Team of the Week: Nebraska-Omaha
Mavericks, Parse Rise in Stature Together
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
While Minnesota and Denver, and Harvard and Cornell do battle this weekend, you'll be hard-pressed to find bigger games with more exciting atmospheres than will take place this weekend when Nebraska-Omaha takes on Michigan at the old Omaha Civic Auditorium.
The Mavericks (17-11-4, 11-9-4 CCHA) are unbeaten in their last seven, and after an 0-4 start to the CCHA regular season, have moved into fourth place, tied with Lake Superior State but ahead in the tiebreaker. Even more startling, however, for this program that has yet to make the NCAA tournament in its nine years of existence, is that they are fifth in the esteemed Pairwise Comparisons, the system that selects the NCAA Tournament field. That would give them a No. 2 seed in the Worcester Regional if things ended today.
But like just about any good coach, UNO's Mike Kemp is not concerning himself with that at the moment.
"It's all conjecture right now," Kemp said. "The big thing is, we're in fourth place. With the new structure of our league, getting a bye is big. So this is huge. Our focus point is the CCHA tournament. We want to make sure we do well there. We control our own destiny.
"In 14 years at Wisconsin, we won the WCHA regular season once, but we won the playoff championship five times. We're in pursuit of a CCHA tournament championship, but if we don't, then every step we can make along the way that brings more history and tradition to the program, is a good step."
Tickets will be in high demand at the cozy Auditorium, and the atmosphere will surely be loud. In addition to simply playing the dreaded Wolverines, there are practical considerations: the Mavericks are just three points behind Michigan in the standings, and after having gotten swept in Ann Arbor, UNO needs at least a split here to maintain its Pairwise edge over Michigan.
"The demand for tickets is huge. There's a lot of excitement, the guys are excited," Kemp said. "It's fun to be in a series like this."
The Mavericks knew they had a good team coming into this season, having recruited precisely to align things for a run in 2005-06. But one week before the start of school, junior-to-be goalie Chris Holt bolted for the pros. It left a gaping hole.
"It's part of the frustration of college hockey," said Kemp. "You can do all the right things to craft a team, but a defection of one or two players at an inappropriate time, and ..."
And ... possible disaster. Kemp spent the first six games of the season trying out his goaltenders, starting with scholarship players such as freshman Greg Barrett and sophomore Eric Aarnio. Neither performed that well. The season started with wins over Army and New Hampshire, but then four losses — to Miami and Bowling Green.
"We played poorly at Bowling Green, but we never lost the faith," said Kemp. "In that period, Jerad Kaufmann got his first playing time."
Kaufmann turned out to be a savior. A walk-on from Minnesota, he was playing junior hockey in Fairbanks, Alaska, when Kemp approached him about coming to UNO just to be a No. 3 goalie. Kaufmann's numbers weren't great early, and there were some ups and downs, but Kemp liked something he saw and stuck with him.
The results lately, have been a revelation. He might not win a Hobey any time soon, but Kaufmann has stabilized the position.
"He is much more comfortable now. It's only in the last two weeks that he’s gotten his save percentage over 90, but he's a competitor," said Kemp. "He's learning the position every week, and it's fun to watch."
Speaking of fun to watch, it's hard to find anyone more fun than junior forward Scott Parse. And that we've gone this long without yet mentioning him, tells you about how well the whole team has played, but that's the point. It's easy for Parse — a fourth-round draft pick of the L.A. Kings — to slip under the radar when the team is not playing well and isn't on television very much. Even this season, Parse was going relatively unnoticed, despite leading the nation in scoring, because so much of it came from assists and the team was at .500.
But lately, Parse's goal-scoring output has exploded, from 12 to 19 in the last three weeks, and he's not only leading the nation in scoring (54 points), but he's leading it in plus-minus as well (plus-25). He's gone from a setup guy for linemate Bill Thomas, to a dominating force, and a Hobey Baker candidate. And if you don't believe us, just ask UNO, which has created the parseforhobey.com web site.
"I spent 14 years at Wisconsin from 1980-1994, and I would put him in a class with anybody," said Kemp. "He's very gifted, and he's extremely unassuming. And the great thing is, he continues to get better.
"Maybe he's getting more space, or finding ways to create more space. And because Thomas is a goal scorer, teams have been concentrating on him, so maybe that has opened room for Scott.
"His plus-minus is no accident. We were playing 3-on-3 in practice, and here he is — we were playing for one Herbie — and he's backchecking like a madman."
Parse also kills penalties and has three shorthanded goals. Though if there's one area Kemp would like to see improvement on, it's special teams. The penalty kill is better, but the power play has still lagged.
"The year we finished last, we had the fourth-best overall special teams in the country. So I can live with this when we're winning," Kemp said.
"We have great puck possession, movement, we're getting shots. It's just one of those things."