If UNO is ready for prime time, then its commitment to offseason improvement and off-the-ice focus may be the main reasons.
More may be known after this weekend when the Mavericks, ranked Nos. 13 and 14 nationally after being picked to finish eighth in the WCHA, invade Minnesota for a two-game series with the third-ranked Gophers.
“It's probably one of the first few real tests in front of us in the WCHA,” UNO forward Josh Archibald said. “It's going to be a good test for the boys to see what kind of character we really have.”
UNO (8-3-1) jumps back into the WCHA waters after a bye week and a nonconference sweep of Alabama-Huntsville. The Mavs have won six straight games for the first time since winning a school-record eight in a row during the 2001-02 season.
After opening league play with their seemingly twice-annual disappointment with Bemidji State (0-1-1 this time), the Mavs posted a road sweep at Michigan Tech and a home sweep of Minnesota-Duluth heading into the break.
UNO is fourth in the WCHA with nine points and a 4-1-1 record, but its has the second-best winning percentage in league games heading into the 7:07 p.m. games at Mariucci Arena.
Meanwhile, Bemidji State and Michigan Tech are among the teams tied for seventh in the WCHA standings, while Minnesota-Duluth is tied for 10th. So, while it's too early to say definitively where UNO might wind up, the early returns are promising.
“League coaches picked us eighth and at this point, you never know, we could still get there,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “But I like the chemistry and the character on this team.”
Blais has frequently referred to upgraded levels of focus and maturity on this team, stretching back into the offseason.
Off-ice issues, many of them minor, Blais said, distracted the 2011-12 team that lost its last six games — losing home ice for the playoffs and then getting swept in the first-round — to finish 14-18-6. One major issue was the midseason dismissal of senior center Alex Hudson, who had lost his captaincy after an early-season suspension.
“From the start of the year, this group seems to be tighter and more focused than last year,” Blais said. “On the ice, I'm not worried about the guys performing. It's all the other things, making sure they're doing the job in the classroom and everything else away from hockey. So far (knocking on a wood table), it's been good.”
UNO, which lost three seniors — including Hudson — from last year's team, is still a young group. It has three seniors again — goalie John Faulkner (a national best 7-0-1), defenseman Bryce Aneloski and forward Brent Gwidt, a captain — all of whom have been stellar.
“I think it's the way we've matured,” forward Ryan Walters said. “A lot of the guys are a lot closer. We're hanging out off the ice ... all kinds of things that lead to a good makeup on the team. I think we have a lot more chemistry and we've gotten a lot tighter.”
And UNO's junior class — paced by forwards Walters, Brock Montpetit, Matt White, Zahn Raubenheimer and Johnnie Searfoss and defensemen Andrej Sustr and Michael Young — has been outstanding as well. That group helps the Mavs' junior class lead the country in goals (27) and points (71).
“The biggest thing I've noticed is maturity,” Montpetit said. “We're getting up in games and we're staying up and not letting teams back in. The last couple of years we've had freshmen and sophomores in the top two lines and freshmen and sophomores don't really know how to stay on top in college hockey games, especially against guys who are 24 and 25 years old.
“Now my class, the junior class, we're upperclassmen now and we know how to take it to teams. With three years of experience, we know what we're doing.”
The Mavs also know what they're getting into against Minnesota (9-2-2 overall and 4-2-2 WCHA, tied for second with 10 points).
The Gophers are also on a six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2), tied with UNO for the third longest active streak in the country. They have 15 NHL draft picks (UNO has eight). Hobey Baker Award contender Nick Bjugstad has seven goals, Erik Haula (six goals, 10 assists) has 16 points, and Kyle Rau (6-7-13) isn't far behind.
“It's huge,” Walters said of the upcoming series. “First weekend back in the WCHA against a team like Minnesota. We've got to be sharp and on our game.”
Contact the writer:
402-444-1027, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/RWhiteOWH