First place in January a first for Nebraska-Omaha as it heads to Denver

No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha made history last weekend by taking over first place in the WCHA. It was the first time the Mavericks have led their league in the second half of the season, and they’re not ready to give that spot up.

The No. 1 slot in the WCHA likely will be held by a few teams over the next month as the league race shakes out, and no doubt an upset — paging Alaska-Anchorage — will give one team an edge in late February.

“We’re pretty happy to be a part of that history, and hopefully we’ll keep it going because [the] WCHA is such a close league to be in,” Andrej Sustr told Gateway, the UNO student newspaper. “We just have to be sure we’re ready for every weekend.”

No. 7 North Dakota, tied for third with No. 9 Denver (17 points), and No. 1 Minnesota, alone in sixth (15 points), have games in hand on the red Mavs.

The Mavericks took over the top spot with a potent attack and a steady defense that also contributes on the offensive end. Both will be tested this weekend at Magness Arena against a Denver team that relies on its defense to succeed.

Denver has climbed rapidly up the national poll, going from No. 14 to No. 9 in two weeks, thanks to the reemergence of a dangerous offensive attack and the continued strong play of sophomore goalie Juho Olkinuora.

“We wanted to get back to the things we were doing to start the year,” DU coach George Gwozdecky said. “When we got back from the break, we really worked on getting back to where we were, and I think our guys realized we got away from what we had been doing to start the year. Playing well defensively helps you offensively in any sport, and we’ve gotten back to playing better defensively.”

That strong defense transitioned into an offense that was humming at 4.5 goals per game in the first two months. It is led by junior Nick Shore (23 points, team-high 14 assists), senior Chris Knowlton (21, team-high 11 goals) and sophomore defenseman Joey LaLeggia (18, 11 assists). Olkinuora (6-1-3, 1.55 goals against average, .948 save percentage) is expected to start the series opener after recording his first two-game weekend in a sweep of Cornell last Friday and Saturday.

UNO relies on a potent offense, and its big defenders will need to handle the DU speed well to succeed.

Junior forward Ryan Walters shows no signs of cooling off. He leads Division I with 13 goals and 20 assists for 33 points, all career highs. He is averaging 1.50 points per game to rank fourth in the country, and he has scored points in six straight games (5-4–9) and has 14 of the last 15 (13-17–30).

UNO sophomore Dominic Zombo adds 23 points (16 assists) while second-year forward Josh Archibald adds 21 (11 goals) after recording his first college hat trick last Friday. Junior forward Matt White had 19 points, including 11 scores.

UNO will rely more heavily on Faulkner (11-3-1, 2.63, .900) after freshman backup Anthony Stolarz left the program on Monday. Sophomore Ryan Massa returned to the team on Wednesday after taking the first semester off for personal reasons. Massa, who led UNO goalies in minutes last season, was working out with the USHL’s Omaha Lancers, according to the Omaha World Herald.

Stolarz’s departure another mistake

For the second week in a row, a WCHA player defected to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and it was another head scratcher.

Last week, Denver freshman defenseman Dakota Mermis left for the Knights. On Monday, Stolarz told coach Dean Blais he was leaving the team.

Stolarz played in eight games with an. 898 save percentage and a 2.56 goals against average. Not bad, but hardly what was expected. But Stolarz expects to get more playing time where he could very well be the No. 3 goalie?

London already has two good goaltenders — Jake Patterson (2.20, .924) and Kevin Baile (2.50, .921) — who are in the top seven in the OHL in goals against and save percentage. Those two have split the games right down the middle, and London has won 34 of 42 games.

Good luck to Stolarz. He may need it.

Gophers look like a top seed, even if PairWise says otherwise

Minnesota certainly makes a strong case to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with its last two wins: 8-1 over then-No. 1 Boston College and 4-1 over No. 2 Notre Dame on Tuesday.

This leaves many wondering how the No. 1 team in the Division I Men’s Poll can be ranked fourth in the PairWise Rankings. That is because the Gophers’ Ratings Percentage Index is lower than the four teams in front of them.

Strength of schedule influences the RPI, and Minnesota’s strength of schedule is No. 23 with only six games against teams under consideration (teams at or above .500 in RPI).

Minnesota-Duluth will be short-handed on Friday

Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin told the Duluth News Tribune on Tuesday that seniors Cody Danberg and Wade Bergman and freshman forward Austin Farley will sit out Friday’s home game against Michigan Tech for a violation of team rules.

Senior defenseman Drew Olson is expected back from an injury suffered against Ferris State while freshman blue-liner Andy Welinski will remain out. Senior goalie Aaron Crandall is day-to-day.

Quick hits

• The disorderly conduct charge against WCHA referee Peter Friesema for causing a bomb scare at the Anchorage International Airport last October has been dropped, according to the Grand Forks Herald. The WCHA suspended Friesema indefinitely and he has not officiated a game since.

• A gigantic American flag was unveiled in the crowd during the first TV timeout of Tuesday’s Minnesota-Notre Dame game. It was a gesture to honor both teams’ contributions (Minnesota’s Mike Reilly, Gophers assistant coach Grant Potulny and Notre Dame’s Mario Lucia) to Team USA for its World Junior Championship gold medal. The flag was stretched across four sections at Mariucci Arena while Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” played.

• North Dakota’s Corban Knight’s point streak sits at 15 games.

• Wisconsin is 5-0-3 since it was swept at home by Minnesota State, its next opponent. The Badgers have not lost with freshman Nic Kerdiles in the lineup. Not to be outdone, North Dakota is 6-0-1 as it enters a home series against Colorado College which is 0-6-1 since beating UND on Nov. 20 in Colorado Springs.

• Minnesota State’s Eriah Hayes is tied for the national lead in power-play goals with seven.

• Denver’s LaLeggia is tied for the Division I lead in points by defensemen (18) with Colorado College’s Mike Boivin, who leads all defensemen with nine goals after a hat trick last Friday.