Nebraska-Omaha, Wisconsin look to climb their way back up

Odds are pretty good that Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin won’t both make the NCAA tournament, but one of those teams could strengthen its chances with a sweep when they meet in Omaha this weekend.

Both teams are outside of the tournament field and a sweep in either direction this weekend could move that team closer.

The 16-team NCAA tournament has 11 at-large spots and five automatic bids. Wisconsin was in the top 20 of the PairWise Rankings that mimic the NCAA’s at-large selection process but just outside the tournament field before it lost to Penn State 3-2 in overtime on Monday.

The Badgers are tied for 25th while the Mavericks are 22nd.

“I think with a split, it won’t really move either team,” UNO junior Matt White said. “It’s important for us to get four points on the weekend. We need to get at least three to move up and get consideration for the tournament.”

Added Wisconsin senior Ryan Little: “We never really focus on the other team that much. We concentrate on playing our system and our style of play.”

The Badgers play a well-structured defense that frustrates some of the strongest opposing offenses every week. It will be interesting to see what wins between the complexity of Wisconsin’s defense and Nebraska-Omaha’s size, physicality and speed.

“They want to play a tight checking game and we can play that style but our game is more speed-oriented,” White said. “We have to focus on puck movement, moving our feet, getting pucks to the net.”

The Mavericks have a built-in advantage against Wisconsin in that they have had two weeks of practice plus an exhibition game to prepare for the Badgers. Wisconsin didn’t skate Tuesday so it will have an extra-short week to prepare plus 430 miles of travel.

Knowing what needs to happen this weekend, Little said he feels the short week will have less of an effect.

“We’ve done enough conditioning ourselves and trained enough where I don’t think it’s going to affect us much,” Little said.

Little was a redshirt when the Badgers skated to the Frozen Four in 2010. Wisconsin is 38-34-6 without a tournament appearance in two-plus seasons since.

UNO lost an NCAA first-round game to Michigan in its last tournament appearance in 2011. The Mavericks were in position to make the tournament last season before they lost their final regular season games and were swept out of the WCHA playoffs by St. Cloud State.

“Getting swept in St. Cloud was heartbreaking because our team expects to be in the tournament every year,” White said. — TB

Penn State stuns Wisconsin in Madison

Ahead of their rare Sunday-Monday set with Penn State, Wisconsin looked over the past couple months as though it recovered well from a disastrous start to the season that saw the Badgers win only one non-exhibition game before Dec. 1.

Things were looking particularly good for the Badgers on Sunday night following UW’s 5-0 rout of the Nittany Lions at the Kohl Center. The hosts outshot Penn State 51-22 in the series opener and, though the visitors proved pesky early on, Wisconsin’s goals started raining in after John Ramage scored 1:26 into the second period.

The first 46:41 of Monday’s rematch went well for the hosts, too, as the Badgers opened up a 2-0 lead with only 13:19 remaining in regulation.

Sadly for UW, though, Monday night went downhill from there.

Penn State restored parity through goals from Taylor Holstrom — seven seconds after Joseph LaBate had put UW by a pair — and Casey Bailey. A second goal from Holstrom 4:26 into overtime left most of the announced 9,078 in attendance searching for answers.

“We’re going to look back at this game and say it was a game of missed opportunities,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said following the upset loss. “We’re going to probably look at the film and say we out-chanced [Penn State] two-to-one and we didn’t score enough to put it out of the game in regulation.”

They did and they didn’t. Penn State goaltender Matthew Skoff made 42 saves Monday night, and the Badgers were unable to beat him often enough to keep the Nittany Lions from picking up a third win of the season against future Big Ten hockey conference opposition.

Wisconsin’s loss to Penn State’s first-year Division I team is piling on the pressure in Madison, and the Badgers are going to have to really work to make amends.

The Badgers, who have been to the WCHA Final Five only four times out of 10 seasons under Eaves, have the league’s most difficult remaining schedule. Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State, the Badgers’ final two opponents of the regular season, have a combined point total of 63 points.

By that logic, the easiest remaining schedule belongs to Denver — Minnesota and Alaska-Anchorage have a combined 41 points — and the Pioneers are tied on points with UW right along the WCHA’s top six-bottom six border.

A lot of respect goes to PSU — four of the Nittany Lions’ signature wins this season have come one night after losing on the previous night. UW’s capitulation over the final 25 minutes of Monday’s game, however, leaves the Badgers’ series this weekend at Nebraska-Omaha an even more uncomfortable proposition than it was before.

