went from first to fifth on one weekend, battled back to a tie for third on the final weekend, and lost out on two tiebreakers to end up in fifth and face an opening round road game against an Amherst team that defeated them earlier in the season by a score of 3-2.

“It’s just great,” commented coach Terry Meagher. “It really is great for our kids to compete at this level all season and now have it come down to the focus of just one game. They come out everyday to  work hard and enjoy the fulfillment of playing hard and playing well against great opponents all season, so the thought of it all coming to an abrupt end is really not something anyone on our staff or the kids in the locker room is focused on right now.”

So how do teams get ready? They practice like they do all season and, for the most part, the coaches try to keep the schedule and routine as normal as possible, so to the players it seems like any other week in the regular season. For this writer, the fun came in an invite to be part of the Polar Bears first practice after the weekend’s conclusion to the regular season. I grabbed the skates, stick and gloves and off to practice I went.

Open ice was available for players from 3:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. and is fondly referred to as the “arts and crafts” portion of the program. Players began filtering out for the optional skate, where the focus was getting loose and working on stickhandling and their shot through some self-made drills and reorienting some players on the injured list to a less rigorous workout. One thing was obvious: the joy of being on the ice as a member of the Bowdoin team and playing with guys they like to be with was obvious in the gamesmanship during the time available before practice.

After the Zamboni resurfaced the ice, practice began with some hard skating and a little cardiovascular work to get the blood flowing, during what was going to be a high-speed session lasting about an hour and 40 minutes. Static stretching came next at center ice, where all of the players stretched around the center ice circle and worked into the practice mindset.

“Not many teams are probably spending time doing much of the stretching on the ice,” stated Meagher. “We really do it to get kids talking with each other and focused on hockey having come from the classroom, lab or library, where there is a shift in the mindset from academics to what we are trying to do on the ice. It gives the kids a little adjustment period before we get into the meat of the practice.”

The team was divided into black and white groups as designated by their practice jerseys. Assistant coach Jeff Pellegrini took his group down one end, where the goals was reversed to face the end boards the players played a full contact two-on-two game trying to create offensive chances for one pair and defending the goal for the other. The clear focus was to win the one-on-one battles in the corners that often are the difference between winning and losing in a game.

Down the other end, the players with Meagher went through as series of breakouts, forechecking and half-ice five-on-five play geared toward working on things to tighten up defensive zone clears and coverages, as well as prepare for likely alignments they would see from Amherst based on analysis of the prior game. This was full speed stuff where whistles were often signs of times to focus on particular positioning, puck play, and ice coverage, but also to encourage and complement the strong execution the team was showing on the ice to their coach.

Each group went through several reps at full speed, with quick analysis or adjustments made with the instant acknowledgement of a team that has been doing these things all season. When I say full speed, I quickly learned having, inadvertently stepped up at the far blue line where I was run over by sophomore Robert Toczlowski, or, as his teammates call him, ‘Toz.’ Lots of laughter from the team, but no damage done other than to my pride. Real game situations include that long breakout or home run pass, and it was awesome to see the execution done against no pressure, two forecheckers or in full five-on-five play.

“Jump him, pressure, adjacent, and Chicago,” ordered Meagher to the attacking group in the offensive zone. “Let’s make sure we get the timing right. You never want to commit or go too soon. Let’s make sure we get the timing right.”

As a former player and current coach at the youth level, I thought I was familiar with all of the terminology, especially the “coachspeak” of today. So when I heard Chicago, my ears perked up and I had to find out more.

Standing in line, I asked Jordan Lalor what Chicago meant.

“It’s when you don’t really have a specific assignment in the zone, but read the play and freelance.”

Basically, it’s what Meagher uses to have players leveraging their hockey IQ in recognizing situations and adjusting real-time to the play in trying to creat opportunities to get possession or develop scoring opportunities. Just where did the term Chicago come from?

“About 15 years ago, I called Shawn Walsh over at Maine because I felt my team was getting a bit too regimented in how they were working the power play. Shawn said, ‘Terry, I just ran into the same thing just last week, so I called my good friend Mike Keenan out with the Blackhawks. Mike told me that he had just gone through the same thing last month and decided to put his five best guys together: Roenick, Chelios, Amonte, etc., and just let them play it freeform without a defined structure. I thought that was great, and we did the same thing, calling it Chicago. Now when kids hear it, they know it’s about having some freedom to improvise, based on where their teammates and opponents are and what is going on in specific situations.”

