By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
As December began, Maverick hockey was setting new school records in achieving a 9-2-1 mark and had a No. 4 national ranking in the USA Today College Hockey Poll. Since that time, UNO has somewhat come back to the pack going 3-5 during the month of December and scoring only 19 goals in those eight games.
After a last second game-winning goal against North Dakota and a weekend off for the Thanksgiving holiday, the Mavs traveled north to Bemidji, Minn. to face fellow conference newcomer Bemidji State. At the time, the Beavers had won only three of their first 12 games.
What happened on that trip up north was an indication of things to come for the month ahead. Perhaps it was the quality of the opponent; perhaps it was a lack of focus after some time off.
Whatever it was, the Mavs had their worst series of the season scoring only one goal on the weekend. It was the first time since a December 2009 trip to Ferris State that UNO was unable to earn a single point in a conference matchup.
It seems appropriate then that the Mavs will have a chance to exorcise some demons and get a fresh start to 2011 when Bemidji St. travels to Omaha this weekend. Despite their recent problems, UNO sits a point out of second place in conference and has a chance to improve its standing in its WCHA matchup with the Beavers.
“Nothing is better than to beat a team that beat you in the first half,” said UNO head coach Dean Blais on his weekly radio show. “This is the time to even it up and I think the guys look at it that way. They look at the standings; they look at the WCHA right now and we’re in good shape.”
Improving on their conference standing means the Mavs will also have to improve on some parts of their game that have been lacking for the last month. Specifically, they’ll have to get better at taking fewer penalties and blocking more shots.
“When we went 8-1 we were blocking 14, 15 shots a game and now we’re right around seven or eight,” said Blais. “That’s the difference between one or two goals at times depending on the situation.”
It’s the same situation UNO was in during its last 2010 game at Quinnipiac. After trailing 2-0, then evening the score at two in the second period, a late third period penalty put the Bobcats on the power play.
With Mavs freshman forward Brock Montpetit in the penalty box, a Bobcat shot that could’ve been blocked was instead tipped by Quinnipiac’s Jeremy Langlois on the way to the Maverick goal and found the back of the net. Quinnipiac never relinquished the 3-2 lead and won once again on a third period power play goal.
Since the slide at Bemidji began, the Mavs have actually improved their penalty minutes per game to 17, down a minute from a month ago. However, while UNO may have decreased the amount of time its shorthanded, the Mavs percentage while on the penalty kill has dropped from the 88 percent range down to 83 percent.
In fact, during their current 3-5 slide, the Mavs have given up 11 goals on 37 power play chances; good for a dismal 70 percent. The first 12 games saw UNO surrender only six power play goals on 65 opportunities.
However, the timing of those power play goals has been more important than the goals themselves. After failing to score on their own power play at Bemidji, the Beavers capitalized on their own chance 1:07 later to go up 2-0 mid-second period.
Coming back the next night, UNO seemed to be going into the first intermission up 1-0 when a Bemidji power play goal was scored with a second left to tie the game 1-1 after 20 minutes. Then, twice on successive nights at Quinnipiac, the Mavs battled back from multiple goal deficits only to see their efforts go to waste when late third period power play goals gave the wins to the Bobcats.
“It’s either you play hard in a game or you’ll pay for it in practice,” said Blais. “We’ve got to do things in practice a certain way so it carries over in games. You’re only as good in games as you are in practice and vice versa.”
You can bet that the last two weeks without having to focus on a game allowed Blais to get back to some of the fundamentals that have been slipping. As 2011 begins, the Mavs seem at a crossroads in the season. If history is any indicator, Blais’ squad last year excelled as the second half began and the calendar flipped.
Sophomore forward Terry Broadhurst injured a thumb in the first game at Colorado College and is probably out for this weekend. He may be back for a trip to North Dakota, but it’s more likely he’ll be back when Alabama-Huntsville is in town in two weeks.
Junior forward Jordan Willert had a skate cut through his shin pad in the first game at Quinnipiac and has been out ever since. The team is hopeful for his return this weekend though he may not return until next week.