UNO hockey: so close to something big

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By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer

No matter the sport, every team that becomes a championship dynasty has that one heartbreaking loss just before its dreams are realized.

Before Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers won four Stanley Cups in five seasons, they lost a heartbreaker to the New York Islanders in 1983.  Even Duke University, a school most of us associate with national championships, had appeared in the title game four times before finally breaking through in 1991.

When the UNO hockey team, its coaches and fans left St. Louis after a controversial call ended the season, there was the feeling that they were just one break away from something big.

The evening’s later game and the way the tournament field panned out only intensified those feelings of what could have been.

Colorado College defeated No. 1 seed Boston College by a stunning score of 8-4.  Had UNO been able to pull off a win just hours before, they would’ve faced a team they had split with on the road earlier in the season.

Had the Mavs made it out of the St. Louis Region and onto to St. Paul for the Frozen Four, they would’ve squared off against North Dakota, a team the Mavs took two out of four games against this season.  Minnesota-Duluth, the eventual national champion, was only able to earn one win against UNO in the final series of the regular season.

Are you starting to sense a theme here?  Not counting Michigan’s overtime win in the first round, UNO split series with every team who made the Frozen Four, excluding Notre Dame, whom they didn’t play during this season.

All of those contests except the November matchup with North Dakota were on the road.  The Mavs finished No. 14 to end the year, but were essentially .500 against every team in the Frozen Four.

UNO got at least one win against every team on its schedule that made the NCAA tournament.  In just his second season in Omaha, UNO Head Coach Dean Blais has taken this program to the next level and put it on the verge of a major breakthrough.

“I think we showed and proved to ourselves that we can play with any team in the nation,” said starting goaltender John Faulkner at media day in October “We had some pretty good wins last year.  It’s a good confidence builder.  We got a lot of guys returning this year that can kind of carry that forward. Just the fact that you know you can beat anyone on any night, that’s as good as it gets for you.”

Was Faulkner onto something that the rest of were unaware of?

“Twenty, that’s the magic number. The number of wins it takes to qualify for the NCAA tournament.  It’s one measure of success.  However, a new league with better teams, better players, and tougher venues…competitiveness seems a more likely goal this year.”

That’s what I said in the season preview.  Thankfully, the boys made it a much more interesting year than I, or most of the college hockey media predicted they would.

Next year does offer some challenges.  The graduation of six seniors will leave UNO with only nine upperclassmen.

As the roster currently stands, there are 10 freshmen, five sophomores and four juniors.  Another crop of 11 freshmen means next year’s squad will be at least two-thirds freshmen and sophomores.

However, the UNO coaching staff proved that it knows what to do with talent and how to make it show right away.  Though the seniors take 129 points with them, the freshmen alone added 121 of their own points, and the Mavs held onto six of their top 10 scorers.

Plus, early indications are next year’s recruiting class will have an immediate impact. Ryan S. Clark, a reporter for The Forum out of Fargo-Moorehead, covers the Fargo Force, the USHL and Minnesota high school hockey. Clark posted an entry to his blog on March 28 that ranks UNO as the top recruiting class.

The program showcased what it can do with a group of unknowns.  The loss to Michigan on March 25 was certainly a sad day, but there are only bright days ahead.

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