By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
Last season UNO was picked to finish eighth and ninth in two preseason conference polls, partly because of their youth and inexperience.
The Mavs had never skated in the ultra-competitive WCHA, and 10 of the teams’ 25 members were freshmen, new to the college game. Experience in the WCHA won’t be an issue this season.
After a first year in the league where UNO split series with North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth and Denver, swept Wisconsin and Minnesota, and finished third in the conference, the Mavs more than proved they can hang in the WCHA. What still remains is a question about youth.
However, the UNO detractors from a year ago won’t be caught underestimating the Mavs once again. Despite once again having 10 freshmen on the team, UNO was picked to finish fourth in WCHA preseason polls, behind Denver and Colorado College.
The Mavs also gained some national respect, starting the season off ranked #14 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today polls. Some of the loftiest expectations in Maverick history.
Now the job falls on head coach Dean Blais to repeat the success he had last year with another relatively new roster.
“I think the expectations are about the same for everybody,” said freshman forward Josh Archibald. “He (coach Blais) wants everybody to have the mindset where you go out and play 110 percent every game, every practice and just work as hard as you can. It’s basically the same for everybody.”
Blais’ expectations may be the same for everybody, but if UNO hopes to achieve the same kind of success, the play of the incoming freshmen will be integral towards making that happen.
Of the 220 total points scored last season, freshmen accounted for 121, 55 percent. Granted, part of that is because they were the largest class on the roster, but their importance cannot be understated.
In the biggest games of the season, the newcomers figured into every decision. In the opening round NCAA tournament loss, freshmen accounted for three assists.
In a win against eventual national champion Minnesota Duluth, they had a goal and four assists. In the sweep over Wisconsin there were two goals and six assists from freshmen, and in the series split with North Dakota, they had five goals and six assists.
Thus, while coach speak may say that the expectations for this year’s new players is no different than anyone else, recent history says otherwise.
“I didn’t come in here with any expected role,” Archibald says. “I’ll play whatever coach wants me to, and I’ll go out there and get it done.”
Archibald is just one of many in the new class who can “get it done”. Forward Jayson Megna was a USHL all-star and All-USHL first team selection, forward Dominic Zombo was an assistant team captain for Sioux Falls and defenseman Brian O’Rourke helped Green Bay to the 2011 Clark Cup Finals and the 2010 Clark Cup Championship.
Seven of the newcomers played in the United States Hockey League while two others come to Omaha off of playing juniors in Canada. Archibald comes to Omaha as a 17 year-old, and the youngest player since former goaltender Jeremy Dupont.
Archibald just finished a successful career playing Minnesota high school hockey where he was an all-conference and all-state selection last season. He helped Brainerd High School to an all-conference championship while amassing 27 goals and 46 assists in just 25 games.
Archibald finished second in scoring in the Class AA ranks for all Minnesota high school players.
In Saturday’s 4-1 exhibition win over the University of British Columbia, Archibald combined with sophomore forward Ryan Walters for an early second period goal.
Walters backhanded a blind pass from behind the B.C. net that Archibald found out front and fired back in at a sharp angle.
B.C. goaltender Jordan White had no opportunity to make a save as Archibald had come free and scored the loose puck before White could even get his head around. Perhaps an indication of more good things to come.
“Saturday went well, being the first game,” Archibald said. “[We] got the jitters out of the way. That was good but everybody can play better. We’re working up to what our potential actually is.”
That work went into full gear on Monday as the team held its first official practice of the season. After Saturday night’s win Blais said that although his team worked hard in the offseason, they’re still trying to get into hockey shape for the upcoming season.
Practice was hard and fast and there was at least 15 minutes of cross-rink sprints before the players were dismissed for the day. Archibald said it’s all part of the process.
Coming to UNO you’re expected to play fast and be in shape. But knowing that doesn’t make the training any easier.
“All the older guys have kind of been letting us know what’s in store for us,” Archibald said. “We took what they told us and we went with it. Coach showed us a few things…it was a good practice.”
Despite the sweat and soreness that many early season practices entail, Archibald says he wouldn’t have it any other way. Archibald’s father Jim also played for Blais when Blais was an assistant coach at North Dakota.
Jim Archibald still holds the career mark at North Dakota and in all of the NCAA for career penalty minutes. As evidenced by his play in high school, and what Maverick fans saw against B.C., Josh is a little bit different of a player.
Over the summer, the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Archibald in the sixth round of the NHL entry draft, 174th overall.
“I came here expecting a lot, and it’s definitely proved to be what it is,” Archibald said. “All the guys are great, the school, it’s a great program…especially the hockey. You got three great coaches coming in here and all the great guys. Everything is looking up.”