From the outside looking in, it appears as though Dean Blais has resurrected the hockey program in Omaha, bringing in top-end recruits and a new style of play. The Mavericks play an honest, up-tempo brand of hockey, something familiar to fans of the Green and White from Blais’ time in Grand Forks.
But for all of the improvements and excitement, Blais has only brought one team to the NCAA tournament. In 2010-11 (his second season behind the Mavericks bench and UNO’s first season in the WCHA), Nebraska-Omaha took #6-ranked Michigan to overtime but fell 3-2 in the NCAA West Regional semifinals.
For comparison’s sake, previous coach Mike Kemp only took the Mavericks to the NCAA tournament once during his twelve year tenure behind the bench. And to be fair, Blais had to contend with two league changes (first to the WCHA and now to the NCHC) in his first five seasons in Omaha.
This might be the year that changes everything. #11 Nebraska-Omaha is off to a 7-2-1 start and has an opportunity to make a statement over the next couple of weekends.
This year’s version of the UNO Mavericks has a different look to it, as Dean Blais no longer has forwards Josh Archibald and Ryan Walters on the roster. The two combined for 108 goals and 120 assists in 264 college games. However, senior forward Dominic Zombo remains, and UND fans may remember his dad, Rick Zombo, who wore the green and white during Blais’ tenure in Grand Forks.
Despite being outshot by an average margin of 31-24 this year, senior goaltender Ryan Massa is keeping the Mavericks in games. His 1.49 goals-against average ranks fourth in all of college hockey, while his save percentage (.951) has him tied for second.
By comparison, UND junior netminder Zane McIntyre is 21st in goals-against average (2.04), while his save percentage of .927 is good for 23rd nationally.
Nebraska-Omaha is 3-1 in NCHC play on the young season, outscoring opponents 14-6 in those four games (a sweep at Western Michigan and a home split with #8 Minnesota-Duluth). These next two weekends will tell the tale for UNO: after this weekend’s series at #2 North Dakota, the Mavericks will travel to Oxford, Ohio to take on the #5 Miami RedHawks.
I said when this season began that if North Dakota could stay healthy, then a run to the Frozen Four was likely. The roster has been anything but healthy, with freshman forward Nick Schmaltz (1-7-8 in 9 games), junior forward Bryn Chyzyk (2-3-5 in 11 games), and senior forward Brendan O’Donnell (3-1-4 in 13 games) expected to miss this weekend’s action. Senior forward Mark MacMillan and sophomore defenseman Paul LaDue have already returned to play after missing games due to injury, and freshman defenseman Tucker Poolman should play up front against the Mavericks after appearing at forward last weekend against St. Cloud State.
That offensive capability from the blue line is one reason for UND’s early success. After leading the nation in scoring by defensemen last year, UND is second in the country in that category on the young season. Through thirteen games, North Dakota blueliners have scored nine goals and added 26 assists for 35 points, or 2.69 points per game. Only Massachusetts-Lowell has scored at a higher rate (9-31-40 in thirteen games, 3.08/game).
More to the point, North Dakota’s top six defensemen have already notched nine goals and added 24 assists for 32 points in thirteen games (2.46 points/game). By comparison, the six UNO blueliners expected to be in the lineup this weekend have combined for five goals and eleven assists for 16 points (1.6 points/game).
North Dakota has definitely missed the play of freshman phenom Nick Schmaltz, particularly with the man advantage. After starting the season with nine power play goals on its first 29 opportunities, UND has gone just 3 for 34 over the past eight games. In six of those eight games, North Dakota has failed to score on the power play.
And here’s how Nick Schmaltz’ injury has impacted the situation:
With Nick Schmaltz in the lineup (nine games): 11 for 48 on the power play (22.9 percent)
Without Nick Schmaltz in the lineup (four games): 1 for 15 on the power play (6.7 percent)
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference has a stellar record against other leagues so far this season, a far cry from last year’s troubles. Currently, six conference schools are ranked in the top sixteen in the country (only Western Michigan and Colorado College are unranked). If these numbers hold, the NCHC could easily place four or even five teams in the NCAA tournament in March after sending just three (and barely that) a year ago.
