As UNO gets set to play its first hockey games as a ranked team in more than a year, along comes Alabama-Huntsville.
Like Bemidji State — the Mavericks’ WCHA foe that cause them constant consternation — Alabama-Huntsville has been an enigmatic nonconference challenge.
For instance, Bemidji State is 7-1-4 against UNO since the start of the 2010-11 season and 14-35-5 in other league games.
The Chargers, meanwhile, are 7-64-4 against all foes in that time frame, which includes a 2-2 mark against the Mavs.
Bemidji State Lite?
“We don’t really want to think about it like that,” UNO defenseman Andrej Sustr said. “It’s more our approach to the game mentally. We’re a good team and if we approach the game the way we should, I believe we’ll win.”
The Mavs (6-3-1), ranked Nos. 14 and 15, have won four straight WCHA games but are coming off a bye week. And they have two huge road WCHA series — at nationally ranked Minnesota and St. Cloud State — coming up.
Still, they don’t expect to overlook the Chargers’ two-day visit to the CenturyLink Center, with start times of 7:37 p.m. Friday and 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
“We don’t have to go over it a whole lot,” UNO coach Dean Blais said.
To refresh the memory, the Chargers (1-10-1) were 0-14-1 last season when they played UNO in a two-game series on neutral ice in Nashville, Tenn.
The Mavs had a 45-17 advantage in shots on goal, but Alabama-Huntsville claimed a 3-1 win in the series opener after a late empty-netter. UNO, which entered the series 7-6-3, scored twice in the first 2:19 the following night in a 6-2 win.
In 2010-11, Alabama-Huntsville came to Omaha and split a series against UNO’s NCAA tournament team. That Charger team went 4-26-2.
“This Friday and Saturday are as important as any other 60 minutes,” UNO captain Brent Gwidt said. “I’ll maybe put it in a couple of the freshmen’s and sophomores’ minds that this team has maybe taken some Pairwise spots (in the national ratings) from us in the past. It’s important.”
One common denominator in the Chargers’ success against UNO — much like Bemidji State’s against the Mavs — was its goaltender. Dan Bakala has since graduated from Bemidji State, while former Chargers netminder Clarke Saunders transferred to North Dakota and now is the No. 1 goalie for one of the top teams in the country.
“I think the year before the goaltender was the difference,” Blais said. “But last year it was good, even, up-and-down hockey. Give them credit for that. Just like anyone else in college hockey, if you’re not ready, you’re going to get beat — you’re going to take undisciplined penalties.
“They moved the puck around real well on the power play and penalty kill. Their specialty teams were good.”
But, like Bemidji, even though the goalie posted ridiculous save totals, that wasn’t always everything.
“We had a little bad luck, but I don’t think we were as mentally prepared for them,” Blais said. “The guys know right now — they’ve beat us twice in four games the last two years. That means they’ve outworked us a couple of times.”
Saunders’ departure is representative of the turmoil that Alabama-Huntsville has undergone recently. A year ago, the program was apparently on its way out.
Alabama-Huntsville is a former NCAA tournament qualifier — as recently as 2007 as the winner of College Hockey America. However, that league disbanded after 2009 and the Chargers were denied entry into the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
That led the program into hard times as Division I’s only independent program. Last year, Alabama-Huntsville was believed to be playing its final season of hockey before a change in administration reversed course and continued pressing forward in hopes of landing in a reconstituted WCHA in 2013-14.
“They’ve stolen some games from us in previous years,” Sustr said. “With the majority of our guys having been here for two years or more, we’ve been playing against this team and we kind of know how to approach it. We’re not going to make the mistake again like we did in previous years. We’re just going to play our game and play hard.”
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