Blais' Juggling Act
Nebraska-Omaha Coach Tries to Keep Team on Right Course
by Scott McLaughlin/Senior Writer
HAMDEN, Conn. When Brock Montpetit went down with a broken ankle on Dec. 15, Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais knew his team would struggle to replace the junior center. Montpetit is sixth on the Mavericks with 13 points, but it isn't so much his scoring that they'll miss. Where Montpetit is most valuable is in the faceoff circle and down the middle of the ice.
Montpetit is the Mavericks' best faceoff guy and their best defensive center. He leads the team in faceoffs taken and faceoff percentage among players who have taken more than 10 draws. He's won more than 56 percent of his draws three years running.
But even with Montpetit's success on faceoffs, the Mavericks were still under 50 percent on draws as a team when he got injured. If last weekend's two losses to Quinnipiac were any indication, that percentage will drop quite a bit until Montpetit comes back, which will likely be late January or early February. UNO won just 38 percent of its draws against the Bobcats.
"We just got outmanned on faceoffs," Blais said. "Centerman is a very specialized position, starting with faceoffs. You lose faceoffs, sometimes you don't get the puck back for 30 seconds. It's a huge part of the game that a lot of people don't pay attention to."
After Montpetit and Dominic Zombo, who serves as the top-line center but has won just 47.3 percent of his draws, Blais has used a center-by-committee for the rest of UNO's faceoffs. With Montpetit out, Blais was forced to do even more juggling over the weekend.
Matt White, Zahn Raubenheimer, Johnnie Searfoss, Brent Gwidt and Brian O'Rourke all took at least 10 faceoffs in the series, and none of them won more than 50 percent. O'Rourke, a converted defenseman, won exactly half, while no one else in the group won more than 40 percent. Blais said he hopes to find some answers at center, but that the problem won't truly be fixed until Montpetit returns.
"You recruit centermen. You don't make centers out of wingers," he said. "Sometimes they can do it, sometimes they can't. A lot of them are guys who have played center at one point or another, but to play in this league, at this pace, you have to be better on faceoffs and better in your own zone. Some guys get mesmerized by the puck in the D zone. They run around, they miss coverages."
Lineup juggling is something Blais has done frequently this year, though. Due in part to injuries up front, UNO began to dress seven defensemen in early December, and has now dressed eight defensemen in each of the last three games. O'Rourke, Brian Cooper and Tony Turgeon, who had previously been splitting time in the sixth defenseman role, have all seen shifts at forward as well as on the blue line.
Goaltending has been a fluid position as well. Senior John Faulkner won the lion's share of playing time early in the season, as he got off to an 8-0-1 start while freshman Anthony Stolarz struggled to find his footing. But then Faulkner struggled in his first three starts in December, opening the door for Stolarz to get another chance.
Stolarz, a second-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, took advantage, posting a 2-1-0 record and .961 save percentage in his final three starts of the first semester. But then he gave up five goals on Saturday to open the second half, resulting in Faulkner getting Saturday's start. Faulkner stopped 34 of 37 shots, a performance that Blais deemed "OK."
Faulkner said both goalies are working to become more consistent on a night-to-night basis, and that they will continue to push each other to get better.
"I think that's one of the most important parts of a team, making sure every single person on the ice is pushing each other," Faulkner said. "For goaltending, there's only one guy who can play at a time, but we want to give our team the best chance to win every night. It's a team sport, so no matter who's in net that night, we all want them to succeed and we all want to win. I think that's the most important thing."
The Mavericks are in good shape in the WCHA, as they currently sit three points out of first with two games in hand over St. Cloud State. But they'll need to get more consistent goaltending and some better center play until Montpetit's return if they hope to stay there.
And they'll need to win even more if they hope to improve their Pairwise rating enough to potentially make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. They split three straight series against in-conference Teams Under Consideration to close out the first semester, but their sweep at the hands of Quinnipiac dropped them to 0-3-0 in out-of-conference TUC games. UNO is currently 22nd in the Pairwise.
The Mavericks open the stretch run of their conference schedule with series against Colorado College and Denver the next two weekends, so they will need to find answers to some of their questions quickly. If they don't, their road to NCAAs becomes an uphill battle.