The last chance around the WCHA dance floor starts this weekend.
UNO opens its third and final season in the historic league with a series against Bemidji State, Friday night at 7:37 and Saturday night at 7:07 at the CenturyLink Center.
While the Mavericks were admittedly thrilled to move to the WCHA beginning in 2010-11, they were left looking for a better place once Big Ten hockey became a reality, with Minnesota and Wisconsin leaving the WCHA.
UNO, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Denver, Colorado College and St. Cloud State — arguably the elite remaining members of the WCHA based on a combination of tradition and resources — are signed on to become members of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which starts play next season.
So veterans like UNO coach Dean Blais, who spent so many seasons in WCHA arenas from his association with Minnesota and North Dakota, may have a bit of a sentimental journey over the next few months.
“What helps is that six (former WCHA) members will be in there,” Blais said. “Everyone worked so doggone hard to get the (proposed) new (on-campus) arena, and now we want to make sure we’re in the best league possible. And I don’t think there’s any question we are.”
The Big Ten will have big names like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. But Penn State is a startup program and all of the traditional powers have gone through their ups and downs the past few years.
Currently there are two Big Ten teams — both in the top six — in the USCHO.com poll, while there are three NCHC teams in the top five, four in the top 14 and five in the top 19.
But the relative strength of those leagues is a debate for another date.
What matters now is the WCHA.
It’s pretty early to examine how things have gone to this point through two weekends of mostly nonconference play.
Maybe Minnesota-Duluth (2-2) is reloading a little better than expected after splitting with Notre Dame. Maybe Wisconsin was a bit overrated after being swept by Northern Michigan.
Michigan Tech raised some eyebrows by splitting with Minnesota at home last weekend, knocking the Gophers out of the national No. 1 spot, in the only WCHA games played thus far.
Maybe UNO is a bit of a surprise, too, at 2-2 with one-goal losses to nationally ranked teams in Notre Dame and Northern Michigan, as well as a win over Northern.
What changes this weekend?
“We’re playing to win now,” Blais said. “We’re not playing to get everyone in the lineup. That was important last week, to get as many guys a chance to play as we could.
“The next eight games are WCHA games, and maybe against Alabama-Huntsville we’ll experiment here and there. But obviously we want to do well in the league, in our last year in the WCHA.”
The other future NCHC league members will be Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan.
The list doesn’t include the likes of Alaska-Anchorage, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato and, yes, this weekend’s opponent, 1-1 Bemidji State.
They’ll all stay in a reconstituted WCHA that will include leftovers from the CCHA.
Blais said that, after some initial hostility, the WCHA teams left behind after this season have moved on.
“I think there was some, ‘What’s wrong with us?’ at first,” Blais said. “But I think that’s gone away. I wasn’t in favor of it (the NCHC) at the start, either. But Minnesota and Wisconsin kind of did it with (leaving for) the Big Ten.”
“It could be a chance for some of those teams to have a chance to win that automatic (NCAA) qualifier.”
UNO players said they certainly don’t sense any animosity over the league split. That all played out over a year ago anyway.
“I don’t think it’s a huge factor,” goalie John Faulkner said. “I don’t think there’s a mental change based on whether a team is going to a different league. You work on your game plan. In the smaller picture, you’re going to play 60 minutes of hockey.”
Sixty minutes of hockey, repeated 28 times. And then the playoffs.
It starts Friday.
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