The grind of playing in the NCHC becomes even more taxing following the holiday period, leaving momentum gained after New Year’s equating to gold dust.
Don’t bother telling Dean Blais, though. He already knows.
Two seasons ago, the Omaha head coach’s Mavericks couldn’t have picked a better time to catch fire than when they did. They were swept out of the first round of the conference playoffs by St. Cloud State, but qualified for the NCAA tournament, picked up their first national tournament win and then won the Midwest Regional to move onto the 2015 Frozen Four.
The end of last season provided a very different story, as UNO lost each of its last eight games and 14 of its last 18. A double-overtime loss at Denver in Game 2 of the NCHC playoffs’ first round laid the campaign to rest.
This time around, the Mavericks want to get back to finishing on an upswing. That looks likelier now than it did around this time last year, as UNO has won three of its last four games.
The lone blemish – if you can call it that – came last Friday when Miami scored a game-winning goal in a three-on-three second overtime period at Omaha’s Baxter Arena. On Saturday, UNO rode a power-play goal, a shorthanded one and a 30-save Evan Weninger shutout to a 2-0 win over the RedHawks.
Just as important was UNO’s road sweep the weekend before at Colorado College. Beating the Tigers twice came after UNO conceded 16 goals in two home losses to North Dakota on Jan. 6-7.
On Jan. 6, Blais’ former UND program gave him the worst loss of his collegiate coaching career in a 9-1 Mavericks defeat. The Fighting Hawks won again the following night, 6-3.
Performing better both of the past two weekends, then, was just what UNO needed.
“I think it was huge to go up to Colorado, obviously, for a lot of different reasons,” Blais said. “Points being one, and the other is getting back and getting some confidence in our game, and then we had a great week of practice and had to play up against one of the better young teams in the country in Miami, and they’re going to get better in the next six, seven weeks, too.
“At this time of year, you want to get healthy and you want to get better, and I thought we did last year somewhat but the teams that we played obviously were better than us.”
Blais was much happier with UNO’s performances against Miami than the Mavericks had in their last home series two weeks earlier against UND.
“Certainly it was a real big boost to get the showing here that we got,” Blais said. “A lot of fans, after we got beat that bad from North Dakota, you wonder if they were going to stick around, and (against UND) it was just one of those weekends where nothing went well.
“I think we competed harder on Saturday, still lost, but at least we competed harder, and Friday was just one of those games that, why does everyone play good, and that particular game, everyone played bad from our defensemen to the goaltender to the forwards.
“No one had a great game and we turned that around, and now in the NCHC and the next 10 games, we can’t afford to have one guy playing not up to their ability. One guy will cost us if they’re not working hard and doing the things that we’re asking.”
This weekend, UNO visits the same Denver team that gave the Mavericks their final four losses of last season, all at DU’s Magness Arena. Two late-season series this time with the third-ranked Pioneers sandwich three other tough matchups for UNO in the lead-up to the postseason: at No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth (Feb. 3-4), No. 10 Western Michigan at home (Feb. 10-11), a week off and then a trip to No. 12 UND (Feb. 24-25).
At this point, with UNO at No. 16 in the PairWise Rankings, the Mavericks are very much on the bubble for NCAA tournament qualification. Positive showings this weekend in Denver, however, could firm up UNO’s chances to become one of the country’s last 16 men’s Division I teams standing.
Easier said than done, though.
“If we split the next five series, we’re in the NCAA tournament,” Blais said. “We want to get that fourth spot (in the NCHC standings) and get home ice. You never know, you might get third and you could even move higher, but you could end up down on the bottom, too, so there’s points out there but we have to get better every week and that’s sometimes hard to do.
“If you’re playing at the top of your game, you’ve got to be healthy, you’ve got to be rested. Yesterday (on Monday), according to our trainers, we only had six guys that were fully recovered from the weekend, and that carried over. The altitude of Colorado Springs and traveling back on Saturday after the game, too. It all wears you down at this time of the year, so rest is very important and hydration and how you practice.”
