WCHA newcomers Nebraska-Omaha, Bemidji State take different roads

Dean Blais’ exact quote was “It’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. … With 11 freshman in the lineup, we could be in for a real tough start.”

That was before the season. Before Nebraska-Omaha went 9-1-1 to begin the year and catapulted the Mavericks into the center of regional and national attention.

Bemidji State's Radoslav Illo adjusts the facemask of UNO's Eric Olimb during the first period. Illo received a penalty on the play. UNO and Bemidji State skated to a 2-2 tie Friday night at Qwest Center Omaha. (Photo by Michelle Bishop) (Michelle Bishop)
Nebraska-Omaha is headed to a home playoff series in its first WCHA season, while Bemidji State is trying to break out (photo: Michelle Bishop).

Players like Eric Olimb also knew it wouldn’t be easy to go from the prestigious CCHA to the arguably the best league in the nation, the WCHA.

“The CCHA has solid players who all go on after college,” said Eric Olimb, a Warroad, Minn. native whose uncle, Larry, played for Minnesota. “But the biggest difference is the depth where every team in the WCHA has three or four solid lines compared to one or two in other leagues. Any team can win on any given night [in the WCHA] and there’s more history and knowledge of the game.”

UNO entered the WCHA this season with Bemidji State, a former member of the now-defunct CHA.

Beavers assistant captain Ian Lowe was aware of the challenge his team faced going into the new league.

“It was a big step going from the CHA to playing against some of the teams we’re facing this year [in the WCHA],” Lowe said. “We’ve learned from some early mistakes and we’ve improved from there.”

The Beavers were coming off two straight NCAA tournament bids and built a flashy new arena. They started the season off with a five-game winless streak and were never able to recover. BSU couldn’t put together four straight games without a loss until its current five-game unbeaten streak.

BSU is two seasons removed from its only Division I Frozen Four appearance but has a rich tradition in other divisions, winning five national titles at the D-II level and one in D-III. The Beavers are still trying to find themselves in their 12th season at the D-I level, and the move to the WCHA can help BSU get noticed.

The key is to break out and establish itself as an accomplished program in the WCHA, something teams like Minnesota State and Alaska-Anchorage are still struggling with. MSU has been in the league since 1999 and UAA came into the league in 1993.

“You want to go out and make sure people know you’re not a bottom dweller,” Lowe said. “It was important to come in here and play these teams and make sure we weren’t a team that would just get rolled over.”

BSU recruit Tyler Tosunian could have a big impact on the Beavers’ future. The California native is second in the Central Hockey League in scoring with 111 points this season for the first-place Pembroke Lumber Kings. His 77 assists lead the league, and he scored 114 points in 2009-10.

UNO has a group of commits that have already made names for themselves at amateur levels like right wing Jayson Megna, who is third in the USHL in scoring with 48 points. Goaltender Ryan Massa is having a good season for the Fargo Force with a 2.09 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage.

Brian Cooper and Alex Broadhurst (his brother, Terry, plays for UNO) both played on the U.S. Under-18 team in 2009-10, and Cooper played with the U-17 team the season before. The Mavericks beat Colorado College, Denver and Minnesota to 17-year-old Cooper’s commitment. He is Massa’s teammate in Fargo and will join the Mavericks in 2012.

As for the present, the Mavericks have wrapped up a home-ice spot for the WCHA playoffs and their remaining schedule suggests UNO will get a third or fourth seed. The Mavericks, ninth in the PairWise Rankings, are also projected to get a NCAA tournament berth.

The offense has to get to where it was at the beginning of the season, a strong consistent scoring machine, for UNO to make a run. The Mavericks have been awful on the power play in the last nine games, going back to the Jan. 22 loss to North Dakota. UNO went 5-for-7 on the power play on Jan. 21 but has scored only three times in 43 power play chances since.

BSU is likely headed for a bottom-four finish, so don’t be surprised if the Beavers and the Mavericks see each other in the first round.

Matchups at a glance

Here’s a look at this weekend’s series:

Nebraska-Omaha at Denver

Records: DU — 19-8-5 (15-6-3 WCHA). UNO — 19-11-2 (15-7-2 WCHA).

Last meeting: DU beat UNO 1-0 on Jan. 1, 2010, at the Denver Cup.

Special teams: DU — 19.3 percent PP (19th in nation), 86.2 percent PK (7th in nation). UNO — 18.7 percent PP (23nd in nation). 84.1 percent PK (14th in nation).

Streaks: DU 1-game winning. UNO 1-game winning.

