Big Pond’s size not necessarily advantageous for Illini

By Sean Neumann

Playing on the Big Pond can give the Illini hockey team home ice advantage, but it can also be a big problem.

The Big Pond is the widest rink in the ACHA, stretching across 195 feet by 115 feet, compared with most rinks that measure 200-by-85, which is regulation size for the NHL. With more width, offenses have more room to make plays, and it challenges defenses to cover more space on the ice.

For senior goaltender Nick Clarke, playing on the Big Pond forces him to play a completely different game than he does when playing on a regulation-size rink. Clarke, like most of the Illini, grew up playing on a smaller rink than the Big Pond and had to make adjustments when first coming to Illinois.

“There’s not much space behind the boards,” Clarke said, pointing out that a lot of visiting teams tend to shoot wide of the net on purpose in order to deflect the puck in front of the net.

Defenseman Kyle Clark said the boards behind the net cause the puck to take funny hops, which can sometimes cost the Illini defensively.

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    “You’ve got to be ready for it and anticipate the bad bounces,” Clark said. “Just be in position and hope for the best if it takes a wild jump on you.”

    But when visiting teams do take shots on net from the outside, Nick Clarke said he has a better advantage when playing at home on the wider rink.

    “Things happen a lot faster on a smaller rink, so you have to react faster and there’s less room to make plays,” Clarke said. “If a guy’s shooting from the boards on a regulation-size rink, it could be a real quality shot, but here you’ve got a lot of time to react to it.”

    On the road, most Illini players said they don’t have to make many adjustments, having grown up playing on regulation-size rinks. When playing a series on the road, the Illini prepare during the week in practice by playing on squared-off sections of the ice on the Big Pond. The team also gets an opportunity to make adjustments on visiting teams’ rinks during Friday morning skates and during warmups before the game.

    “Generally, it takes a couple shifts (to get used to the difference) on a smaller ice,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “Being mentally prepared is so important on the road, because you know it’s going to be a completely different game than we play here at home.”

    Illini captain Austin Bostock said the team usually plays very different when they’re on the road by better utilizing its speed.

    “It’s a little faster paced and harder-hitting game,” Bostock said. “At the Big Pond, if you go and make a big hit, it might be a good thing, but at the same time you’re taking yourself out of the play. Whereas on a small rink, a big hit can lead to two-on-one or three-on-one chances and in some cases can lead to goals.”

    Defenseman Cody von Rueden said the smaller sheets of ice at visiting arenas also allow the Illini to utilize the power of their forecheck with less space between defenders and forwards, putting pressure on teams trying to advance the puck out of their defensive zone.

    “There’s a lot less time to make plays out there,” von Rueden said. “You’ve got to move the puck a lot quicker and we’ve got to use our body a lot more. We’re a very skilled team and we’re a fast team, so when we’re on the forecheck we definitely use a lot of tenacity to get pucks in.”

    But as an experienced player, von Rueden knows that smaller rinks mean more opportunities for bigger hits and less time to react, since there’s not as much room for players to escape an incoming body.

    “You need to have your head on a swivel at all times,” von Rueden said. “Playing on The Big Pond, you get a lot more time and space, and we can use a lot more of the ice. On these smaller sheets, you just don’t have time to do that. You need to know what you’re going to do with the puck before you get there.”

    While the Illini play 22 of their 39 regular season games at home, they must make the quick adjustments during their 17 games on the road.

    Bostock said the Illini are one of the teams that deal with ice disadvantages the most, coming from playing on the Big Pond. But the captain knows Illinois tries to exploit its lessons from playing on The Big Pond when playing on the road.

    “We’ve got the skilled guys to be able to make the plays quicker and more efficiently,” Bostock said. “Going from a big rink to a small rink is easier than going from a small rink to a big rink.”

    Fabbrini said the players are looking forward to playing on a regulation-sized rink again this weekend at Robert Morris.

    “I think we tend to almost play better on a small rink than we do on the big rink out here,” Fabbrini said. “We just simplify the game a lot more, which works out really well for us.”

    Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.