UNO is stair-stepping its way into the hockey season. The level of competition keeps going up.
And, starting this weekend, the steps become steeper. Maybe more narrow, too. A treacherous ledge, perhaps.
The Mavericks' home series this weekend with No. 19 Cornell — the puck drops at 7:37 p.m. Friday and 7:07 p.m. Saturday at CenturyLink Center — is the first of 10 straight games for UNO against ranked teams. By then, UNO will be well on its way to slugging through its initial season of National Collegiate Hockey Conference play — the NCHC has four teams ranked in the top 17 and may be the country's best conference from top to bottom.
“It's worked out great,” UNO coach Dean Blais said of the schedule. “Bentley was a good hockey team. Northern Michigan is probably a little better than Bentley. And now we have Cornell, who is maybe a little better than both. And then it's going to get ridiculous.”
UNO is just 2-2 to this point, after coming out flat in a season-opening loss to Bentley (since 0-4), and then losing last Saturday at previously winless Northern Michigan while trying to kill off 10 power plays.
Now comes Cornell. Then No. 17 Denver. Then No. 6 North Dakota. And No. 4 Michigan. And No. 3 Miami (Ohio).
“I think in some ways the schedule now will benefit us,” said assistant captain Johnnie Searfoss, a senior forward. “I'm not making excuses, but sometimes the teams that aren't ranked, that don't have big names, don't get you as focused as much as the great teams do. When you have a great team in your building every night, you've got to be ready to go.
“This is really going to test us as a team.”
If there's a bright spot, it's that eight of the next 10 games are at home — the exception is next weekend at Denver in the Mavs' opening NCHC series.
After the Mavs negotiate their upcoming gauntlet, the schedule from early December on gets a little easier. Maybe.
There's an NCHC road series at Colorado College. A month off before a nonconference series at No. 14 New Hampshire. A home-and-home with Minnesota-Duluth (ranked No. 20 before splitting with CC last weekend). Return engagements with Miami, North Dakota, Denver and Colorado College. And a home series with No. 10 St. Cloud State and a road series at Western Michigan.
“I think we need to come out with two wins this weekend to get our team some confidence,” senior center Brock Montpetit said. “Going 2-2 against Bentley and Northern Michigan has brought us down a little bit — it's maybe a reality check for us. Getting two wins would really get us confidence heading into the NCHC season and all the tough teams we'll have to play there.”
Cornell, picked to finish fifth in the Eastern College Athletic Conference, is playing its season opener. The Big Red were 15-16-3 last year for their first losing season since 1997-98 (UNO's first season of hockey). Despite finishing 10th in the ECAC in the regular season, they pushed eventual national runner-up Quinnipiac to a deciding third game in the playoff quarterfinals. Cornell has been in the NCAA tournament in three of the last five seasons
The Big Red, who beat York (Ontario) 7-2 in an exhibition game, have to replace leading scorer Greg Miller (14 goals, 19 assists), but their next four leading scorers are back.Former U.S. National Team player Cole Bardreau, who had two goals against York, also is back after playing just 13 games last year (two goals, five assists) before suffering a neck fracture.
Andy Iles, who has started 70 consecutive games, is back in goal after going 15-16-3 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .916 save percentage last year. For his career he is 41-31-12 with a 2.29 GAA and .917 save percentage.
Top newcomers include forward Matt Buckles, a fourth-round pick of the Florida Panthers, and Ontario Junior Hockey League defenseman of the year Patrick McCarron.
Cornell and UNO should show contrasting styles.
“They're big,” Blais said. “Very physical. They play kind of a pro-style game. There isn't a lot of creativity, more smash-mouth hockey with the size that they have. They finish their checks. They make you earn everything you get around the net. They use their size to their advantage.
“To counteract that, we've got to use our speed. We don't want to get into a slow-it-down game. We want to get into a speed-it-up game. Skate, move the puck, execute.”
Cornell lists nine forwards who stand at least 6-foot-2 and as tall as 6-6, while UNO has two forwards 6-2 or taller. Cornell has four defensemen 6-2 or taller, while UNO has five. Cornell lists 10 skaters at 200 pounds or more, while UNO has four.
“The word on them is that they're a big, strong, hard-nosed team,” Montpetit said. “They move their feet, play the body and win that way. With the team we have, we're smaller and use our speed. It sounds like two completely different teams.”
At 2-2, the Mavs aren't where they want to be. But, ready or not, the next phase of the season is here.
“The games we've lost I still think we competed hard — you've got to give the other team credit, they've found a way to win,” Blais said.