Myers: Season-opening rout reminder of Gophers' home-ice advantage
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MINNEAPOLIS - Mariucci Arena opened 20 years ago, at about this time. It was built in an era when the larger, Olympic size ice sheet was in vogue.
NHL teams play on ice sheets that are usually 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. By contrast, the international game is played on a 200 foot-long ice sheet that is 100 feet wide. For a time, the college hockey trend seemed to advocate that the bigger the ice sheet, the better the game. Most notably, the 15 extra feet of blue line that defensemen were forced to patrol, in theory, leads to a more wide-open game that's less about power and more about speed.
In 1989 the National Hockey Center at St. Cloud State opened with two Olympic size ice sheets - one for practice and another surrounded by seating for 6,000. A few years after Mariucci opened for business, Mankato's new downtown rink - eventually the home of Division I hockey at Minnesota State, premiered with a big ice sheet.
WCHA rivals like Colorado College and Alaska Anchorage were also playing on big ice sheets. Wisconsin, in their last few seasons at Dane County Coliseum, took out seats to squeeze every last inch of width from their ice sheet, playing for a season or two on a rink that was 200 by 97.
While the trend has reversed itself, and most new college rinks have NHL-size ice, the Gophers still call the wide-open white expanse of Mariucci their home. Outsiders often look at the seemingly endless sheet of ice in Dinkytown -- which looks even bigger in a cavernous building with 10,000 seats -- and dub it another of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes.
You would think that a team called the Lakers would be comfortable there, but the Gophers season opener versus Mercyhurst proved, on several shifts, why the U of M's outdated and oversized playing surface is still one of the most true home-ice advantage in the college game.
The Gophers won 6-0 and held a huge advantage in shots in large part due to team speed, and the ability to get up and down on the big rink, make rushes around slower opponents, and refuse to be bottled up by a defensive-minded opponent. The Lakers matched their hosts size-wise, but could not counter the Gophers' speed, which is an advantage Don Lucia and company will have play up, as many newcomers get acclimated to the college game and workload.
"It's definitely an advantage for us," Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox said, after a 25-save shutout. He meant more than just the size of the rink. "You can tell we've got a lot of speed coming with the freshmen. They're all fast and that definitely plays to our advantage when teams aren't used to seeing that on big ice."
For Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, the combination of an unfamiliar rink and a speed-laden opponent was trouble.
"I thought we were almost better having the play 5-on-4 rather than 4-on-4 because that ice just seemed to get bigger on us," Gotkin said. "Obviously the big ice sheet is a big thing. They use it very well and they skate very well."
Friday's game was more than just a non-conference home opener. The Gophers are hosting the annual Icebreaker Tournament, and will face New Hampshire for the four-team affair's title on Saturday night. The Gophers and Wildcats, despite their geographic differences, are old rivals, having played most notably in the 2003 NCAA title game, with the Gophers winning 5-1 in Buffalo.
New Hampshire's home rink has an Olympic-size ice sheet, meaning that the Wildcats will be on more familiar ground, even if Minnesota's team speed is something new.
"They'll expose us a little bit, which is good for us at this time of year," Lucia said. "It's an advantage when you play someone early in the year and they haven't been on a big rink. It will be different (Saturday) because UNH plays on a big rink. They're used to it, so it should be a great matchup."
Mercyhurst plays Clarkson for third place at 4 p.m., followed by the Gophers facing New Hampshire at 7 p.m.