By Nate Tenopir, Senior Staff Writer
As October came, the UNO hockey team began preparing for its first season of WCHA hockey. Becoming the newest member of a storied conference with a record of 36 national championships and over 90 current NHL players left most to assume that for the Mavs, the 2010-11 season would be an uphill battle.
The coaches and media personnel who voted in the conference’s preseason polls gave UNO little respect, placing them in eighth and ninth place.
Only four months later, Matt Ambroz and the Mavs have secured home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“We’ve got four games left and we’re three points out of first,” Ambroz said. “If North Dakota can get upset here a couple times – it always helps to put yourself in the best place possible going into the playoffs.”
The Mavs still have a shot at one of the conference’s two top-seeds going into the playoffs.
“Getting a top two spot would be great, so that if we can win the first round of the playoffs, we’d have a bye at the Excel Center [the site of the WCHA Final Five],” he said. “Right now our goal is to take it one game at a time starting with this weekend.”
Since the beginning of the year, few other Mavs have seen as many different linemates as Ambroz. His ability to play with all setups has been key to UNO’s success.
When the year began, Ambroz was second line winger with Alex Hudson at center and Terry Broadhurst at the other wing. He has played on the top line with captain Joey Martin and Rich Purslow, and then was moved back to the second line with Hudson and freshman Johnnie Searfoss after Broadhurst suffered an injury.
Last weekend Ambroz was again skating with the top line and is expected to stay there. Regardless of where he’s been stationed, the New Prague, Minn., native has shown the adaptability and versatility that makes UNO a capable attack from top to bottom.
“They’re all great guys to play with,” he said. “Each guy has a good style of play and all of them play real fast. That’s one of the key ingredients to this team. The way all five guys move the puck, I think that’s been the key to our success – our ability to move the puck with speed.”
At 16 goals and 16 points, Ambroz trails only Martin – 33 points – for the team lead. Of his 16 goals, Ambroz has scored them in eight different combinations.
He has three with his original linemates – Hudson and Broadhurst – three with the new combination of Hudson and Searfoss and three on the power play. Regardless of who he’s been paired with, Ambroz has been a force in all set-ups.
With the split on the weekend and the guaranteed home ice for the first round, the senior is happy to have one more chance to play in Omaha before his career with the Mavs ends.
“It gives me two or three more games at the Qwest Center which has been home to me for four years,” he said. “It’s a place that I’m not going to want to say goodbye to.”
Ambroz’s journey to Omaha started like so many other Minnesota boys – on the lakes and ponds of his neighborhood. Whether it was summer or winter, Ambroz could usually be found with a hockey stick in his hands.
“Going back to when I was real young [my earliest memory was] out on our pond playing,” he said. “Before you could play a game, you made your own game. You play with the neighbor kids. You play with your cousins. You set up boots for nets or whatever you could find.”
Minnesota has been popularly known as the state of hockey. Growing up around such a culture gave Ambroz what he considers some of his best memories at UNO.
When UNO went up to play the Golden Gophers in Minneapolis, Ambroz skated away with two goals and two wins. With his brother Seth starting his college career at Minnesota next year, Matt already has some family bragging rights to go with the memories.
“Getting the sweep up in Minnesota, getting to be close to home and winning two games in [Mariucci Arena] – especially getting to score a goal before my brother, that was pretty special,” he said.
When it comes to his overall accomplishments with UNO and the mark he’s left on the program, Ambroz focuses on his growth as a person and his drive to compete more than he does on any specific statistical category.
“Overall, I’ve grown up as a young adult and been more of a teacher,” he said. “It’s a good thing being a senior as compared to a freshman. Just knowing how to talk to people better, knowing how to do a lot of different things.”
Asked how he’d like to be remembered once it all comes to an end, Ambroz was clear.
“A hard worker and a solid character guy, that’s all I can hope for.”