UNO's primary end-of-season goal, still, is to earn home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“I think this team has bigger ideas,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “The intensity to come from two goals down ... it was something. You could feel it on the bench, feel it in the locker room between periods. The guys weren't going to be happy with just that one win.”
In its first day back to practice on Tuesday after Saturday night's stirring come-from-behind, overtime win at Alaska-Anchorage, UNO didn't have to scan too far down the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings to see it sitting in second place, one point behind league-leading St. Cloud State.
Had the Mavericks, who scored with just more than three minutes left in regulation just to force overtime, lost Saturday instead of completing a sweep, the picture would be much different.
They'd be in a tie for third place, at 28 points, with both Minnesota and North Dakota, each of which has two games in hand. They would be three points behind St. Cloud State, which has also played two fewer league games.
They would be only one point ahead of sixth-place Wisconsin, with the Badgers coming to town the first weekend of March, and they'd be only three ahead of seventh-place Denver, another team with two games in hand.
The top six teams earn home ice for the first round of the playoffs.
“It's maybe not until after the game is over, and you're checking the website, that you realize the importance of the game and how big it was,” said forward Brent Gwidt, UNO's senior co-captain. “And it also goes to show how big every game in this conference is.”
No. 14 UNO doesn't have a league game this weekend. Instead it plays an exhibition game at 7:37 p.m. Thursday against the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-18 team at the CenturyLink Center.
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St. Cloud State, Minnesota, North Dakota and Denver all play league games this weekend — North Dakota and Denver play one another — which could potentially set up a wild final two weekends to determine the six home-ice winners.
“I've got to admit I have (looked at possible scenarios) a little bit,” said Johnnie Searfoss, whose second goal of the game Saturday was the overtime game-winner with 32 seconds left. “But not too much. In the long run, we control our own destiny. If we take care of our wins, we're going to be all right.”
After winning Friday's series opener 3-0, the Mavs fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 to the last-place Seawolves, then tied the game 3-3 and 4-4.
“We haven't had many 'character' wins, so that was cool,” Gwidt said.
Blais broke out one of his signature strategies, pulling goaltender John Faulkner with the Mavs down 5-4 and going on a power play, despite having 4:24 left in the game. Josh Archibald's goal on the ensuing 6 on 4 tied the game 5-5.
“It does a lot of different things,” Blais said. “It shows confidence in your team and it gives them another shot of adrenaline. 'Coach thinks that if we pull the goalie that we can do this.'”
Ultimately, it was maybe a decision that leads to UNO shooting for a MacNaughton Cup as the WCHA regular-season champion, and looking at a potential Final Five bye as a first- or second-place finisher and first-round playoff winner, and pondering an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.
It sure beats worrying about securing home ice, which seems like less of a concern and more of a probability now.
“We were trying to get the win, but we had it in the back of our minds that losing would hurt our chances,” Searfoss said.
White earns WCHA's player of week
UNO junior forward Matt White has been named the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's offensive player of the week. He is the fourth Maverick to win one of the WCHA's weekly honors.
White led the Mavericks in scoring last weekend during their road sweep of Alaska-Anchorage, netting a goal and five assists for six points. In Friday's opener, he scored a goal and had the primary assist on the game-winning goal in a 3-0 win over the Seawolves.
The next night, he tied a school record with four assists, including the primary assist on the overtime game-winner, in a 6-5 victory that gave the Mavericks their school-record-tying sixth sweep of the season.
Weather may not affect Thursday's game
The U.S. National Development Team Program’s Under-18 squad is expected to arrive in Omaha before the full effect of an expected snowstorm, and thus the expectation is that Thursday’s 7:37 p.m. exhibition game at CenturyLink Center with UNO will be played.
“As long as Team USA can get here, we’re going to play the game,” said Dave Ahlers, the Mavericks’ sports information director.
The Under-18 team plays Wednesday night in Chicago and is expected to bus to Omaha overnight, arriving from the east as the storm approaches from the west.
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