April 5, 2006
NCAA Frozen Four Notebook
Going Through the Motions
Wednesday's practices give teams the lay of the land, but little else

By Joe Gladziszewski, Jeff Howe and Mike Eidelbes

Breakaway games are a staple of Wednesday practices at the Frozen Four. (Photo by Larry Radloff)

MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Most practice sessions at the Frozen Four really don’t involve much practice. The Xs and Os discussions and game-planning have been taken care of in the 8-10 days leading up to this weekend’s festivities.

Think of those times when people ask you what you did at work or school on a certain day and your reply was, “Nothing.” That’s how things went on Wednesday at the Bradley Center as the four teams participating in the national championship weekend went through final rehearsal before Thursday’s semifinals.

Wednesday’s on-ice activities for most teams included a light skate to stretch their legs and a lot of work playing the puck to get used to the boards and glass at the Bradley Center. Full-ice odd-man rushes and breakaway drills were the norm and defensive zone coverages and loose-puck battles were ignored.

Boston College associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh said the Eagles’ approach to Wednesday was very simple.

“It was an up-tempo skate. We always try to do that the day before the game and just learn the rink. There were a lot of wraps around the boards to see if there’s any funny hops, and when you dump the puck in how quickly does it jump out.” Boston College Associate Head Coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “We don’t have to do a lot of game planning now. We’ve been teaching them systems since October. We want the kids to feel good about themselves and be ready to play tomorrow.”

Maine was certain to test the boards and glass after winning its regional at the Pepsi Center in Albany. There, the Black Bears were confronted with so many awkward bounces that the only surprises came when a puck took a true ricochet off of the glass or around the boards.

Goaltender Ben Bishop is adept at handling the puck and he worked with defensemen on making indirect passes that can help the Black Bears break out of their zone in Thursday’s semifinal against Wisconsin. The forwards had a relatively easy day and were able to stretch their legs.

“It’s just kind of brushing up on things, getting some flow, and taking a lot of shots,” Maine’s Mike Hamilton said.

North Dakota forward Drew Stafford has been through this ordeal before as the Sioux are the only one of these four teams that played in last year’s Frozen Four. The key to getting ready for these games is not so much in the hours leading up to the game but in the week before the games are played.

“This past week was great for us because we were able to watch a lot of video and see BC’s tendencies, watch their special teams and get the guys ready,” North Dakota’s Drew Stafford said. “That’s been our main focus all week. All we’re thinking about it is getting ready for BC.”

At the end of the day, four workouts by four teams truly accomplished nothing. And that was the plan all along.

— Joe Gladziszewski

Chris Collins has 31 goals this season, two more than his first three years combined.

COLLINS HERE – AS EXPECTED

Chris Collins has known he would be in Milwaukee to end the hockey season for a few months now. It’s not because he was overly confident or because he had any Nostradamus-esque revelations. It’s simply due to the fact that Collins was the first player chosen to participate in this year’s inaugural skills competition.

But thanks to a late-season surge into the Frozen Four by his Boston College Eagles, Collins was resigned to bail on Friday’s casual bash for a bit more of a black tie affair: Thursday’s national semifinal against North Dakota.

“I was looking forward to being involved in [the skills competition], and it was an honor to be involved, but I didn’t want to come out here by myself,” Collins said. “These are some of my best friends here. I wasn’t looking forward to coming out here by myself, and I couldn’t think of anything better than coming out here with the 23 guys.”

He still has some individual business to tend to, though, as he is one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, which will be announced on Friday at 6 p.m. local time. His good friend, Matt Carle of Denver, and potential opponent in the national championship, Brian Elliott of Wisconsin, will share the stage. With Collins will be hard at work this weekend in Milwaukee, the Hobey is the last thing he is really worrying about.

“I think it’s tough focusing on the Hobey Baker when you’ve got the national championship on the line, but I am completely 100 percent focused on beating North Dakota and going into the national championship game,” Collins said.

“This is going to be an incredible experience, and it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for my entire life. My whole family will be out here, and that will be incredible. It’s an honor to even be in the mix with that, but my first and foremost goal is to win games here with the team.”

After all, he knows what it’s like to make it this far – to be one of the last four teams left standing – only to be sent home without a chance to play on Saturday night. As a sophomore two years ago, Collins’ Eagles ran into Jimmy Howard and a hot Maine team, who stole BC’s chance to play for hardware.

Now as a senior and one of the premier players in the nation, he feels the responsibility to make sure that what happened in Boston doesn’t repeat itself in Milwaukee.

“There might be a little more pressure, but at the same time, it’s more satisfying because it’s your senior class and your final year here,” he said. “The young guys are looking up to you just like I used to look up to Ben Eaves and some of those guys. I was a player back then, but I was just a role guy and not a top-end guy for one of the top teams in the Frozen Four. It’s an incredible experience … and I’ll never forget that for the rest of my life.”

— Jeff Howe

SEEN AND HEARD AT THE BRADLEY CENTER

• Most of the talk surrounding Maine has revolved around the difficulty of playing Wisconsin in front of what will likely be a decidedly pro-Badger crowd at the Bradley Center Thursday night.

It’s not a big deal for the Black Bears, though. Consider that in its last three NCAA Tournament appearances, Maine:

• lost to Michigan in a 2003 West Regional first-round match in Ann Arbor,
• beat Boston College in a 2004 Frozen Four semifinal at the then-Fleet Center, and
• lost to Minnesota at Mariucci Arena in the first round of last year’s West Regional.

