Thursday, January 31, 2013

UND Hockey: Making adjustments on the ice

An ice hockey referee signals a penalty for hi...
An ice hockey referee signals a penalty for high sticking. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You don’t have to watch college hockey very long to realize that the college game is changing. Disappearing from the college game is the frequency in which you see the big bone crushing checks. Right or wrong, refs are punishing players for the big hits regardless if they are legal or not.
Post hit, if a player lies on the ice after being hit more times than not the ref will penalize the hittee.
Personally, I don’t like it, because hockey is meant to be a physical sport, it’s not ice ballet. Last time I checked, body checking has not been taken out of the NCAA Men’s Division I college hockey rule book.
I get why the refs are calling the game like this, they’re worried about player safety and concussions. The fact remains, hockey is a “physical” sport and injuries occur as a result of legal hits. Hockey is played at a very fast speed and each year the players get bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be, injuries going to be part of the game.
Traditionally, UND has been known for being a big physical team that punishes its opponents and racks up penalty minutes. When UND plays a physical game, they are a hard to play against.
Historically, UND has been known as a team that racks up impressive penalty minutes totals. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for UND to finish in the top 10 nationally for penalty minutes (most recently, 2007-08, 6th, 2009-10, 5th). From time-to-time, I have suggested to others that the UND hockey team should relish this and wear this as a badge of honor. However, those days have changed.
This season, North Dakota is currently sitting at 22nd nationally in penalty minutes and has only been assessed one five minute major penalty [face masking] during 2013. Breaking it down further, UND has only had four major penalties all season long.  
On the flip side of that equation, UND’s opponents have only garnered one five minute major penalty.
Looking at the numbers more closely, UND has only had three games were they surpassed the double figures in penalties. UND has 10 games where they had four or less minor penalties in a game.
So far this season, no UND hockey players had more than one five minute major.
This season’s version of the University of North Dakota Hockey team is not your traditional UND hockey team. This season’s version is not as physical as seasons past.
Andrew MacWilliam Eric Classen / UND Athletics
Andrew MacWilliam
Eric Classen / UND Athletics
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any physical players left. North Dakota Senior Defenseman and Captain Andrew MacWilliam is a physical defenseman that is known for his hard hits. In the past, MacWilliam has been penalized for hits that upon further video review were legitimate, and legal hits.
This season, during a game against Boston University, MacWilliam hit a Boston University freshman defenseman Ahti Oksanen with a good hard check. That player lay on the ice, and appeared to be injured, many in the stands were skeptical. MacWilliam was sent to the showers and assessed a five minute major penalty for contact-to-the-head, the senior defenseman’s night was over.
Miraculously, in what appeared to be a medical miracle, Oksanen was able to recover quickly, return to the ice, and score on the man advantage.
Incidentally, that was the last time that MacWilliam was given a five minute major this season.
 At the Wednesday’s media day, UND head coach Dave Hakstol was asked on whether a guy like Andrew MacWilliam had to change based on the way the officials call the game.
“Not only does he [MacWilliam] have to adjust his game to the true rules,” Hakstol said. “He’s had to change his game because of the embellishment and diving that goes on, that makes the game so difficult to referee.”
The head coach expanded on this subject further.
“It’s a huge problem but no one wants to address it,’ Hakstol said. “Teams are being rewarded for embellishment and diving and that’s been the case for last several years, and it’s getting worse. Until we want to address it as a body of coaches on a consolidated basis as leagues it will get worse.”
In today’s Grand Forks Herald, UND beat writer Brad Schlossman interviewed the head of the officials of the WCHA Greg Shepherd and this is what he had to say on the matter.
“It’s tough, it really is,” Shepherd said. “Knock on wood, I think it’s more of a problem out East than it is in the WCHA. We have a few people that do. I’d be a liar if I said we didn’t. The refs, in their minds, know who the culprits are. I don’t think everyone does it every time they get hit or touched, but there are certain times people try to take advantage of it.
“I’ve talked to coaches in the league. We talk quite a bit and embellishment and diving always comes up. They want us to keep our (refs) in tune and watch for it.” 
 My question to Greg Shepherd would be, if you know who the culprits are, why not punish the offending players that are embellishing calls instead of the players that are receiving penalties for what in many cases are legitimate legal checks.  
But I digress.
Instead of continuing the march to the penalty box, MacWilliam has made the adjustments to his game, because he is more valuable to his team on the ice than he is sitting in the penalty box.
“We need to have Andrew on the ice,” Hakstol said. “He’s one of our top penalty killers; you don’t want him sitting in the box when we’re killing a penalty.  Obviously he’s a real solid defenseman back there for us. We rely on him, so we want him to be on the ice. He’s gone about it very intelligently and I think he’s still has that physical presence on the ice and he picks his spots. He’s done a good job adjusting without taking away that side that effectiveness of his game.”
Recently, coach Hakstol told a UND booster’s luncheon that his team needed to play with more grit and be more physical. Obviously, this season’s team is not physical as teams past but there is still an expectation that they will continue to play a tenacious hard hitting style of hockey game. That being said, not every team is going to be the same. The game has changed and so has the UND hockey team. Coach Hakstol reiterated that point at Wednesday’s press conference.
“The makeup of every team is different,” Hakstol said. “We’re not big and tough upfront. We’ve got a few physical players, that means everyone by committee has to bring a little sand paper on the team. I think the same is true on the back end; we have a lot of guys that move the puck well. But we don’t have four guys that are 6’3”, 6’4” 220. So everyone back there has to play with a mentality.  That’s something that our team is growing into. But we’re not going to become a team that physically drives people out of the building. “We’re got to be a team that’s based on tenacity.”
Going forward, I don’t think that we will see UND play much differently than they are right now. I do expect that they will become a little more physical, but they will probably pick their spots.

Cross Posted at the Hockey Writers - Combine...
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