One season ago, UNO entered the final two weeks of the regular season in a tie for fourth place in the WCHA, with a three-point margin on the league's seventh-place team.
Ultimately, to earn sixth place and home ice for the first round of the league playoffs, the Mavericks needed only one point in their final four games.
It never came.
“I think the guys here use it as motivation to be better,” senior defenseman Bryce Aneloski said. “We want to get home ice and see what happens on home ice.”
Nos. 13 and 15 UNO (18-12-2, 14-8-2 WCHA) enters this weekend's big home series with No. 16 Wisconsin (14-11-7, 10-7-7) tied for third in the league, but again finds itself with a three-point margin on the league's seventh-place team — both the Badgers and Denver are tied for sixth with 27 points.
UNO and Wisconsin meet at the CenturyLink Center at 6:37 p.m. Friday and again at 7:07 p.m. Saturday.
The end of last season took UNO from feeling good about where it was going to wondering what happened. The Mavs were swept in the first round of the playoffs at St. Cloud State.
“It's something we've all put in the rearview (mirror),” UNO captain Brent Gwidt said. “This is a new year, and we've got a great group of guys. A lot of the guys here this year learned from last year.
“We know what being inconsistent at the end of the year can do to you. We lost our last six (including the playoffs) last year, and we were very upset about that.”
Last year, UNO closed the regular season with four straight home games — though two were with then-Nos. 5 and 6 Minnesota and the others were with then-Nos. 9 and 10 Denver, both of whom were ahead of the Mavs in the standings.
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“Those were NCAA-qualifying teams,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “Are we better this year than last year? Yes.”
UNO finishes the regular season next weekend at unranked Minnesota-Duluth (10-17-5, 8-13-5 and ninth in the WCHA), which, like Wisconsin, is in pursuit of the Mavs.
“Different circumstances this year,” Blais said. “Different team. We obviously have more than home ice we're looking at. We want to build on what we've done.”
Indeed, the Mavs entered the final two weeks last season seven points behind first-place Minnesota. This time around, they are only three points behind first-place St. Cloud State, which has 33 points.
Minnesota is second with 31, while UNO and North Dakota each have 30. Every team in the WCHA's top eight has played the same number of league games, so for the first time in a while the standings are what they are.
“You never know what can happen, from the teams ahead of you or under you,” Blais said. “If we win two and St. Cloud loses two, all of a sudden we could be leading.
“Everyone is thinking they've got a chance at home ice, and they're looking at this weekend more than the following weekend. This weekend will pretty much declare where you'll finish. You never know, but you'll have a pretty good idea after this weekend.”
UNO came agonizingly close to securing home ice the final two weekends last year, losing three of the four games 3-2, with two of those in overtime.
“We didn't really put ourselves in the best spot last year, and then we played four games against some tough teams,” Aneloski said. “This year is a little different. We kind of control our own destiny.
“We've done the right things for a longer period of time this year. We weren't as close as a team last year. We weren't doing things on the ice like we are right now.”
The end-of-season spiral started when Minnesota rallied from a 2-1 deficit, tying the game early in the third period before scoring 1:46 into overtime. The Gophers won 3-2 the following night in regulation.
After Denver won the series opener 3-0 the following weekend, the Pioneers took advantage of a controversial late penalty, scored the tying goal on a power play with 38 seconds left in regulation, then won it with a goal 2:35 into the extra session.
So it's there in the past, but for the Mavs it's the distant past.
“What we've focused on these last couple of weeks is getting better week by week,” Gwidt said. “Whether we get the next eight points out of eight, or the next four out of eight, we just want to be playing our best hockey come playoff time.
“Home ice is obviously something we want and something we're working for, and winning the league could still be in play for us.”
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