By Nate Tenopir – Senior Staff Writer, Commentary
Twelve games into the 2010-2011 campaign, UNO hockey sits at No. 4 in the country with a 9-2-1 record, the best start in program history. Wins on the road against perennial powers Minnesota and Michigan and a last second goal against top-ten North Dakota have answered many preseason questions.
How will the Mavs handle the move to the WCHA? Will the addition of 11 new freshmen on the roster create an adjustment period? Can sophomore goaltender John Faulkner provide some dependability in goal as the only net-minder with collegiate experience?
Beginning conference play 6-1-1, adding freshmen who have contributed 34 percent of the team’s points and having a goalie who leads the nation with nine wins and three shutouts have turned many questions into possible expectations the rest of the way.
Though the Mavs currently sit fourth in the WCHA, they’ve played two fewer conference games than the three teams in front of them. Before UNO embarks upon the rest of the conference schedule, it’s time to reflect and hand out grades for some of the performances we’ve seen so far.
The offense has been rock solid through the team’s first 12 games, averaging 4.17 goals and 36.8 shots per game. One area the offense has been particularly good at is in taking big leads.
In half of their games, the Mavs have had a lead of three or more by the time the contest was half over. They’ve done a tremendous job of establishing early leads, going 7-1-0 when leading after one period.
In the first period, the Mavs are outshooting opponents 152-98 and winning at a clip of 6-1-0 when netting the first goal of the game. What they’ll need to clean up is some of their play as the game progresses.
The Mavs need to show that they can be stronger in the neutral zone when they have a lead. Too many times UNO has gambled on long passes or tried to make a breakout while risking being out of position when they have a two or three-goal lead.
The team needs to find better ways to attack the offensive zone without sacrificing momentum. When you have the lead, gaining the red line and dumping the puck in is often a better strategy then trying to connect on an 80-foot pass to someone streaking into the opponent’s zone.
On the defensive side of the ice, the Mavs are letting in 2.50 goals per game and giving up an average of 29.8 shots. Overall, they’ve been pretty steady.
Besides the goal North Dakota scored to make it 6-4 just seconds after they made it 6-5, there haven’t been too many mental lapses on the blue line. Yet, it’s difficult to think of many times the defense really cost the team a win, especially when it’s been handed a big lead in half of its games. While most of the team’s freshmen are in forward slots, the defensive corps only has three newcomers. The experience and knowledge of seniors Eric Olimb and Pasko Skarica on defense have helped freshmen such as Michael Young and Tony Turgeon crack the lineup and see decent playing time.
The most impressive among the freshmen defensemen has been Andrej Sustr. Standing as the tallest member of the team at 6 feet 8 inches, Sustr has shown the smarts to pick the right spots to join the rush and pinch down in the offensive zone.
In his first year of college hockey, Sustr has added one goal and four assists, and currently sits at +8.
Improvement will have to come in limiting turnovers around the goal and positioning to help out on opponents crashing the net. It’s been pretty rare that opponents are able to get off a clean shot that beats Faulkner.
Being in the right spot to help Faulkner clean up rebounds that are finding the back of the net is essential to continued success.
Like the defense, Faulkner has most often benefited from his offense handing him early leads. While it’s difficult to nit-pick the nation’s winningest goaltender, he will have to better himself in third periods as the season progresses.
It’s human nature to let up some when you have a lead, but how will Faulkner respond when he’s in a battle for 60 minutes? We saw some of that last Saturday against North Dakota.
With his team struggling to find any offensive success, Faulkner turned away every shot from the Fighting Sioux and was uncharacteristically busier than the goalie at the other end.
On the road against St. Cloud State, Faulkner may have let in three of the game’s first four goals, but he stayed steady and kept his team in the game, allowing UNO to eventually take a 4-3 lead before the game ended in a 4-4 tie.
Though the Mavs usually have a lead, Faulkner has shown the ability to succeed in any type of game — leading, tyingor trailing.
Faulkner’s consistency has been one of the main stories of the season thus far. He and the defense need to learn how to take 3-0 or 2-0 leads and translate them into 4-1 or 3-1 wins, instead of 3-2 or 4-2 wins.
Special Teams: B-
After 12 games, the power play unit is scoring on 21.8 percent of its chances and the penalty kill is putting away the opponents at a remarkable 88.7 percent. Both marks are high and indicative of the Mavs’ speed and intensity on the ice.
There’s an old saying that taking penalties isn’t a big deal when you can kill them off. While this has been mostly true for the Mavs, they do have to try to even out the number of chances that opponents get.
Currently, UNO is surrendering 18.08 minutes of penalties a game and getting 12.8 minutes of time on the power play. Rarely have taking penalties hurt UNO.
The Mavs have killed off five-on-threes and seized the momentum to tie or take leads after the penalty kill. However, in a game where the Mavs are unable to establish a consistent offensive attack, their ability to score suffers when they’re allowing the other team more time on the power play.
While the penalty kill is clearly a strong part of UNO’s abilities, it would be nice to see the team even it up a little with the opposition.
The Mavs need to be more opportunistic on the power play, however. Though they’re scoring at almost 22 percent, it’s difficult to find a big power play goal other than senior forward Joey Martin’s goal, which gave UNO the lead against RIT in the third period on Oct. 9.
Many of UNO’s power play goals have come when the Mavs already had a lead. UNO needs to capitalize on opportunities such as the one it was given near the end of the Saturday game against North Dakota.
While there is always room for improvement, head coach Dean Blais and the Maverick faithful have to be pleased about their 9-2-1 record. A few improvements and more development in the freshmen line may make for an interesting finish in 2011.