Maine needs to continue physical play to get season turned around

By Larry Mahoney, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 01, 2013, at 12:47 p.m.

The song “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John stayed number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for 10 weeks. It was her biggest American hit.

The University of Maine’s men’s hockey team got physical in the Florida College Classic and became No. 1 in the tournament.

The physical play was cited by the players as being a major reason behind their second straight Florida College Classic championship as they beat Minnesota-Duluth 1-0 and Cornell 6-4.

Have they found the ingredient to a second-half turnaround?

Perhaps.

But as senior defenseman and tri-captain Mike Cornell explained Monday, they’ll have to walk the tightrope between “playing clean and playing mean.”

Maine coach Tim Whitehead has always been a stickler about not taking penalties. It is a sound philosophy because penalties can cost the team games.

But it is also necessary for teams to play with grit and to finish their checks.

That may lead to more penalties but it will be well worth it if the Black Bears can plant the thought in an opponent’s head that every time he touches the puck, he’s going to get bumped.

They will eventually start making hasty decisions and turn the puck over, leading to scoring chances. They may also get frustrated and take penalties.

It also wears them down.

The Maine coaching staff also has to walk a fine line between stressing discipline and encouraging physicality.

By continually harping about staying out of the penalty box, the players could become passive and tentative.

Maine’s penalty-killing has been very good of late, 35-for-39 over the last nine games, so they can afford to play more aggressively.

The Black Bears simply have to be smart when playing physical.

If an opponent has a three-on-two rush, a Maine defensemen can’t afford to leave the middle of the ice to make a hit because it will result in an even more dangerous two-on-one.

They can’t hit somebody from behind with any force if they’re facing the boards because that will be a five-minute major more often than not.

And they can’t retaliate because the referee usually sees the retaliation and not the initial infraction that led to the retaliation.

Mental toughness is about absorbing a hit without retaliating for the good of the team.

They’ve got to keep their sticks and elbows down and get good defensive positioning so they aren’t reaching and earning hooking and tripping penalties.

Maine doesn’t have a big team, but it doesn’t have to be big to be physical. And that goes for the elite players as well.

Kyle Beattie, Maine’s second leading returning scorer off last year’s team, led the way with his physical play in Florida.

Two of Maine’s most physical players are right winger Joey Diamond and Ryan Lomberg, and they’re both in the 5-foot-8 , 5-9, 175-180 pound range.

I remember a player at Clarkson a long time ago telling me that players who didn’t finish their checks didn’t play regardless of their talent level.

The other positive aspect of playing physical is it gets the crowd into the game.

A solid, bone-rattling check will excite the Alfond Arena crowd and that, in turn, will energize the players.

It is understandable why Maine hadn’t been physical until the Florida tournament.

There are a lot of freshmen in the lineup and they were still trying to figure out the systems. They also didn’t want to get on the bad side of the coaches by taking a bunch of penalties.

But now that the freshmen have the first half of the season under the belts and feel more comfortable with the systems and their teammates, they can introduce more physicality into their play.

Physical play makes teams tougher to play against and that means opponents don’t look forward to playing them. That’s a positive and it bumps teams off their game more easily.

The Black Bears are 4-11-2 and have won only one conference game (1-7-2). If they are to make a second-half charge after getting off to a great start in Florida, physical play could very well be a telling ingredient in it.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/01/01/sports/maine-needs-to-continue-physical-play-to-get-season-turned-around/ printed on December 19, 2014