Eaves said the right things in a difficult situation on Monday, though, including that his Wisconsin team needs to take care of its own business the rest of the way.

“I think what [the loss to Penn State] does is it just squeezes the importance of our last four games,” Eaves said. “We have to primarily win out, so that’s our task at hand.” — MS

Hayes’ 18 goals leading Mankato down stretch

Minnesota State hasn’t been in this position while its group of seniors have been with the team.

The Mavericks seniors are a month away from their first NCAA tournament appearance — at least it will be hard for them to fall out of the NCAA tournament picture from seventh in the PairWise Rankings.

Their season ended in a double-overtime loss in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at Minnesota-Duluth in 2012, a 3-2 OT loss at Denver in 2011 and another 3-2 loss in Game 3 at St. Cloud State in 2010.

Eriah Hayes was a freshman on the Mavericks team that fell one win short of the Final Five in 2010.

“We were the underdog in different situations all three of those years,” Hayes said. “As a senior, I’m hungry as ever because I have one last chance to leave an impression on the university and leave on a good note.

“Just to help get something done at the school that hasn’t been done in a while is a pretty big honor.”

The Mavericks are ranked ninth in the Division I Men’s Poll, tying for the highest spot they have ever reached in the poll, and Hayes is also hitting his peak this season.

The senior captain has 18 goals in 28 games, 14 short of his career total going into the season. Two more goals and he’ll be Minnesota State’s first 20-goal scorer since Mick Berge in 2007-08.

“My goal coming into the year was to prove myself to coach [Mike Hastings] and show him I could be a player that should be in the lineup every night,” said Hayes, who recorded a hat trick Feb. 9 at Minnesota-Duluth.

Hayes is tied for the national lead in power-play goals (11) for the Mavericks, who have the country’s fifth-best power play at 23.3 percent.

Of the six goals Hayes has scored in the past four games (all wins), four were on the power play.

“There’s four really skilled guys on the ice with me [on the power play] and we have a couple different looks we can give guys every night,” Hayes said. “I count on guys like Matty Leitner, [J.P.] Lafontaine, [Zach] Lehrke and [Zach] Palmquist.” — TB

North Dakota players, fans road warriors again

For the second straight series and seemingly the billionth time ever, North Dakota fans conquered hostile territory last Friday and Saturday and claimed Denver’s Magness Arena for the visiting fans’ own.

An estimated 1,500 UND fans made the trip to see their team take on the 10th-ranked Pioneers at Magness, effectively turning both nights’ turnouts into bipartisan crowds.

The UND fans and their team didn’t come away empty-handed. Sixth-ranked UND may have only picked up two of the four points on the weekend, but it scored 10 goals in the process and ran roughshod over Denver on Saturday in a 6-1 rout.

It was UND’s third win in the last four games, all on the road. UND swept Nebraska-Omaha two weeks ago, besting the Mavericks 2-1 indoors at CenturyLink Center on Feb. 8 before jumping out to an early 3-0 lead the following evening outdoors at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park and eventually winning the rematch 5-2.

The atmosphere at all three venues — Omaha’s two and inside Magness in Denver — was made electric in large part by the visiting fans, and local economies benefited as well. UND put on fan events in nearby establishments in both cities, at the Old Mattress Factory bar and grill in Omaha and inside the Cherry Creek Courtyard in Denver.

UND fans still have one more road trip to make during the regular season — Minnesota State next weekend — but if results keep going their team’s way, UND is primed for one last appearance in the Final Five next month in St. Paul. — MS

Quick hits

• Alaska-Anchorage squares off with Alaska this weekend in a home-and-home series to decide the winner of the Alaska Airlines Governor’s Cup. College hockey’s only two teams from The Last Frontier will — some might say finally — become Division I league rivals for the first time next season when Alaska moves to the WCHA from the CCHA. UAA has enjoyed an 82-52-11 lead in the all-time series with its intrastate rival.

• Nebraska-Omaha sophomore goaltender Ryan Massa played in the Mavericks’ exhibition loss to the U.S. Under-18 Team last Saturday, thus burning his redshirt. The Littleton, Colo., native announced last July that he would be sitting this season out for personal reasons but the UNO coaching staff has brought him back. The opportunity to count the season as a redshirt ended because the exhibition didn’t fall during the Mavericks’ preseason.