Early-season scouting reports for intersectional nonconference hockey games are generally fairly thin.
But a couple of UNO players know more than a little bit about Bentley’s top player, forward Brett Gensler.
Both forward Dominic Zombo and defenseman Brian O’Rourke will renew acquaintances with their former St. Louis Junior Blues teammate — Zombo and Gensler used to skate on the same line — when Gensler and Bentley come to the CenturyLink Center for a season-opening series Friday at 7:37 p.m. and Saturday at 7:07 p.m.
“I haven’t seen him in a while,” Zombo said. “It’ll be interesting playing against him. I’ll definitely chat him up, try to catch up.”
Gensler, a 5-foot-10 senior, was named All-Atlantic Hockey for the second straight season last year, when he had 16 goals and 24 assists. As a sophomore, he was the winner of the Walter Brown Award, given to the best American-born player in New England, when he had 23 goals and 27 assists and was one of eight players in the country to have 50 points.
“Obviously he’s a great hockey player with the goal-scoring touch,” O’Rourke said. “He’s the kind of guy who, when you get done with a game and you think you’ve shut him down, you look at the score sheet and he’s got a goal and two assists. He’ll definitely be someone we keep an eye on this week.”
In the hockey world, of course, it’s not too unusual for former teammates to cross paths at the college level. But O’Rourke and Zombo said it’s unique to see a fellow St. Louis product — the area is starting to have a greater impact at the college level.
“It’s kind of cool playing against somebody like that, someone you grew up with,” O’Rourke said. “St. Louis college hockey players — it’s a smaller group. It’s growing, but it’s not like you’re one of (hundreds of) guys from Minnesota playing college hockey. In St. Louis there’s maybe 30.”
Bentley returns virtually everyone from a team that was expected to potentially make some noise in Atlantic Hockey but instead went 12-20-3 and finished 10th in the league at 10-14-3. The school from Waltham, Mass., just outside Boston, which competes in Division II in sports other than hockey, is playing UNO for the first time since the Mavs’ two-game sweep in Omaha during the 2006-07 season.
Coaches picked the Falcons to finish ninth this season.
A UNO team with mixed expectations will be looking to earn potentially important nonconference bragging rights in the two-game series. Mav coach Dean Blais said UNO’s nonconference schedule — against teams from Atlantic Hockey, the Big Ten (No. 11 Michigan), the ECAC (Top 20 contender Cornell), Hockey East (No. 13 New Hampshire) and the WCHA (Northern Michigan) — could help his team establish the kind of strength of schedule rating needed to land an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, provided the Mavs survive the first season of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
“It’s a huge nonconference series,” Blais said. “If we do well and say we’re fifth or sixth in our conference, you might jump ahead of a team or two ahead of you in the PairWise (ratings). But there’s a lot of hockey to be played and we don’t know a whole lot about our team yet.”
At this point, teams are still figuring themselves out, and thus scouting reports of opponents aren’t always surefire.
But it stands to reason the Mavs will try to rely on speed, depth and tenacity to try to eventually overtake Bentley.
UNO was 19-18-2 last season, including 14-12-2 in the final season of the old WCHA. Though picked last in the NCHC, the Mavs are also 25th among teams receiving votes in the USCHO.com national Top 20 poll.
The Mavs’ top three scorers — Hobey Baker Award finalist Ryan Walters (22 goals, 30 assists, 52 points), Josh Archibald (19-17-36) and Zombo (12-23-35) — return.
“Hopefully they can carry the load offensively until we get the other guys going,” Blais said.
Johnnie Searfoss (11-9-20) is the next leading returning scorer, and the senior had a hat trick in Monday’s exhibition win over the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Several other key players return, and a freshman class led by center Jake Guentzel — a third-round pick of the Penguins — is expected to have an impact.
“They’ll get settled in to playing a major role on this team,” Blais said of the freshmen, “because we have so many of them and in skilled positions.”
Goaltending is a potential strength or question mark, with junior Ryan Massa apparently holding the early edge over freshmen Kirk Thompson and Reed Peters. Massa played in only three games last year after splitting time as a freshman.
How Massa plays could determine how well UNO can compete in the nonconference portion of the schedule, which includes Northern Michigan and Cornell the next two weekends.
Should UNO get off to a good start, the end of the season will become a focus.
“We’ve been disappointed with our end-of-the-year finish the past few years,” Massa said. “We want to start hot and finish hotter. We’ve got the guys in this (locker) room who can make that change and have an historic season for UNO hockey.”
» NOTES: Bentley’s roster includes freshman forward Will Suter of Omaha Creighton Prep, who played last season for the USHL’s Lincoln Stars. … Forward Zahn Raubenheimer, slowed by an ankle injury, may play for UNO.