The practice then shifted to some focus on transition hockey, with a full line backchecking, and then everyone got a break when the Zamboni came out to clean the heavily snow covered ice before some scrimmaging. Full sheet scrimmaging gave way to black vs. white four-on-four, with the winners only having to do two-thirds the number of sprints at the end of practice. The black team made quick work of the games, and whites got the extra skating at the end of almost two hours of hard skating.

For most teams that may have been enough, but more “arts and crafts” was in store for most of the players, who took advantage of the clean sheet to work on things, including several games of showdown with the goalies. Showdown is where an offensive player gets two chances to score against the goalie. First, a 20-foot shot from the slot, followed by a quick breakaway and in close deking opportunity. Fail to score and you are out. It didn’t take long to be the first out, but goaltenders Richard Nerland and Stevie Messina made the guys work hard for everything. You could see the fun and pure enjoyment of competing, as one by one players reluctantly left the ice to go get dinner and head back to their studies.

“This is about as hard as they will go this week, especially at this time of the year,” stated Meagher. “Tomorrow, we will work on some scout team stuff, video analysis and special teams . We want to make sure we are ready to go against this opponent who beat us earlier in the year.”

From everything I saw, the Polar Bears look ready. I want to extend my thanks for the opportunity to participate in practice to the coaches and players, and yes, even ‘Toz.’ It was truly a privilege to be out there with such terrific players and see how practice drives the game performances.

Been through the prep, so what do the quarterfinals look like this weekend? Here are my prognostications.

No. 8 Wesleyan @ No. 1 Hamilton. These teams played way back in November and the Cardinals beat Hamilton. While going just 3-3-3 at home this season, the Continentals have been amazing away from Sage Rink. Wesleyan took out a season’s worth of offensive frustration out on UNE in the last game by scoring 14 goals, but that’s not likely this week. It’s the playoffs so it will be close. Hamilton 3, Wesleyan 2.

No. 7 Trinity @ No. 2 Williams
. Trinity won the regular season match-up by a score of 5-0. That is not going to happen here, but the outcome is likely going to be placed on the shoulders of either Ryan Purdy of Williams or Wes Vesprini of Trinity. Both goaltenders have been exceptional this season, but Vesprini has led the Bantams second half resurgence. Something about the playoffs for coach Cataruzolo’s teams. Trinity 3, Williams 2.

No. 6 Colby @ No. 3 Middlebury. The regular season match-up went to the Panthers at Colby by a score of 4-1. Both teams are playing very well right now after appearing to be in danger of missing the conference tournament in the first half of the season.  Middlebury’s offense has woken up, as has their play at home. Middlebury 4, Colby 2.

No. 5 Bowdoin @ No. 4 Amherst.
The four/five match-up is always the most intriguing, but frankly, this year all of the first round games are intriguing. Bowdoin surrendered a 2-0 lead in losing 3-2 in the regular season, so expect this one to be close again. Lots of seniors from Bowdoin that want a return shot at the title. Bowdoin 3, Amherst 2.

No. 8 UNE @ No. 1 Norwich. While the Nor’easters have been assaulting some NESCAC teams in the last few weeks (three wins), they have not had that kind of success in their own conference. Parker Carroll seems to complete the package for the defending champions, who know what it takes to win it all. Norwich 5, UNE 1.

No. 7 NEC @ No. 2 Castleton. The Spartans are driven this season, and while they did not realize their goal of winning the regular season, they still have the league title and NCAA goals ready for the taking. NEC has struggled with consistency all year, and the offense has suddenly evaporated at the wrong time of the year. Castleton 5, NEC 2.

No. 6 Southern Maine @ No. 3 Massachusetts-Boston. If the outbreak by Zach Joy in the final weekend is a portent of good things for the Huskies, then the Beacons could be in trouble. Like the rest, this game could go either way, and a lot will be on the shoulders of goalies with very limited playoff experience. Other experience favors the Huskies. USM 4, UMB 3.

No. 5 Babson @ No. 4 Skidmore. Either of these teams can light it up when they are on, but that has been part of the problem this season for both teams. Babson could have been hosting this game, but really fell off in the past two weeks, while Skidmore did enough to get home ice. The Thoroughbreds are much more like their name at home. Skidmore 5, Babson 4.

Well, here we go. By the end of the day Saturday, the season will be likely over for eight teams, so get out root your team on and enjoy the ride.

Play for today, live for tomorrow — drop the puck!


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