As UNO sits out a weekend of WCHA play, it can rest and recover, make preparations for a potential run at home ice for the playoffs and maybe even consider contending for a MacNaughton Cup.
Injury news isn't promising for the Mavericks, who don't play again until a two-game series at nemesis Bemidji State on Jan. 25 and 26. But on paper at least, the most difficult part of the schedule is behind them.
Forward Zahn Raubenheimer, injured in the second period of Saturday's tie at Denver, has a knee injury and his availability hasn't yet been determined. Center Brock Montpetit has been out since mid-December with an ankle injury, and forward Johnnie Searfoss is still out with a back injury and hasn't played the past four games.
“Home ice is usually (finishing) one or two games above .500,” University of Nebraska at Omaha coach Dean Blais said. “We're sitting pretty well, but not sitting well with our lineup. We're going to need a little bit of everything. We're going to need our goal-scorers to score. We're going to need our defensive players to play well defensively.”
No. 13 UNO (13-9-2, 9-5-2 WCHA) is tied with No. 7 Denver (13-6-4, 8-4-4) for first in the league with 20 points, but four points separate first place from eighth place and 14th-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato (14-8-2, 8-8-0).
Top-ranked Minnesota (16-3-3, 8-3-3) and sixth-ranked North Dakota (13-6-3, 8-3-3) are one point behind the leaders but have two games in hand. No. 19 St. Cloud State (12-10, 9-5) is in fifth place, but also has two games in hand and is two points out of first.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin (8-7-5, 6-5-5) and Minnesota-Duluth (9-10-3, 7-6-3) have each begun to make a push and are tied for sixth with 17 points.
The WCHA's regular-season champion earns the MacNaughton Cup, but for now, that's more of a secondary goal.
“The way things were rolling about a month ago, I thought we were in pretty good shape,” Blais said. “But it'll really be tough now with the players we've lost. You take them out of there, it's tough.
“It's not impossible. But it's not something we've talked about with the team, because every game is so important. You can't get too far ahead of yourself.”
The top six teams earn home ice for the best-of-three first round of the playoffs. That's the first priority.
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“At this time of year, being tied for first, it's something you think about,” said forward Brent Gwidt, one of UNO's captains. “It's something that obviously would be special. But home ice would be huge. … If we just take it weekend by weekend, whatever we finish — first, third, fifth, whatever — getting home ice and playing well is the main thing.”
Of the eight contenders for the MacNaughton Cup, the Mavs have at least one advantage — their schedule.
The combined winning percentage of UNO's remaining WCHA opponents (when considering that all opponents will be played in a two-game series) is .424. Besides the Mavs, only Minnesota State (at 446) has an upcoming WCHA opponent winning percentage of less than .500. North Dakota has the toughest road, playing WCHA opponents with a combined .571 winning percentage, while Minnesota's are at .557.
UNO has six games left against top-eight opponents, and four of those are at home. Minnesota State also has six top-eight games left (three on the road), while North Dakota (12, with eight on the road) and Minnesota (12, with seven at home) are playing a top-tier foe nearly every weekend.
But that doesn't mean the Mavs think they have smooth sailing. After playing at Bemidji State, they return home for a series with Michigan Tech the weekend before their two-game showdown with North Dakota. Then comes the grueling trip to Alaska-Anchorage (though it is to play a last-place team), and then another weekend off before closing with Wisconsin at home and Minnesota-Duluth on the road.
“I think it sets up pretty well,” Gwidt said. “Some might think it's a little easier than others, but Wisconsin is hot right now, Duluth is starting to pick it up again, obviously there's North Dakota coming in, and we've had trouble with Bemidji in the past.
“In this league, every game is huge. Every game is just as big as the first half (of the season), if not bigger.”
UNO practiced Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week, then takes Thursday off before a Friday practice and then the weekend off.
UNO adds recruit from Minnesota
UNO recently secured a commitment from forward Tyler Vesel of prep power Shattuck St. Mary's in Faribault, Minn.
Vesel, who is expected to join the Mavs in 2014-15, has 21 goals and 54 points for his 32-3-3 team. A 5-foot-11, 170-pounder, he had 29 goals and 74 points last year for a national championship team that went 50-5-2.
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