BOSTON — When teams take the ice for practice the day before the Frozen Four semifinal games, everyone watches to gauge each team’s demeanor. Are the players tight? Nervous? Intense? Loose?
The consensus is that loose is a good sign, and during Omaha’s practice Wednesday at the TD Garden, the Mavericks looked relaxed. In a post-practice news conference, the first-time Frozen Four participants looked like they were born to it, partly because the practice they’d just finished wasn’t much different from what they’d been doing in the weeks leading up to this final weekend of college hockey.
“Well, the last month, we haven’t done a lot of skating at the end,” said coach Dean Blais. “We usually spend 10 to 15 minutes doing sprints. That’s pretty much ended. We have high-paced practices.
“We started the year with two-hour practices and cut it 15 minutes every month about, so right now it’s 45 minutes to an hour. I don’t know what the players think … but usually it’s show up for practice and you go like heck for 45, 50 minutes, whatever it is, and then you go home.”
And what do the players think?
“Like Coach said, usually during the year we get some conditioning at the end, but lately we haven’t been, but even in shorter practices, he emphasizes hard and short,” said sophomore forward Austin Ortega, who leads the team with 20 goals. “You don’t want to slack off and get bad habits. We’re not out there for long, but we want to make sure we’re doing everything good, and if we don’t, we’re going to end up skating after all.”
Senior defenseman and co-captain Brian O’Rourke said: “We’re in good enough shape, we’re in game shape, and Coach makes sure of that throughout the season with the skates at the end and keeping things going. Forty-five minutes to an hour is plenty of time to be out there and just stressing the little details, making sure that we’re sharp and getting off the ice.”
“It’s like nothing else,” said senior forward and co-captain Dominic Zombo, who played for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL before coming to Omaha. “I remember in juniors when I first committed to UNO, [coach] Kevin Hartzell of Sioux Falls was like, ‘You think we do some skating. Wait ’til you go to college. You’re in for it.’ And you truly are.”
In the end, the Mavericks made the practice look effortless. Every coach took shots on net. Blais missed.
“I was never a scorer,” said Blais. “Although,” he added, pointing to an NCAA tournament record book, “my name is on one of those pages as leading the tournament in scoring. I’ll take that.”