The University of Nebraska at Omaha ice hockey team has been here before. Two years ago, in the Mavericks debut season in the ultra-tough Western Collegiate Hockey Conference, the puck pundits picked UNO to finish eighth in the 12-team league. The Mavs went on to win 21-games that season, finish a school-best third in the WCHA, and took traditional power Michigan to the wire in the NCAA Tournament.
This year UNO was once again picked eighth by the WCHA media to open the season, meaning Mavs will have to come from off the pace once more to finish in the top half of the conference. The first step in that journey is forgetting a tumultuous end to the 2011-12 season.
UNO started last season ranked 14th in the country and picked fourth in the WCHA, but the season got off to a rocky start with the suspension, and eventual dismissal, of leading scorer Alex Hudson for violations of team rules. That loss hurt more than most people were willing to admit at the time head coach Dean Blais said.
“You lose your captain and your only senior forward, things aren’t going to turn out the same,” Blais said. “We lost a lot of one goal games but with a big, strong forward in the lineup it makes a big difference. It’s like losing your quarterback or running back in football.”
The team was treading water over the first half of last season, sitting at 10-10-4 headed into January but then things went south. UNO went just 4-8-2 over the final three months and was swept by St. Cloud State in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“The way things ended last year, you never want to go through that stretch of the season,” senior goalkeeper and captain John Faulkner said. “Over the summer you let that burn and you put in the time to work on the little things.”
The Mavs will have plenty of options in the net headed into the new season, though Blais said he’ll take his time settling on a starter. Faulkner is the stalwart of the group with nearly 5000 minutes of ice time over his four-year career. But after claiming six shutouts in 2010-11, Faulkner had the first losing record (5-9-2) of his career last season and the Mavs used three different goalies last year.
Sophomore Dayn Belfour, son of NHL Hall of Famer Eddie Belfour, saw action in six games last year. He went 2-1-2 with a .902 save percentage and is definitely in the mix this year. Then there’s the guy everyone’s buzzing about – freshman Anthony Stolarz. At 6-6, 200 pounds, Stolarz fills a net pretty easily. He was drafted in the second round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers, the highest-drafted player in school history, and had perhaps the best game of all three goalkeepers in the Mavs 4-1 exhibition win over Lethbridge on Oct. 8.
Offensively, UNO will continue to push the pace but the Mavs are still in search of reliable scoring options. Three of the top four leading scorers from last season are back, led by junior Matt White (17 goals, 23 assists). Blais will also lean heavily on juniors Ryan Walters (10 goals, 15 assists) and Brock Montpetit (6 goals, 11 assists) to lead the Mavericks’ attack.
“The junior forwards have to come through,” Blais said. “You can’t come through with playing 40 games and having five goals. There is pressure on them to deliver and produce, to put the puck in the net, because they’re going to be in powerplay and penalty kill situations with a lot of ice time this year.”
In the back, UNO has plenty of size – four of the team’s eight defenders stand 6-3 or taller – and experience back. Senior Bryce Aneloski, a 2010 pick of the Ottawa Senators, played in 38 games last year and junior Andrej Sustr saw action in 33 games. If the Mavs scoring gets off to a slow start, Blais said UNO has the veterans it needs to play more defensively if needed but that’s not his preference.
“We like to play an up-tempo, high powered game,” he said. “If we have to play more defensive as we go along, we might. But I hate to get into a one-man forechecker and have to trap. Then you’re watching the NHL.
“I hate to play an offensive game with defensive posture. My idea is to score and not take chances but play with a lot of trust in your players to make the right decisions.”
The Mavs will once again play a challenging schedule in 2012-13 with 12 games against teams ranked in the preseason USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Top 15 poll. Six of those games will come at home and reestablishing a home ice advantage is foremost on the minds of the players. UNO went 7-8-3 at the CentruyLink Center last year, the first losing record at home in four seasons.
“It’s impressive the way Omaha takes care of the hockey team,” Faulkner said. “It’s what makes it a lot of fun as a hockey player. It’s fun coming into your own rink and having that kind of support. It does give you a home ice advantage. It’s tough to win games on the road so you have to make sure you take care of business at home.”
If UNO can get back to its winning ways at home, then the team’s ultimate goal – a top six finish in the WCHA and home ice in the playoffs – is within reach.
“Home ice in the playoff is the goal you strive for every year,” Faulkner says. “You can only take care of that by showing up to practice every day and making sure you’re paying attention to the little details.”
UNO opens its home schedule with a pair of weekend games against Northern Michigan on Oct. 19 and 20. The puck drops at 7:37 p.m. on Friday and 7:07 p.m. on Saturday. For more information and tickets visit omavs.com.