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Second-half keys drive success of NCAA stretch runs

by Bob Snow
Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Ballard offered some sound advice to his compatriots playing NCAA hockey.

"You don't want to be leaking oil in these games," Ballard, a former Minnesota Golden Gopher, said while talking about the second half of each NCAA season.

The 10-week sprint from New Year's Day to mid-March, when the league tournaments begin -- and the 16-team NCAA Tournament is announced -- is in full gear.

Bentley University coach Ryan Soderquist succinctly summed up the opinion of most coaches, players and fans about the first 10 weeks, and the current 10-week run to the 2010 national champion April 10 in Ford Field in Detroit.

"First half is what you try to set yourself up for," Soderquist said. "Second half, put yourself in a good position. The second half is what defines the program." went on an informal fact-finding field trip to define the keys to the second half of every NCAA season from some of the NHL's best NCAA players in their college heyday.

"We only lost, I think, seven games (all season)," said Panthers defenseman Jordan Leopold, who won the 2002 national title at Minnesota. "We were playing well, but got a little complacent and lost the WCHA Final Five championship game to Denver. They waxed us; we didn't show up and in our own home building in St. Paul. That was a learning lesson for us that really gave us the extra spark. The key is you can't let down your guard any game the second half."

Bruin Blake Wheeler followed Leopold at Minnesota.

"It's all about the feeling within the players in the locker room and what the coaches are telling you every day," Wheeler said. "The coaches all say the same things that win national championships. But the players have to believe it and buy into it. Once you can look next to you and say, 'OK, I know this guy is going to give me what I need every night,' it doesn't matter what the coaches are saying. They've done their job. At a certain point, you'll either buy in or you're won't. All you can control as a player is to bring your intensity and work ethic every game."

The Capitals' Mike Knuble played four second-half schedules in the 1990s at Michigan. He concurs with Wheeler, albeit with more need for older players to lead.

"When we were (at Michigan)," said Knuble, "guys stayed the four years. So you had veteran guys who had been through that (second-half experience). That made them veterans relative to the college game. But that's when the older players have got to take over. The games are going to be tighter; you need to be more focused as players. Half the battle for the younger players is to be focused night in and night out. You need to build in that internal pressure for younger players to follow through with what's been taught in October and November."

Blackhawks captain and Canadian Olympic team member Jonathan Toews played two years for perennial power North Dakota.

"For us, we always had a tendency to play better in the second half; it's about finding our groove," Toews said. "Games get tougher and sweeps get tougher. For us, we'd find that groove and outlast everybody. We had a lot of talent, but even more character and personality in the dressing room that helped us win important games. We found a way to complement each other on and off the ice."

The Maple Leafs' Jason Blake blazed a path for Toews and company to follow at North Dakota after capturing the title in 1997 with a win against Boston University.

"You need to raise your level at the right time," Blake said. "And that's definitely January and February. We had a lot of talent and our coaching staff trusted us on and off the ice. If there was a problem, we would nip it in the bud right away. And you do need to lean on the captains or the older guys to lead you in the right direction. It's huge."

The Panthers' Dominic Moore was one of those "older" guys, leaving Harvard with a degree after four years.

"It's a confidence thing," he said. "You need to get a couple of big wins and then you think you can make a run. The key is to compete every game. College hockey, you only play Friday and Saturday, so it's easy to get out of the mentality of competition when you practice for four days straight. You need to be conscious of that battle level, so every game you are right in the mix."

Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen and Canadiens forward Brian Gionta were right in the mix at Boston College during their four years of NCAA play together (1997-2001), including playing in national-title games in 1998, 2000 and 2001.

The former Eagles chimed in about the keys to a successful second half of each of their four NCAA seasons.

"A big factor is you play two games a week," Clemmensen said. The Panthers backup holds the NCAA Tournament record for saves at 356, the very last one in overtime of the 3-2 2001 title win over North Dakota. "So how you play your absolute best as a team is key. You don't have to be the best team in the country, but you have to be playing your best. We had our things in order in-house, and also developed a good power play and penalty kill in the second half."

"These are the months you need to peak," Gionta said. He led the 2000 NCAA Tournament in scoring with 4 goals and 3 assists. "We focused on maintaining an energy level. The main thing is being hungry enough."

On Campus Clips -- The Atlantic Hockey Executive Committee extended Bob DeGregorio's contract as commissioner of the Atlantic Hockey Association through 2013. … Michigan's NCCA-best 19 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament looked like a sure bet to end when the Wolverines stumbled out of the gates 5-7-0 in their first dozen games. At 10-4-1 in their last 15, however, coach Red Berenson's team appears to be priming the pump for a second-half run to keep that NCAA history intact. … Union's unblemished 7-0-0 ECACHL record heading into last weekend -- the only remaining team with a perfect league record -- ended with a loss to Harvard Friday night. … The Miami RedHawks earned a school-record seventh shutout of the season Saturday, 5-0, at Alaska. … The 58th Beanpot Tournament starts Monday; BC plays Harvard in the first game, followed by BU-Northeastern. The winners play Feb. 8. … Between games Monday, BC's Bob Sweeney who helped win the '83 Beanpot with 6 points, Northeastern's Tim Marshall, who backstopped Northeastern to the '84 Beanpot title in goal, and longtime Harvard associate athletic director Fran Toland will be inducted into the Beanpot Hall of Fame.

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