UNO’s first week atop the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings went just about the same as the weeks leading up to it.
“The boys have been acting the same way in the locker room,” sophomore forward Josh Archibald said. “We’re not taking things lightly. Being in first place is something special for us, and we want to keep it that way. We’re going to do everything in our power to do that.”
The 13th-ranked Mavericks, coming off a home sweep of Colorado College, hit the road Friday and Saturday for games against ninth-ranked Denver.
UNO is 13-8-1 overall and leads the WCHA with 19 points by going 9-4-1 in league games. Denver is 12-6-3 and is tied for third in the WCHA with 17 points at 7-4-3.
The Mavericks’ blue-collar approach, plus a combination of high-end production from the likes of Hobey Baker Award contender Ryan Walters and other top forwards, a defensive corps that is among the best in the country and solid goaltending has gotten them where they are today.
“It’s so hard to get here, but the guys know how they got here,” coach Dean Blais said. “It’s not like we’re over-talented. I had some teams at North Dakota where you expected to win — and at times you expected to win big.
“Now, we’ve worked so hard to get here — over the summer, conditioning, weightlifting, running, then the preseason. It’s gratifying to see the guys get here and have the kind of years that they’re having.”
Denver, one of the WCHA’s traditional powers, was ranked as high as No. 2 nationally before an extended slide in which it went 0-5-3.
But the Pioneers have bounced back, winning three straight nonconference games against ranked teams — including a 6-0 blowout of Boston University — by a combined 13-2 since the Christmas break.
“There’s such a fine line between winning and losing in the WCHA,” Blais said.
Denver is down to 17 available skaters — 11 forwards and six defensemen — but is planning to forge ahead with a short roster.
Chris Knowlton has scored 10 of his 11 goals in WCHA games, and Nick Shore has a team-best 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) that includes 14 WCHA points.
Denver’s defensemen, paced by All-WCHA candidate Joey LaLeggia (3-12-15), junior David Makowski (5-10-15) and freshman Nolan Zajac (3-12-15), rival UNO’s as among the most productive in the country — Denver is first nationally in defensemen scoring (18-50-68), while UNO is second (16-43-59).
And Denver may have the deepest group of goaltenders in the country, with sophomore Juho Olkinuora (6-1-3) ranking fourth nationally in save percentage (.948) and fifth in goals-against average (1.55) and relegating NHL draft pick and All-WCHA candidate Sam Brittain to backup status.
“Sam Brittain might be the top goaltender in college hockey,” Blais said. “But the kid from Finland is putting up better numbers.”
Walters, identified Thursday as the leading Hobey Baker candidate by CBSSports.com, leads the country in goals (13) and points (33), but he’s had plenty of help from Dominic Zombo (7-16-23), Archibald (11-10-21), Matt White (11-8-19) and others.
The numbers in the history of the series don’t favor UNO — Denver is 11-3-1 all time in the series, including 11-1-1 since UNO won the first two meetings. Denver was 3-0-1 against the Mavs last season, including a 7-3 win in Denver and a regular-season ending sweep in Omaha that cost the Mavs home ice in the WCHA playoffs.
“It’s in the back of our minds — you always want to get back at the teams that beat you the year before,” Walters said. “But going into the second half, we just want to keep winning so we can get home-ice advantage.”
Even though many of UNO’s pieces are the same as last year, the overriding feeling is not.
“The hockey gods last year said, ‘No, you haven’t deserved it,’” Blais said. “This year we have. That’s what you see now, an average team with overachievers.
“The guys believe they can beat anyone, and that’s where it starts, doing the things that allow you to win — no undisciplined penalties, playing for each other, caring for each other. The attitude has been outstanding.”
Zombo boiled down UNO’s feelings about being in first place succinctly.
“It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t do well this weekend,” he said.
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