“Every year we’ve played in a hostile environment,” said senior forward Derek Damon. “It’s just about going about and playing our game. It’s the same game we’d play if we were at Merrimack College or down at BU.”

• Wisconsin sophomore defenseman Joe Piskula, who hurt his ankle while blocking a shot in a win against St. Cloud State March 3, skated with Badgers today. In fact, he’s been on the ice for a few days, but won’t play at the Frozen Four.

“I can skate pretty well but I don’t have that jump…and the quickness, because the strength isn’t there,” said Piskula, an Antigo, Wis., native. “These are going to be some real tough games, and between my coaches and me, we just decided that we didn’t know that my ankle will be ready for that.”

Though he’s been sidelined with the injury for more than a month, Piskula has been able to contribute to the Badgers in other ways, picking out opponents’ tendencies from his vantage point in the stands.

“When I watched the Cornell game, you could tell how they took pride in there defense,” Piskula said. “They had four guys back when we were trying to do a line rush. You could definitely see that from above.”

• There aren’t many goalies who can measure up to Maine freshman Ben Bishop. At 6-foot-7, towers over his counterparts from Boston College, North Dakota and Wisconsin – Cory Schneider stands 6-foot-2, Jordan Parise tops out at 5-foot-11, and Brian Elliott is listed at 6-foot-3.

In terms of notoriety, however, Bishop is the forgotten man what with Elliott a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, Schneider a first-round draft pick and the starting goaltender for the U.S. team at this year’s World Junior Championship and Parise playing in his second straight Frozen Four.

“It’s kind of nice,” Bishop said about his relatively low profile. “To get a chance to play against a Hobey Baker finalist tomorrow is going to be a lot of fun. I’ve played against Schneider a couple times this season, and that was a lot of fun. I just look at it as a great opportunity.”

• Boston College’s roster includes an interesting mix of players that have Frozen Four experience and those that are participating in this event for the first time. The junior and senior classes for the Eagles played in Boston in 2004, but just five players from those two classes will be in the BC lineup on Thursday afternoon, and 14 of the 19 players won’t have had that experience. One of the three seniors, Stephen Gionta, said they’ve been trying to share some advice with the youngsters.

“Being so young (as a team) it helps with our young guys and their confidence. It’s their first time going through this. The junior and senior classes played in the Frozen Four in Boston and we kind of know what to expect coming in,” Gionta said. “We kind of tell them what to expect but once you start playing you have to learn on your own and they’ve done a great job and are playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

• Maine goalie Ben Bishop got a nice long look at the back of teammate Wes Clark, who stood at the top of the crease wearing a bright yellow practice jersey for about a 10-minute segment of practice on Wednesday. Clark stood securely, knowing that no defensemen would be clearing him from that spot of real estate, as Maine regularly runs practice drills with a player in front of the goalie to help the goalie work on tracking the puck through traffic.

• This is the third time the Frozen Four will be held in Milwaukee. In 1993, Maine won the national championship, and in 1997 – the 50th anniversary of the tournament – North Dakota took home the title. Both teams are in the field this week, but if you didn’t know that already, you probably aren’t even reading this.

• Legendary Maine assistant coach Grant Standbrook was a 12-year assistant and three-time national champion on the Badger bench. A reporter told Mike Eaves that Standbrook had nothing but nice things to say about him and the Wisconsin program and then asked Eaves if he could say the same about him. Eaves responded wryly with, “I’ve got nothing nice to say about Grant Standbrook,” which drew a roar from the media.

• Brian Elliott said that as he and his teammates were walking downtown on Wednesday morning, they were receiving high-fives from the Badger faithful.

PLUSSES AND MINUSES

We’ve only been in town just a few hours, but Milwaukee has proved to be a welcoming host thus far. Numerous signs at General Mitchell International Airport greeted fans arriving in the city for the Frozen Four and a number of banners hanging from light poles downtown celebrate the event. It’s quite a change from Boston and Columbus, where the Frozen Four barely registered on the local radar.

The Bradley Center concourse. (Photos by Larry Radloff)

An even nicer touch can be observed in the Bradley Center concourse, where tournament organizers have arranged a display featuring sweaters from many Division I teams. People using the media entrance on the building’s northwest corner, for example, were greeted by an array of jerseys that included Providence’s classic home white model, complete with the skating Friar. Some even had names on the back – the Minnesota sweater, for example, was the no. 11 of sophomore defenseman Nate Hagemo.

Dave Fischer, the press conference mediator, made a tongue-in-cheek announcement before Mike Eaves and the Badgers took their seats in the media interrogation room, saying that anyone who answered a cell phone during the press conference would receive a 25 dollar fine. As Eaves took his seat, he did his best Joe Horn impression by pulling out his cell phone and saying, “Before we start, I’ve got to answer my cell phone.”

North Dakota’s Drew Stafford described the playing surface as being “a little shaky out there,” and Maine’s Mike Hamilton called it “sloppy.” That has come to be expected at the Frozen Four where pro ice surfaces are stripped and re-painted to meet NCAA specifications.

Attendance at today’s practice sessions was disappointing. Nowhere near as many fans were at the Bradley Center compared to Columbus and Boston – and we were disappointed a year ago in Columbus. In fact, there were more media and NCAA staffers than fans at the rink.