In what shapes up as a key nonconference series at New Hampshire, UNO is prepared to play without a couple of major components.
The 19th-ranked Mavericks have had a couple of weeks to get used to the idea that coach Dean Blais and star defenseman Jaycob Megna will sit out this weekend — as well as a Jan. 10 home game with Minnesota-Duluth — on suspension for violating the NCAA's extra-benefits rule.
“We've played without Jaycob before, but he'll be missed,” said Blais, who is allowed to travel with the team but will watch the games from the press box. “The closer you are to the goal, the more important guys are, and Jaycob is a guy who logs as much time as anyone for us. Hopefully someone will step up and do the same things for us that he does.
“His absence will probably be more dramatic than mine.”
Blais, who continues to run team practices, is confident in turning over the in-game operations of the team to assistants Troy Jutting and Alex Todd. Jutting is in his second year as a UNO assistant after spending 12 seasons as the head coach at Minnesota State-Mankato — where he was the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's coach of the year in 2002-03 and 2007-08. Todd is a first-year UNO assistant after an eight-year run as head coach at Division III Castleton State (Vt.).
Jutting coaches the Mavs' forwards, while Todd focuses on the team's defensemen. They'll share decision-making responsibilities in Blais' absence.
“I'm glad I hired two former head coaches,” Blais said. “They have a lot of experience. It'll be a little different for the players, but Jutts and Alex will be able to handle everything that's needed, whether it's pulling a goaltender or making line changes or anything else that comes up. Most of coaching today is in practice — that's where most games are won or lost.”
UNO played without an injured Megna, an Anaheim Ducks draft choice, during its Nov. 15 and 16 home series against then-No. 2 Michigan. The Mavs beat the Wolverines 3-2 in the opener before losing the second game 4-3.
Megna is one of just seven defensemen on the roster — teams typically dress six, so UNO has few other options.
“Not having him for two games on that big sheet (New Hampshire's Olympic-sized ice) will be taxing for us,” said senior captain Michael Young, another of the Mavs' top defensemen. “But there's not much else we can do. A lot of guys have stepped up for us already, so I don't think it'll be a huge issue.”
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New Hampshire (10-10-1) is a quality program that reached the national quarterfinals last season while making its 14th NCAA tournament appearance in 16 years. The Wildcats have a quick group of forwards and bigger but mobile defensemen — a combination well-suited to the Whittemore Center ice.
“They're a quick, hard-working team,” UNO forward Dominic Zombo said. “They have a huge ice sheet and they do a good job of playing on it. But we're a good skating team and we're preparing to be ready for the big sheet.”
New Hampshire opened the season ranked 13th in the country, but started 1-5-1 — with a loss to Minnesota, a loss and a tie to Michigan and two losses to Massachusetts-Lowell included. Those three teams are among the national top nine.
The Wildcats are 9-5 since, including a split with No. 4 Providence and a road sweep (by scores of 6-2 and 3-0) against Colorado College a week before UNO went to Colorado Springs and managed only two of a possible six points by winning a second-game, post-overtime shootout. Two of New Hampshire's recent losses were to No. 6 Boston College.
Both UNO and New Hampshire play up-tempo styles with plenty of shots on goal — UNO ranks third in the country with 35.7 per game, while New Hampshire is 11th with 34.3 per game. The Mavs rank fifth in outshooting opponents by 8.4 per game, the Wildcats are eighth with a 7.9 advantage. UNO is 18th with 3.2 goals per game, the Wildcats 19th with 3.1.
For New Hampshire, senior forwards Nick Sorkin and Kevin Goumas are tied for 23rd nationally with 23 points, and All-America defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk is tied for 12th with 15 assists and is 15th with 42 blocked shots.
Defenseman Eric Knodel, one of the Wildcats' two NHL draft picks (defenseman Brett Pesce is the other), leads the country with 61 blocked shots. Goalie Casey DeSmith doesn't have the winning percentage he posted last year when he was 18-9-6, but his goals-against average is slightly better (2.17 after 2.23 last year) and his save percentage is down slightly (.917 after .924).
New Hampshire will provide a big challenge to the Mavs, who view this trip in some ways similar to another road trip to the East Coast — a series at Quinnipiac in late December last season. The Mavs were swept by the eventual national runner-up.
“There are a lot of similarities,” Young said. “I know we left earlier this year to give us an extra day to settle in — last year we didn't get in a pregame skate before the first game. And we're going to be playing a good team, just like last year.”
It'd be helpful to have Megna and Blais, but the Mavs are ready anyway.
“It's nothing you can really control,” Zombo said. “Every season teams have different bumps in the road. It's just something we have to take in stride and go with it.”