By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
Matt White, Brent Gwidt and Ryan Walters each had two goals over the winter break and UNO finished 2011 with a 2-1-1 record in its final four games of the calendar year. Although UNO was looking for three wins in four games, going 2-1-1 over the break at least avoided disaster. Anything less may have ruined a less than impressive NCAA tournament resume.
As break started on Dec. 9, the Mavs won at North Dakota in a 2-1 overtime game, then lost a close 1-0 decision the next night. After two weeks off and facing their final non-conference opponent of the season, the Mavs fought back against Quninnipiac to earn a 2-2 tie on Friday Dec. 30 and won 4-1 the next afternoon.
“I think you’re starting to see a little bit of a maturation process,” assistant head coach Mike Hastings said after the victory over Quinnipiac. “Even though you guys might not see five and six and seven up on the board…our team is getting better. And they’re becoming more of a family, and that’s more of a process when you’ve got a young group.”
Coming off of a split to previously winless Alabama-Huntsville, the Mavs traveled to Grand Forks to face a North Dakota team that had won five of six and climbed to #19 in the country. The two teams played to a scoreless tie until Matt White’s goal late in the second period gave UNO the 1-0 lead.
The lead lasted only 1:22 into the third period when North Dakota’s Carter Rowney scored his fifth of the year to even the game at a goal a piece. The Mavs outshot UND 8-4 in the final period but the game headed to overtime 1-1.
In the overtime, defenseman Michael Young blocked a shot that was then hurried up the ice to White on the right wing. White caught Walters heading up the ice and gave him a pass that put him clear of the defense.
Walters came in on North Dakota goaltender Aaron Dell and backhanded a shot into the goal to give UNO the 2-1 overtime victory. The Mavs played another solid road game on Saturday night but couldn’t get a puck past Dell.
North Dakota’s Danny Kristo found a loose puck behind the UNO net and scored in the top corner past Mav goalie Ryan Massa 44 seconds into the third period. Brock Montpetit hit a post later in the period but the Mavs were unable to get the equalizer.
After a two week break, UNO returned to the ice at CenturyLink Center Omaha for their final non-conference series with Quinnipiac. UNO got the first goal Friday night but watched as Quninnipiac tied it late in the first and took a 2-1 lead with just 50 seconds remaining in the second.
The Mavs could come up with only three shots in the final 20 minutes but Walters made his count with 8:18 to go. Zahn Raubenheimer sent a shot from the far wing that rebounded off goaltender Eric Hartzell’s pad to the opposite side.
With a mostly wide-open net, Walters gathered the puck in and fired it back at the cage to tie the score 2-2. UNO outshot Quinnipiac 3-1 in the overtime period but the two teams had to settle for the 2-2 tie.
Jayson Megna stepped up with three points the next afternoon and the Mavs downed the Bobcats 4-1. White, Gwidt and Searfoss followed Megna’s lead and each scored two points a piece.
Megna made it 1-0 just 1:54 into the game, scoring on a power play. Quinnipiac got their own power play goal at 15:47 of the first but Gwidt got the Mavs into the locker room with a 2-1 lead, scoring with just over a minute left in the period.
White got in on the act, scoring a short-handed goal with 5:33 left in the second. Trailing by two, the Bobcats took the gamble and pulled their goalie but Searfoss made them pay, scoring into the empty net with 1:10 left in the game.
“If you wanna look at somebody who’s come in as a freshman and established himself right away it’s Megs (Megna),” Hastings said. “He has been…he did some killing of penalties tonight, he was 5-on-5, he was on the power play. I just think he’s established himself as a real impact-type player for us.”
With the schedule stiffening up in 2012 it was important to have some success to end 2011. When UNO lost to winless Alabama-Huntsville on Dec. 2, it became that much more necessary.
A year ago, UNO started 5-1, won the Stampede and split at top-ten Michigan to start the season. The Mavs stumbled later on, losing in overtime to Alabama-Huntsville and dropping five games to Bemidji St. The last two cost UNO a trip to the WCHA Final Five.
Yet, a strong start, even non-conference record and high finish in the WCHA was enough for the selection committee to look past the blemishes. This year, the Mavs may need to do the same.
One thing is for certain, the Quinnipiac series may have provided a little saving grace. Coming into the matchup the Bobcats were ranked ahead of UNO in the pairwise rankings, the system most often used to find the 16 strongest teams for the tournament.