Broncos reach headiest days yet this season
Also on a big uptick lately is Western Michigan.
The Broncos entered this week at No. 10 in the latest USCHO.com poll, marking the first time WMU had a top-10 spot therein since March 11, 2013, when the Broncos were listed ninth.
Western has never been ranked higher this season than it is now. It’s not tough to see why: two wins last weekend against CC saw the Broncos go to 6-2 in their last eight games.
WMU opened its series with the Tigers at Lawson Arena with a 4-2 Friday-night win. On Saturday, three different Broncos scored and goalie Ben Blacker made 25 saves in a 3-0 victory.
CC, who has still not yet won its first home game of the season (0-9-0), made WMU work for the two wins.
“We’re happy with the wins on both nights,” WMU head coach Andy Murray said. “Certainly, we performed a lot better on Saturday than we did on Friday night, and you always need to recognize your opponent in any situation.
“Colorado College has been a very good team this year in our league on the road and has won some big hockey games recently, so they were a tough team to play against. They competed, they battled. Coach (Mike) Haviland’s done a great job with them and they’re continuing to get better.
“Friday night, our level of intensity was not where it needed to be for the full 60 minutes, particularly in the second period (but) we responded in the third. I thought, from the get-go on Saturday night, we had some real purpose to our game. We played a real solid, strong team game. The first three shifts of the hockey game are an indication of how we want to play, and we were on our toes and put (CC) under some pressure there.”
Offensively, WMU is playing better so far this season than it ever had under their sixth-year coach. The Broncos are scoring an average of 3.27 goals per game so far this season and have outscored opponents 24-9 in games’ third periods.
“We have more depth on our forward lines and I think we have more skill,” Murray said. “We have more speed, and that lends itself to your ability to hang on to pucks, to spend more time in the offensive zone.
“When you’re doing that, you’re creating offensive chances which can lead to goals, or the other thing is you’re drawing penalties, which is putting your team on the power play. We’ve drawn more penalties this year than we have in other years, as well, so I think they’re related.”
This weekend, WMU travels east to face former CCHA rival Miami. The Broncos will be looking for a pair of wins, of course, but don’t expect next week’s polls to prey on Murray’s mind.
“We don’t even talk about it,” he said. “That’s great, and it’s great for our alums and everybody to see that, and I’m sure it’s a sense of pride for everybody. Our main focus is trying to win a hockey game on Friday night against Miami.
“We’ll never get ahead of ourselves. We know how quickly things can go in the other direction. You never want to lose a game because you never know when you’ll win again after that, so just try to keep winning. Our focus is not on polls, it’s not on rankings, it’s not on anything else, it’s on trying to beat our next opponent, which, in our league, is very difficult to do.”
Players of the Week
Offensive Player of the Week: Riley Tufte, Minnesota-Duluth. A four-point weekend from the freshman forward propelled UMD to its first road sweep against North Dakota in over 20 years. Tufte also recorded the first two multi-point games of his collegiate career last weekend against the Fighting Hawks.
Defensive Player of the Week: Willie Raskob, Minnesota-Duluth. Raskob headlined a UMD defensive corps that limited UND to three goals last weekend at the Hawks’ Grand Forks home. Only one of UND’s goals came at even-strength. Offensively, Raskob finished the weekend with a plus-3 rating.
Rookie of the Week: Hunter Miska, Minnesota-Duluth. The Duluth goaltender continues to impress in his freshman season, as he stopped 50 of the 53 shots he faced last weekend against UND. He now boasts a 14-4-2 record for UMD with a .920 save percentage.
Goaltender of the Week: Ben Blacker, Western Michigan. Two freshman goalies make it into this section of the column this week, as Blacker impressed last weekend in WMU’s home sweep of CC. Blacker stopped 57 of the 59 shots he faced against the Tigers.