Goaltending: DU — Sam Brittain (24 GP, 13-6-5, 2.67 GAA, .921 save percentage). UNO — John Faulkner (32 GP, 18-10-2, 2.41 GAA, .913 save percentage).

Leading scorer: DU — Drew Shore (19-19–38). UNO — Joey Martin (11-22–33).

Minnesota-Duluth at Colorado College

Records: UMD — 19-8-5 (14-6-4 WCHA). CC — 17-15-2 (11-12-1 WCHA).

Last meeting: UMD eliminated CC in three games in the 2010 WCHA first round in Duluth.

Special teams: UMD — 20.8 percent PP (12th in nation), 86.2 percent PK (7th in nation). CC — 21.2 percent PP (11th in nation). 84.1 percent PK (14th in nation).

Streaks: UMD 1-game winning. CC 2-game winless.

Goaltending: UMD — Kenny Reiter (20 GP, 9-5-4, 2.40 GAA, .908 save percentage) and Aaron Crandall (15 GP, 10-2-1, 2.57 GAA, .900 save percentage). CC — Joe Howe (27 GP, 13-12-1, 3.09 GAA, .898 save percentage).

Leading scorer: UMD — Jack Connolly (12-33–35). CC — Tyler Johnson (18-16–34).

Bemidji State at North Dakota

Records: BSU — 12-14-4 (8-12-4 WCHA). UND — 22-8-3 (17-6-1 WCHA).

Last meeting: UND swept BSU in October in Bemidji.

Special teams: BSU — 20.6 percent PP (15th in nation), 82.6 percent PK (27th in nation). UND — 19.7 percent PP (17th in nation). 84 percent PK (15th in nation).

Streaks: BSU 5-game unbeaten. UND 5-game unbeaten.

Goaltending: BSU — Dan Bakala (23 GP, 11-9-3, 2.17 GAA, .923 save percentage). UND — Aaron Dell (30 GP, 21-6-2, 2.07 GAA, .919 save percentage).

Leading scorer: BSU — Jordan George (14-17–31). UND — Matt Frattin (24-14–38).

Wisconsin at St. Cloud State

Records: UW — 19-11-4 (11-10-3 WCHA). SCSU — 12-15-5 (8-12-4 WCHA).

Last meeting: UW eliminated SCSU, 5-3, in the 2010 West Regional final in St. Paul.

Special teams: UW — 23 percent PP (8th in nation), 80.6 percent PK (39th in nation). SCSU — 17.7 percent PP (29th in nation). 83.2 percent PK (20th in nation).

Streaks: UW 4-game winless. SCSU 3-game winless.

Goaltending: UW — Scott Gudmandson (25 GP, 14-9-1, 2.06 GAA, .926 save percentage). SCSU — Mike Lee (27 GP, 10-11-4, 2.84 GAA, .906 save percentage).

Leading scorer: UW — Justin Schultz (16-28–44). SCSU — Drew LeBlanc (13-24–37).

Michigan Tech at Minnesota

Records: MTU — 4-24-4 (2-20-2 WCHA). UM — 13-12-5 (10-10-4 WCHA).

Last meeting: UM swept MTU in November in Houghton.

Special teams: MTU — 16.9 percent PP (33rd in nation), 77.3 percent PK (53rd in nation). UM — 20.5 percent PP (16th in nation). 76.4 percent PK (55th in nation).

Streaks: MTU 1-game losing. UM 3-game unbeaten.

Goaltending: MTU — Kevin Genoe (20 GP, 3-14-2, 3.59 GAA, .893 save percentage). UM — Kent Patterson (24 GP, 11-7-5, 2.53 GAA, .920 save percentage).

Leading scorer: MTU — Milos Gordic (13-6–19). UM — Jacob Cepis (10-16–26).

Alaska-Anchorage vs. Alaska

Records: UAA — 11-16-3 (10-14-2 WCHA). UA — 13-14-5 (10-13-5-3 CCHA).

Last meeting: Alaska swept UAA in the first half of this season’s Governor’s Cup.

Special teams: UAA — 14.7 percent PP (48th in nation), 82.7 percent PK (26th in nation). UAF — 15.1 percent PP (46th in nation). 84.8 percent PK (11th in nation).

Streaks: UAA 1-game losing. UAF 1-game losing.

Goaltending: UAA — Rob Gunderson (21 GP, 7-11-2, 2.67 GAA, .921 save percentage). UAF — Scott Greenham (32 GP, 13-14-5, 2.14 GAA, .921 save percentage).

Leading scorer: UAA — Tommy Grant (11-14–25). UAF — Cody Kunyk (10-11–22).