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, it should be noted that 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. #5 Nebraska-Omaha has posted an overall record of 15-6-3 and currently sits in first place in the NCHC. Dean Blais’ squad earned an extra point with a shootout victory in Grand Forks on November 28th after the teams skated to a 2-2 tie. UND won the rematch on Saturday night but still sits one point behind the Mavericks in the conference standings.
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 31-26 this year, senior goaltender Ryan Massa is keeping the Mavericks in games. His save percentage of .936 has him in eighth place nationally (four other netminders are tied for fourth at .937).
UNO’s first- and second-year players have carried the load over the first four months of the season. Sophomore forwards Austin Ortega (14-11-25) and Jake Guentzel (7-16-23) lead the way for the Mavericks, while a trio of freshmen (Jake Randolph 4-16-20, Avery Peterson 9-9-18, Tyler Vesel 5-11-16) round out the top five. In fact, nine of the top eleven point getters for Dean Blais this year are freshmen and sophomores.
By contrast, UND’s upperclassmen have been carrying the load. North Dakota’s seniors shined in recent home sweeps of Niagara and Colorado College. The seven skaters (forwards Connor Gaarder, Mark MacMillan, Brendan O’Donnell, Michael Parks, and Stephane Pattyn along with defensemen Nick Mattson and Andrew Panzarella) combined for 23 points over the last four games and now rank as the third-most productive senior class in the nation with 89 points (Mercyhurst 124, Air Force 99).
Offensive capability from the blue line is another reason for UND’s continued success. After leading the nation in scoring by defensemen last year, UND is second in the country in that category this season. Through 25 games, North Dakota blueliners have scored 16 goals and added 55 assists for 71 points, or 2.84 points per game. Only Massachusetts-Lowell has scored at a higher rate (19-53-72 in 25 games, 2.88/game).
UND junior netminder Zane McIntyre strengthened his case for a Hobey Baker nod with another outstanding performance last weekend (55 of 59 saves). McIntyre, who now sits on the top ten in the country in goals-against average (1.89) and save percentage (.933), has played the third-most minutes in the nation and has earned the most victories (18). In my opinion, the junior from Thief River Falls, Minnesota will need continue registering victories and pick up one or two more shutouts over the next two months to remain in contention for college hockey’s highest individual award.
It should also be noted that Zane McIntyre is also statistically the best goaltender in North Dakota hockey history. His career goals-against average (2.06) and save percentage (.927) rank as the best all-time at UND. Former goaltending greats Jean-Phillippe Lamoureux, Jordan Parise, Aaron Dell, and Karl Goehring round out the top five.
Dave Hakstol has his team in a much better position than last year. With a sparkling 9-1-1 non-conference record, UND currently sits in second place in the Pairwise rankings, one of five NCHC teams in line to make the NCAA tournament. Nebraska-Omaha (t-3rd), Minnesota-Duluth (7th), Miami (8th), and Denver (11th) would all make the field of 16 if the season ended today. No other league school is in the top twenty.
In the race for the league title, the schedule for the stretch run seems to favor the boys from Omaha. Over the last four weeks of the regular season, North Dakota will face Denver and Miami as well as Western Michigan (21st) and St. Cloud State (26th). Nebraska-Omaha will play Western Michigan and Colorado College (47th) at home and travel to St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth to close out their NCHC schedule. UND’s four remaining opponents have a combined KRACH rating of 930; UNO’s four foes weigh in at just over 740.
Against common opponents this season, UND has a record of 8-4-0 while the Mavericks sit at 7-3-0.
Nebraska-Omaha Team Profile
Head Coach: Dean Blais (6th season at UNO, 106-92-21, .532)
Pairwise Ranking: t-3rd of 59 teams
National Rankings: #5/#5
This Season: 15-6-3 overall, 9-4-1-1 NCHC (1st)
Last Season: 17-18-2 overall, 13-9-2-1 NCHC (3rd)
Team Offense: 3.04 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.46 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 16.8% (16 of 95)
Penalty Kill: 83.9% (73 of 87)
Key Players: Sophomore F Austin Ortega (14-11-25), Sophomore F Jake Guentzel (7-16-23), Freshman F Jake Randolph (4-16-20), Freshman F Avery Peterson (9-9-18), Junior D Brian Cooper (4-9-13), Sophomore D Ian Brady (4-9-13), Senior G Ryan Massa (10-3-3, 2.00 GAA, .936 SV%, 1 SO)
North Dakota Team Profile
Head Coach: Dave Hakstol (11th season at UND, 278-138-42, .653)
Pairwise Ranking: 2nd of 59 teams
National Rankings: #1/#1
This Season: 18-5-2 overall, 9-4-1-0 NCHC (2nd)
Last Season: 25-14-3 overall (NCAA Frozen Four appearance), 15-9-0-0 NCHC (2nd)
Team Offense: 3.48 goals scored/game
Team Defense: 2.08 goals allowed/game
Power Play: 21.0% (21 of 100)
Penalty Kill: 86.4% (89 of 103)
Key Players: Junior F Drake Caggiula (10-16-26), Senior F Michael Parks (9-17-26), Senior F Mark MacMillan (13-8-21), Freshman F Nick Schmaltz (3-15-18), Junior D Jordan Schmaltz (3-17-20), Sophomore D Paul LaDue (3-9-12), Junior G Zane McIntyre (18-5-2, 1.89 GAA, .933 SV%, 1 SO)
By The Numbers:
Last meeting: November 29, 2014 (Grand Forks, ND). Zane McIntyre made 32 saves as the Green and White built a 3-1 lead and held on for a 3-2 home victory. North Dakota senior forward Mark McMillan scored a second period goal that withstood a lengthy review, and senior captain Stephane Pattyn potted a shorthanded tally late in the middle frame for the game winning goal. UND and UNO skated to a 2-2 tie in Friday’s opener, but Nebraska-Omaha won the shootout for the extra league point, a result that might loom large as race for the NCHC title winds down.
Last meeting in Omaha: 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 8-5-1 (.607), including a 4-2 record in games played in Omaha. North Dakota has picked up six wins and a tie in the last ten games between the schools, outscoring the Mavs 26-23 over that stretch.
Game News and Notes
Dean 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. Now in his eleventh season behind the bench, current UND head coach Dave Hakstol is in second place all-time with 278 coaching wins to his credit. Only Gino Gasparini, who picked up 392 victories from 1978-1994, has more. The Green and White have scored nine shorthanded goals this season, most in the nation. Nebraska-Omaha is 8-3-1 at home this year.
So far this season, North Dakota is 6-5-1 on Fridays and 12-0-1 on Saturdays. I’m going to flip that script and say that the Mavericks’ off week will affect them in the opener. Dean Blais will have his crew ready for Saturday’s rematch. UND 3-2, UNO 3-2.