When asked to revisit the 2013-14 UNO hockey schedule, Dean Blais starts off with a chuckle.
“Well, it's one of the toughest nonconference schedules we've ever had,” he said. “And then we're going to play in what is now the best conference in the country.”
Piece of cake, right?
Coming off a second straight late-season nosedive, the Mavericks are charging ahead toward the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
UNO is joined in the NCHC by former Western Collegiate Hockey Association foes Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota and St. Cloud State, plus Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
The league realignment took place when the six hockey-playing members of the Big Ten formed a league. Arguably the top remaining teams from the WCHA and CCHA — based on success and resources — came together to make up the NCHC. The rest of the WCHA and CCHA consolidated into the WCHA while adding independent Alabama-Huntsville.
“We just had our WCHA banquet, and it was kind of tough saying goodbye,” said Blais, who coached the Mavs in their final season in the CCHA as well as their three-year run in the WCHA.
One team in UNO's new league, St. Cloud State, played in the Frozen Four last month, after beating another league member, Miami, in the quarterfinals. North Dakota and Denver also earned spots in the 16-team NCAA tournament. Colorado College just missed after a surprising run to the WCHA championship game.
Five teams joining the new NCHC wound up in the final national ratings: St. Cloud State (fourth), Miami (fifth), North Dakota (seventh), Denver (14th) and Western Michigan (16th).
Denver, Duluth and North Dakota are among the most prestigious programs in the sport.
On paper, virtually every two-game weekend series appears to be a toss-up five months before the season begins.
“There are going to be a lot of splits, just because of the depth of the whole league,” Blais said.
UNO opens its NCHC schedule Nov. 1 and 2 at Denver, a program that has had the Mavericks' number. In October, UNO has home series with Bentley and Cornell sandwiched around a series at Northern Michigan.
Also on the Mavs' nonconference schedule is a home series with Michigan and a road series at New Hampshire. New Hampshire spent part of last season ranked No. 1 and wound up No. 11 after reaching the national quarterfinals and was 20-12-7 overall and tied for third in Hockey East at 13-8-6. The Wildcats welcome back forward Kevin Goumas — 15th nationally with 42 points and tied for fifth with 32 assists — and All-Hockey East defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. The Wildcats were 11th in the country in goals at 3.13 per game, trailed only national runner-up Quinnipiac on the penalty kill (90.1 percent, tied for second), and were ninth in allowing just 2.31 goals per game.
Cornell was 15-16-3 overall and tied for eighth in the ECAC at 8-11-3.
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Brett Gensler is Bentley's top returning player — he was tied for 19th in the country in scoring with 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists). Bentley was 12-20-3 and finished 10th in Atlantic Hockey at 10-14-3.
Michigan recovered from a slow start and wound up ranked 20th despite an 18-19-3 record. The Wolverines, who were seventh in the CCHA at 10-15-3-3, lost a key piece as defenseman Jacob Trouba, All-CCHA as a freshman, turned pro. Junior defenseman Jon Merrill also left early.
Northern Michigan, which split an early-season series in Omaha, was 15-19-4 overall and 10th in the CCHA at 9-15-4-1, and goalie Jared Coreau turned pro early.
“It's one of the toughest nonconference schedules I've seen,” Blais said. “And it starts with Michigan — everyone knows who Michigan is. New Hampshire and Cornell are traditional powers, and Northern Michigan has had some success.”
Blais said the Mavs' strength of nonconference schedule should help them make a run at an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament — provided the wins come with it.
“We didn't know we'd be in the NCHC until last year, and your nonconference schedule is something you work on two or three years ahead of time,” Blais said. “You want to schedule teams you have the opportunity to beat, so it's a fine line — you want to have a good schedule, but it doesn't do you any good to play all those teams if you don't win.”
UNO will also get reacquainted with Miami and Western Michigan, longtime members of the CCHA. Miami (25-12-5 overall and first in the CCHA at 17-7-4-4) returns its top players in All-CCHA forwards Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber, plus its outstanding freshman goalie tandem of Ryan McKay and Jay Williams. McKay was second in the country with a 1.39 goals-against average and .946 save percentage, while Williams was ninth in GAA at 1.94.
Miami was the second stingiest team in the country in allowing just 1.74 goals per game. The Redhawks were fifth in the country on the penalty kill, with an 88.6 percent success rate.
Western Michigan (19-11-8 overall, third in the CCHA at 15-7-6-3) lost All-CCHA defenseman Dan DeKeyser to professional hockey and second-team All-CCHA blueliner Luke Witkowski was a senior, but returning is second-team All-CCHA goalie Frank Slubowski, who was 11th in the country with a 2.00 GAA as a sophomore. The Broncos ranked fifth nationally by allowing only 2.05 goals per game.
UNO went 5-6-1 against the teams who are leaving the WCHA and joining them in the NCHC — though that was after a 5-1 start.
As a freshman, St. Cloud State's Jonny Brodzinski was one of two players to tie UNO's Ryan Walters for fifth nationally with 22 goals. But the Huskies lose Hobey Baker Award winner Drew LeBlanc, who led the country with 37 assists as a senior. The Huskies also lost junior defenseman Nick Jensen, the league's defensive player of the year, to the pros.
St. Cloud State (25-16-1 overall, tied for first in the WCHA at 18-9-1) and Denver tied for third nationally with an average of 3.36 goals per game.
North Dakota (22-13-7, 14-7-7 and third in the WCHA) looks to reload without high-scoring forwards Danny Kristo and Corban Knight, first- and second-team All-WCHA picks as seniors last year, as well as defenseman Derek Forbort, who turned pro early. Tied for eighth nationally in goals (3.21 per game), North Dakota does return WCHA all-rookie forward Rocco Grimaldi.
Denver fired veteran coach George Gwozdecky after going 20-14-5 overall and 14-9-5 to tie for fourth in the WCHA. The Pioneers, who had the country's ninth-best power play (21.3 percent), welcome back second-team All-WCHA defenseman Joey LaLeggia as well as all-rookie defenseman Nolan Zajac, but lost second-team All-WCHA goalie Juho Olkinuora, junior forward Nick Shore, and sophomore defenseman Scott Mayfield to the pros.
Colorado College (18-19-5 overall, 11-13-4 for eighth in the WCHA), was 10th in nationally in goals at 3.17 per game, but lost two of its biggest weapons in second-team All-WCHA picks Rylan Schwartz (a forward) and offensive defenseman Mike Boivin.
Minnesota-Duluth, the 2011 national champions, boasted the country's fourth-best power play at 23.4 percent, a unit the decimated UNO in a late-season sweep. The Bulldogs (14-19-5, 10-13-5) return talented all-rookie forward Tony Cameranesi, but sophomore defenseman Chris Casto turned pro.
After contending last season for the WCHA title into February, the Mavs went 2-7 to close the regular season before losing in three games to Minnesota State-Mankato in the conference playoffs to finish at 19-18-2 overall and 14-12-2 for seventh in the WCHA. For the second straight year, UNO lost its final four games of the regular season to miss home ice for the playoffs.
“I'm looking forward to building on a lot of things,” Blais said. “What I saw this year was way different from the year before. We had good leadership and guys who were very committed, but we just fell short.
“Two years ago we were too young and didn't have the leadership. Last year, we had the leadership and the desire, but we just didn't have enough (depth) at the end of the year.”
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