In the end, UNO might have overachieved just a little bit.
But a disappointing finish may not make it feel that way.
The Mavericks were 2-7 over the last nine games of the regular season, including a four-game losing streak that cost them home ice for the playoffs. After a first-round exit, they finished 19-18-2.
Prior to the late-season swoon, the Mavs — picked eighth in the preseason — had been challenging for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's regular-season title. They finished seventh.
“We were picked eighth, and they do that for a reason — returning lettermen and incoming freshmen, difficulty of schedule,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “Over the course of the year, things will happen. You may or may not be healthy.
“Initially (at the end of the season) you're ticked off because you've disappointed each other by not reaching your goals. But I'm not disappointed at all. We're going to build on it and become a better team.”
Blais knows the Mavs will need to do that now that they are departing, along with five other WCHA schools, for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Also joining the league are Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
Both CCHA teams and three of the WCHA teams had better seasons than UNO in 2012-13. The league will include teams currently ranked No. 3 (Miami), No. 6 (North Dakota), No. 7 (St. Cloud State), No. 12 (Western Michigan) and No. 13 (Denver).
The two NCHC-bound teams that finished below UNO in the WCHA are merely tradition-rich powers Colorado College and Minnesota-Duluth. Minnesota-Duluth swept UNO in the final weekend of the season.
“It's going to be so tough,” Blais said. “Traditionally in the WCHA, there were a couple of teams at the bottom who improve, but they're still at the bottom even though they're more competitive.
“We might have a heck of a year and be .500 again, which isn't too bad. I'm sure a lot of teams are thinking the same way.”
After four seasons at UNO, Blais is still trying to put his team at the level of a Minnesota or North Dakota, his former program, which he directed to two national titles and another championship game appearance.
Those teams, sometimes, seem to turn it on when they need it. Maybe they'll cruise a little bit, through parts of a game or even parts of the season.
“Hopefully that'll be us in a few years, where we don't have to use all our energy just to be competitive,” Blais said.
But, Blais said, he doesn't think the all-out effort required to stay competitive is what has led to UNO's end-of-season difficulties. UNO was 3-9 after Feb. 1 this year and is 5-17-2 after that date the past two seasons.
In March, over the last three years, the Mavs are 2-14.
“The reason we've not had the success we've wanted is that we're just not good enough,” Blais said. “We've got to recruit our talent. Obviously we're in great condition, and I wouldn't question that. I might if I was a young coach, but I'm not doing anything different than I did at North Dakota.”
Blais and assistants Troy Jutting and Steve Johnson are on the road scouting this week, looking for — among other things — a goaltender to add to the roster.
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Fifth-year senior John Faulkner leaves as UNO's all-time wins leader, and the Mavs lost prized recruit and NHL second-round draft pick Anthony Stolarz at the semester break, when Stolarz elected to move on to play major junior.
Sophomores Dayn Belfour and Ryan Massa are scheduled to return, but Belfour didn't make his season debut until Feb. 8 and Massa — who was planning to sit out the season, then returned to the program when Stolarz left — came out of his redshirt on Feb. 23. He didn't regain his freshman form.
The Mavs have commitments in place to help ease the loss of co-captain Brent Gwidt at forward and defensemen Bryce Aneloski and Andrej Sustr.
Forwards Jake Guentzel, Jono Davis, Jake Montgomery and Austin Ortega, along with defenseman Ian Brady, signed with the Mavs in the fall.
Blais has long expected to lose Sustr, a junior free agent who won't return and could move to the NHL by the end of the season.
Other potential departures are still unknown.
“We're prepared, if we lose players, to have players coming in,” Blais said. “What really hurts is when you're not prepared — like when Stolarz signed after Christmas. Something like that could cripple you for years.”
Last offseason, UNO lost high-scoring forward Terry Broadhurst and WCHA All-Freshman center Jayson Megna to professional hockey. In addition, recruit Alex Broadhurst, Terry's brother, decided to play major junior.
“Our conditioning made us a better team (early),” Blais said. “Then, when you come to the end of the year and everyone is playing the same tempo, you are all equal, so you need that depth. If we don't lose the two Broadhursts and Jayson Megna, you could have handed us the championship trophy.”
UNO expects to have a solid foundation back, assuming All-WCHA forward and Hobey Baker Award candidate Ryan Walters (22 goals, 30 assists, 52 points), Josh Archibald (19-17-36), Dominic Zombo (12-23-35) and Matt White (16-18-34) — the Mavs' top four scorers — return.
And Johnnie Searfoss (11-9-20), Zahn Raubenheimer (9-7-16) and Brock Montpetit (1-13-14 in 25 games) would give UNO its seven highest-scoring forwards back in the lineup.
NHL draft picks Jaycob Megna, Nick Seeler and Brian Cooper would join Michael Young in giving the Mavs an experienced defensive corps.
Even with Sustr's departure, UNO could have eight seniors and nine juniors on the ice next season.
“It's tough when you only have three seniors,” Blais said. “Look at (No. 2) Quinnipiac (which swept UNO) — 10 seniors. Your junior and senior classes usually carry you.”
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