DURHAM, N.H. — Kris Mayotte cracked a smile and chuckled when asked about the University of New Hampshire’s hockey team.
In Mayotte’s five years as an assistant coach at Providence before taking the same job at Michigan this past offseason, his Friars played the Wildcats 13 times. Both teams play in the Hockey East conference, so Mayotte saw New Hampshire quite a bit, and he is intimately familiar with the challenge awaiting the Wolverines this weekend in Durham.
Mayotte needed just two words to sum up the Wildcats: “They’re good.”
New Hampshire enters the weekend at 5-4-1, but it’s 3-0 at home — including a win over then-No. 2 UMass, 3-1. Part of that success on home ice comes from the actual ice the Wildcats play on.
The Whittemore Center holds an Olympic ice sheet, which is 15 feet wider than the standard NHL-sized sheet at most rinks, including Yost Ice Arena. While the space between the faceoff circles remains the same dimensions, there’s much more space on the other side of the dots going into the corners.
It’s tempting for teams to get lost in all that extra space, which leaves the middle of the ice wide open.
Defensively, Michigan’s blueliners must remain cognizant of where they are on the ice to avoid getting pulled out into the corners, leaving the Wildcats plenty of room to work with.
“Obviously, there’s a little bit more time and space in certain areas, but it’s not in the good areas,” Mayotte said Wednesday. “Sometimes, you can get attracted to the time and space but it’s out by the boards. Inside the dots, it’s the same on an Olympic sheet as it is on an NHL sheet, and that’s where we have to get to be successful. It’s not getting enamored with the time and space because those aren’t the best parts of the ice to be in, anyway.”
Typically, teams that play on Olympic-sized sheets are highly skilled offensively and make their opponents pay with elite speed and expert passing. But while New Hampshire is a fast team, according to Mayotte, it doesn’t fully fit the mold of a team that plays on big ice.
“They’re not a high-end skill, tic-tac-toe type of team,” Mayotte said. “Even though they play on a big sheet, they’re more get pucks and men to the net and forecheck you and try and create turnovers. It’ll be a good challenge for us.”
Mayotte’s comments on the Wildcats’ offense also reflect how the Wolverines have played so far this year. To say Michigan has struggled offensively lately is putting it kindly, and the vast majority of the goals they have scored haven’t come on the high-end, tic-tac-toe type of play that Mayotte referenced.
In that sense, playing on bigger ice will present an opportunity for the Wolverines to demonstrate what they’ve been working on — getting to the front of the net and taking the goaltender’s eyes away. On a bigger sheet, getting to the net is even harder, and Michigan coach Mel Pearson is hopeful this weekend will be a chance for his team to put what it’s been practicing into action.
And the Wolverines’ work to fully grasp what Pearson wants from them hasn’t just been on the ice.
This week, Pearson asked one player from each line or defensive pairing to select his favorite NHL goal from Tuesday night’s games. It was intended to be an exercise to test if the players have a complete sense of what Pearson has been asking them to do, and Pearson was pleased with the results.
“I just wanted them to get an idea of how hard you have to work, even at that level, to get to the net,” Pearson said. “A lot of interesting goals, so I had them pick out their favorite along the lines of some of the things we’re trying to do. It was great, some of the goals they picked were right on what we were hoping to see.”
It’s no secret that Michigan needs a win this weekend. Embroiled in a seven-game winless skid and a three-game losing streak, the Wolverines are running out of time to turn around this season.
Playing a team that’s noted for its success at home on a bigger ice sheet presents a test for this Michigan team. It’s a test the Wolverines need to pass to keep their hopes alive.