Coming off of last week's horrendous performance and loss to Johns Hopkins at Homewood, it's fair to say questions could be asked about this teams long-term capabilities in May. A similar situation occurred with the Terps last year: a hot start, lackluster defeat to North Carolina, bounce-back win vs UVA and a poor offensive performance vs Johns Hopkins. That's been repeated this year. But unlike last year, Maryland's home stretch post JHU is tougher, but also gives more opportunities to get some big wins and build confidence.
It all starts with a huge game away to Notre Dame on Saturday, where a win would give them a share of the ACC Regular Season Championship and the #1 seed in the ACC Tournament. The weird thing? Either way the Terps will meet Notre Dame. Either in the 1/4 match-up as the #1 seed, or as the #3 seed in the 2/3. But the win, and confidence heading up to PPL Park, is what is needed.
In his weekly Tuesday conference call, Coach John Tillman addressed multiple different topics, from the offensive issues to his team's energy and intensity. In regards to the offensive struggles, Tillman said: "Everybody's going to have tape on you, and that's one thing we're going to have to realize, that as we go through the year, we're trying to continually evolve and look at different ways to attack, different schemes, so that we're not predictable."
Tillman also chose to focus on some of the other areas of the game that impact the offense and not just direct performance, such as GB's and clears, areas the Terps struggled on Saturday and Hopkins succeeded, giving the Blue Jays more offensive possessions and longer ones. In regards to struggles with depth, an issue in last year's collapse, and lackluster performances from Tim Rotanz, Jay Carlson, and Kevin Forster, Tillman said: "We're not really worried with who gets the goal or the assist, we're more concerned with: "Are we putting stress on the defense? Are we playing at a high level? Are we generating high quality opportunities." While those issues are certainly bigger than one or two individual performances, the issue has been the Terps aren't generating high quality opportunities. The team looked listless far too often when in possession, seemingly not knowing where to go. That's an issue that must be rectified soon.
Another issue Coach Tillman touched upon was the team's energy, saying they had to match opponents' intensity in the final weeks of the season. "They were well aware that our opponent needed a quality win to help their chances of making the NCAA Tournament. Usually later in the year your senior players say, 'it's later in the year, time and energy are short, and the intensity you bring has to be pretty important'. At this time of the year you have to know teams are going to play like that and I think that's something our players really need to understand."
Maryland has offensive issues. You know it, I know it. The main issue in the games vs Carolina, Hopkins, and to a lesser extent Virginia, is they often don't know where they're going with their offensive sets. They usually want to set up free shots for LoCascio or Chanenchuk, or get Connor Cannizzaro a look inside. But when teams teams plan for that, it limits Maryland and the offense becomes stagnant, repetitive, and the goals dry up.
Against Notre Dame, a very strong defensive team, who gives up an average of just 8.9 goals per game, these same issues will occur. Unless the Terps do two very important things, and get individual performances from certain players.
The first thing Maryland has to do better is dodging. The Terps are often looking for long shots from the outside, and not enough shots after dodges or shots from the left and right alleys. This is far more important vs Notre Dame, as both Duke and Syracuse used it very effectively in their wins over the Irish. Duke got 7 goals from their midfield against ND, using alley dodges and picks very effectively to free up open shots and get dominant performances from their midfield. They walloped the Irish 15-7.
The main guy who would likely be tasked with doing that is Henry West. The Terps need a big game out of him. He announced himself to the national scene in the 9-6 win over Virginia, with a hat-trick and 5 overall points. His ability to dodge from the right, and fire shots past goalies with his laser of a right handed shot will be big if Maryland is to win on Saturday.
The other key is Connor Cannizzaro and his ability to create from behind the cage and score inside. Cannizzaro did this very well vs Syracuse and Virginia, and the Terps offense was noticeably more productive and sharp. He's got a very good shot, and can also take it to the cage and score, which makes him a difficult match-up problem. He had an inauspicious day vs Johns Hopkins, and needs to come up big and cause problems for the ND defense.
On the defensive end, the task is simple yet very, very difficult. Shut down Matt Kavanagh and Conor Doyle. Kavanagh is one of the best dual threat players in the nation, with 21 G and 19 A. Doyle is a fantastic inside finisher, with 17 goals on the season. What Maryland has to do is likely long pole Doyle behind the goal with LSM Michael Ehrhardt. It hinders the threat of Doyle attacking from behind. The Terps were killed by Wells Stanwick's play from behind the cage last week against Johns Hopkins and can't have it happen again. Then the key is sharp and tight defense on Kavanagh, not letting him dodge and get space to shoot, and getting him frustrated. Kavanagh has show noticeable struggles in games where he doesn't get goals and often over complicates his opportunities, as seen in the Syracuse loss.
If Maryland does these things, it shifts the pressure onto guys like Sergio Perkovic and Jim Marlatt. Perkovic has 16 G on the year, and Marlatt has 9. Both have very good shots, particularly Perkovic on the Man-Up. But they often get these opportunities with teams forcing to over defend on Kavanagh and Doyle because of their threats. If Maryland can keep the latter two quiet, they put pressure on contributors for Notre Dame who likely aren't ready to be big time contributors just yet.
This is a big game for Maryland. And while I said it last week, and it likely will have this feel from here on out, this is the biggest game of Maryland's season. Notre Dame would be a big win for confidence, momentum, tournament resume, and ACC Tournament seeding. It ticks all the boxes. The Terps desperately need this W.
Face-off is set for 12 PM and the game will be nationally televised on ESPNU.