NCHC overall record vs. other conferences: 30-15-2 (.660, best in the country)
NCHC record vs. Atlantic Hockey: 3-2-0 (.600)
NCHC record vs. Big Ten: 11-2-0 (.846)
NCHC record vs. ECAC: 6-3-1 (.650)
NCHC record vs. Hockey East: 3-3-1 (.500)
NCHC record vs. WCHA: 7-5-0 (.583)
The six teams in the Big Ten (Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin) are a combined 23-30-3 (.438) in non-league play, the second-worst winning percentage in college hockey (Atlantic Hockey, 10-31-2, .256). Not including a 7-0-1 mark against Atlantic Hockey, the Big Ten sports an embarrassing 16-30-2 (.354) record against the other four major hockey conferences.
Nebraska-Omaha Team Profile
Head Coach: Dean Blais (6th season at UNO, 98-88-19, .524)
National Ranking: #11/#13
This Season: 7-2-1 overall, 3-1-0-0 NCHC (t-4th)
Last Season: 17-18-2 overall, 13-9-2-1 NCHC (3rd)
Team Offense: 3.20 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 1.90 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 17.1% (7 of 41)
Penalty Kill: 90.9% (40 of 44)
Key Players: Sophomore F Austin Ortega (5-8-13), Sophomore F Jake Guentzel (5-6-11), Freshman F Jake Randolph (1-8-9), Senior F Dominic Zombo (3-3-6), Junior D Brian Cooper (2-4-6), Freshman D Luc Snuggerud (1-2-3), Senior G Ryan Massa (6-1-1, 1.49 GAA, .951 SV%, 1 SO)
North Dakota Team Profile
Head Coach: Dave Hakstol (11th season at UND, 269-136-41, .649)
National Ranking: #2/#2
This Season: 9-3-1 overall, 4-2-0-0 NCHC (3rd)
Last Season: 25-14-3 overall (NCAA Frozen Four appearance), 15-9-0-0 NCHC (2nd)
Team Offense: 3.31 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.08 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 19.0% (12 of 63)
Penalty Kill: 84.7% (50 of 59)
Key Players: Junior F Drake Caggiula (7-10-17), Senior F Michael Parks (5-9-14), Senior F Mark MacMillan (6-5-11 in 9 games), Sophomore F Luke Johnson (3-3-6), Junior D Jordan Schmaltz (1-7-8), Sophomore D Troy Stecher (1-8-9), Sophomore D Paul LaDue (3-5-8), Junior G Zane McIntyre (9-3-1, 2.04 GAA, .927 SV%)
By The Numbers
Last meeting: February 8, 2014 (Grand Forks, ND). Nebraska-Omaha rebounded from a 4-2 defeat to earn a series (and season) split with homestanding UND. In the 6-3 victory on Saturday night, Mavericks forward Josh Archibald netted a hat trick and added an assist as UNO scored five consecutive goals. North Dakota, which had built a 3-1 lead, went 0-for-6 on the power play.
Most important meeting: The game that UND fans will long remember is the outdoor game played at TD Ameritrade Park (Omaha, Nebraska) on February 9th, 2013. One day after winning a tight 2-1 contest indoors, North Dakota throttled UNO 5-2 on a sunny, melty afternoon. Mavericks netminder John Faulkner was pulled after allowing three goals on five shots in just ten minutes of game action.
All-time: UND leads the all-time series 7-5-0 (.583) although both teams have won three of the six meetings in Grand Forks. North Dakota has won six of the last ten games between the schools, with each squad scoring 29 goals over that stretch.
Game News and Notes
Mavericks’ head coach Dean Blais is 3-3 lifetime on the visitors’ bench at Ralph Engelstad Arena. Blais, who was the head coach at UND from 1994-2004, collected 262 victories at North Dakota and led the school to national titles in 1997 and 2000. UND has scored seven shorthanded goals this season, most in the nation. UNO is 5-0-1 on the road this year. North Dakota junior forward Drake Caggiula is tied for fourth nationally in scoring (17 points).
This weekend feels like a pair of 2-1 or 3-2 games, with both teams able to get up and down the ice without sacrificing too much on the defensive end. A huge key this weekend is whether UND can get back to scoring with the man advantage. I like North Dakota in Friday’s opener, with the Mavericks scoring late on Saturday night to earn the series split. UND 2-1, UNO 3-2.