Team of the Week: Nebraska-Omaha
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Even with his best teams at North Dakota, going into Minnesota and sweeping two games was difficult at best.
But with a young group, playing its first-ever games as members of the WCHA, and on the road, Dean Blais' new team, Nebraska-Omaha, did just that. Along the way, the Mavericks built a big lead twice, and withstood two furious Minnesota rallies.
In the end, UNO came out of it with a still-unblemished 4-0 overall record, and feeling very good about itself.
"They didn't panic," Blais said about his team's ability to stave off Minnesota. "They got even better when the game was on the line. We had our chances, hit a few posts — you can't take away from their goals; they just scored in the third period and we scored early."
The Mavericks built a 4-0 lead in Friday's game, before seeing the Gophers come all the way back to tie it late. But cooly, UNO responded immediately, taking advantage of a defensive breakdown and converting a 3-on-1. Matt White, a freshman who was USHL Player of the Year a season ago and if off to a hot start, converted.
Saturday, it was a 3-0 lead, with White scoring first in that game. Minnesota got within 3-2 before senior Rich Purslow put the Gophers away with an empty netter.
Blais called the weekend a pleasant surprise, since he wasn't sure what he had after winning both games at the season-opening Maverick Stampede a weekend earlier, 8-0 and 5-3.
"I think we caught Clarkson by surprise, they were a little tired," Blais said. "We came right back against RIT and came from behind in the third, and came from behind twice during the game. So that showed character. But it's easier to do at home than on the road, and it took a long time for our players to get it in their head that it's a little tougher on the road. You need everyone (contributing), and we had everyone."
Look no further than the senior leadership to explain the team's strong start. Again, Blais wasn't sure what he had in this group, especially since they are not his recruits and they weren't needed to be leaders last year. But Purslow has nine points in four games, Matt Ambroz has eight points and a plus-7, Joey Martin has eight points, and defensemen Eric Olimb and Pasko Skarica have been near impenetrable.
"Not only are they leaders, but they're our leading scorers," Blais said. "Sometimes captains are role players, a fourth line heart and soul guy or sixth defenseman. But so far the captains are backing up what they're preaching.
"Last year, the juniors didn't have to be leaders. ... I'm really pleasantly surprised what I've seen from this group. ... You give them a role and they go with it. They all want to be on the power play, but once they find out they're not, they embrace their role."
Meanwhile, John Faulkner has started all four games in net, and his numbers are up significantly, so far, over a year ago. Blais said that Faulkner will play the games until one of the two freshmen — 6-foot-5 Fredrik Bergman or Minnesota native Mike Taffe — are ready to start, and it's hard to say when that will be.
"I see them getting better and better, but to start them won't happen for a while," Blais said. "John has a great attitude and is well-conditioned. He's smart and a good student, and his concentration is really good now. Last year he was splitting duties with Jeremie Dupont, but he's a good team guy, he didn't complain when he wasn't in the net. This year, he's the go-to guy and he knows it. He takes care of himself and is ready."
White, meanwhile, is an older freshman, and is a prized recruit. UNO had an advantage in that he played for the Omaha Lancers, and his coach was Mike Hastings, who is now the UNO assistant.
"He was ready to go and is playing with two seniors," Blais said. "He's a real character player with a great attitude.
Though just starting his second season back in college hockey, Blais is quickly molding the team in his image, the kind of teams that won two national titles at North Dakota — quick, playmaking forwards, with a big group of defensemen that are physical, but can also move the puck. That last part is a work in progress, but you can't teach size.
"Our whole team is the biggest in college hockey," Blais said. "But we want to be known as the fastest along with that, and puck movement and footwork is important to that. With our defensemen, we're continually doing agility drills, pivots, puck movement.
"There's something to be said for your defense being mobile and able to move puck, but you also want to be good in your own zone and tough to play against. And that's what we want, whether they are 5-9 or 6-8."
Meanwhile, he keeps getting those forwards to go, go, go.
"When you can skate and have size, you have a chance," Blais said. "We don't get systematic with a lot of things we do. We want players to make decisions and have the ability to make plays. With that, you never know what you'll get offensively sometimes."
Even though no longer in the CCHA, Nebraska-Omaha will travel to Michigan for two games this weekend, and give the Wolverines a chance to get some revenge. Last season, during UNO's strong finish, the Mavericks swept Michigan in Omaha.
"I expect they'll be sour," Blais said.