Mavericks continue recent strong play

Could a .500 team be one of the hottest in the country? Such is the question posed by the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. After starting the season 2-4, including disappointing losses to Bentley and Cornell at home, the Mavericks have rebounded over the last few weeks with some impressive games. After sweeping Denver on the road, the Mavericks returned home for tough series with No. 13 North Dakota and No. 2 Michigan. They came out with splits in both, winning the first game, but unable to get the sweep.

Against Michigan in the first game, entering the third trailing 2-1, the Mavericks got a tying goal from Aaron Pearce, and then the game-winner from Josh Archibald, who is tied for the team scoring lead with Ryan Walters with 13 points. Archibald has nine goals on the year, tied for sixth in the country.

On Saturday, the Mavericks again entered the third trailing, this time 3-2, and again tied it, this time on a goal by Brock Montpetit. However, Michigan’s Derek DeBlois scored at 13:53 to earn a split for the Wolverines.

A couple of things stand out from those two games. First, Michigan entered the series with the number two team defense in the country, yet the potent offense from Nebraska-Omaha put up three goals in each game.

Second, coach Dean Blais continues to platoon his three goalies. Ryan Massa played Friday and earned the win. Instead of freshman Kirk Thompson however (who has the most games in net for Nebraska-Omaha), Blais went with Reed Peters in net. Peters made 27 saves in the loss. None of the Mavericks netminders has world-beating stats; Peters has the best save percentage at .898, and all three goalies have goals-against averages over 3.00.

While Blais likes to play an up and down style of hockey, if the defense ever clamps down, or one of three goalies emerges with the hot hand, watch out. Currently in conference, the Mavericks are in a three-way tie for second place, though they and St. Cloud, which both have the highest conference winning percentage at .750, have games in hand on leader Denver.

Defense in Denver
Speaking of the Pioneers, there were a lot of unknowns entering this year. One thing was for sure however: with so many unknowns among its forwards, as well as the departure of Nick Shore, Denver would need to better its defense to do well. For many Pioneers fans however, the departure of goaltender Juho Olkinuora made that a more difficult proposition, especially since the Pioneers only finished at 32 in team defense for 2012-13.

However, senior goaltender Sam Brittain has recovered his mojo. Entering the year, both his teammates and coach stated that Brittain was in “the best shape of his life.” Brittain’s play through the first six weeks bears this out. Brittain is currently fourth nationally among goalies with a 1.61 GAA and .945 save percentage. The team’s defense is also fourth nationally, averaging a stingy 1.83 average goals per game.

Against Western Michigan this past weekend, a team that last year won with defense, Brittain needed to be at his best. After giving up a late first period goal and an early tally in the second, Brittain clamped down while his teammates erupted offensively with four goals. The Broncos pulled within one early in the third, but Denver answered two minutes later, and Brittain stoned 10 of 11 shots in the third (28 in the game), to preserve the win.

In the Saturday rematch, Brittain stopped all 26 shots he faced to notch his third shutout of the young season, and the Pioneers rode a second-period tally from captain David Makowski to a 1-0 win.

One potential concern is whether Brittain can keep it up. He has played all but one of Denver’s games so far this year. Freshman Evan Cowley played in the second weekend of the season against Alaska-Anchorage, while freshman Greg Ogard has yet to play.

The Pioneers face Air Force in a home-and-home this weekend, then have a one week break before closing the first half with a tough double bill of road series against No. 8 Miami and No. 10 Rensselaer. It is possible either Cowley or Ogard could see action this weekend against the Falcons.

Saturday slump
No. 13 North Dakota, currently sitting at 4-5-1, has seen an interesting trend develop: they can’t win on Saturday. In five Saturday games, they have claimed only one point, a tie in their first series against Vermont. Since then, North Dakota has lost Saturday games to Miami, St. Cloud, Nebraska-Omaha, and Minnesota-Duluth. And while North Dakota has generally done well in the first game of its two-game sets, when they faced Nebraska-Omaha in a rare Saturday-Sunday set, they fell to the Mavericks in the first game, continuing the Saturday curse.

The loss to Minnesota-Duluth Saturday has to sting. After notching three goals in the third on Friday to claim a hard-fought 4-2 win over the Bulldogs, North Dakota gave up three first-period goals, two of which were power-play tallies. The last goal came with only 11 seconds left in the period. North Dakota pulled within a goal early in the second, but that was as close as they got.

In his post-game comments, North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol singled out the lack of a complete effort from his team as a major factor in the loss.

“I thought we had to play a really intelligent, compete game. Little bit low on energy and I thought we didn’t manage, obviously, the last two minutes of the first period very well.”