By Nate Tenopir – Senior Staff Writer
UNO and Minnesota State-Mankato have been playing for the “Spirit of the Maverick” trophy since 1998. However, as enjoyable as it may have been to win or retain the trophy each year, the stakes this season (and every season going forward) will be much higher.
With the switch to the WCHA, any victory over Minnesota State will mean more than just a trophy; it will add points towards the conference standings. A road trip to No. 20 St. Cloud State next weekend followed by No. 9 North Dakota coming to Omaha the weekend after means the Mavs can’t afford any slip-ups this weekend.
Minnesota State comes to Omaha in the midst of an eight-game road trip with a 2-2-4 record, having picked up three points against Alaska-Anchorage last weekend. UNO enters the contests after a much-deserved weekend off.
While a 5-1 start and wins at Minnesota and Michigan certainly earned the team some time off, the danger now is complacency. Did the UNO Mavericks spend their time off listening to everyone telling them how good they are or was the mindset one of getting better despite the successful start to the season?
It’s certainly a place that’s a little unfamiliar to UNO hockey. Last year the Mavs won all of four games on the road. Only one of those came before UNO was two months into the season.
Picked to finish 10th in the conference, Minnesota State already has six conference games under its belt and stands tied for second at 2-2-2 with six points in conference play. When the puck is dropped Friday night, it will be the first WCHA action the Mavs will have ever hosted at home.
Like UNO, Minnesota State has a lot of youth and new talent among its forwards and most of its experience along the blue line. However, Minnesota State’s five freshmen forwards only have a combined 13 points through the first 8 games.
The UNO freshmen on the other hand, have contributed 19 points in 8 games. A lot of the success UNO has had so far is directly related to how well the third and fourth lines, mostly full of newcomers, have been able to do at keeping the pressure on and attacking when they get time on the ice.
Minnesota State will counter the UNO attack with a defensive corps that features Ben Youds, Kurt Davis and Channing Boe, all seniors. Sophomore Tyler Elbrecht saw a lot of action next to Boe last season and adds to the size Minnesota State has on its blue line.
In goal, the team welcomes back sophomore Phil Cook who made enough strides throughout last season to become the regular starter. Any success that Minnesota State will have depends on Cook being better in conference play than he was a season ago.
Offensively, Minnesota State is hoping that junior forward Michael Dorr can carry the team while the new kids adjust to playing WCHA hockey. Dorr had a nice second half to last season, scoring 16 points in 22 contests.
In the team’s eight games this season, Dorr has added two goals and three assists. Much of Dorr’s linemates have shown the ability to put the puck in the net, yet most of that was in the USHL.
Minnesota State welcomed back a lot of forwards a year ago and it didn’t work out much to its advantage. Perhaps some blood up front can help the team be more competitive than the experts predict.
However, if there was a time to play Minnesota State, now is probably it. Though they’ve got talent among their freshmen, it’s been somewhat of a slow start. Much of the success they will have may not come until the second half of the season after they’ve had some time to adjust to the WCHA.
You never like to sit a hot team such as UNO after a 5-1 start, but it was probably a good time to get the boys together and refocus on the task ahead. A weekend off where head coach Dean Blais and his staff can remind the Mavs that they’re not yet as good as they think could prove to have been a valuable experience later in the season.
While Blais and his staff will have no trouble reminding the team there is still a long way to go, it’s all the outside forces the Mavs have to shut out. This weekend will help to show if UNO can refocus and deal with success, or if the fast start to the season proved to have been a mental hurdle.