Team of the Week: Nebraska-Omaha
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
About four weeks ago, Nebraska-Omaha was searching for answers. October ended, and the Mavericks were 2-4-0 following a sweep by Cornell and splits with Northern Michigan and Bentley. Series with Denver, North Dakota, Michigan and Miami awaited UNO in November. Simply, things were about to get a lot harder.
The Mavericks finished November with a 6-2-0 record after last weekend's sweep of Miami. The wins over the RedHawks solidified UNO as a contender in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, and earned the Mavericks College Hockey News' Team of the Week.
Off this weekend as many of the team's players head home for the Thanksgiving holiday, UNO travels to Colorado Springs in two weeks for a pair of league games with Colorado College. The Tigers are off to one of their worst starts in recent history, but UNO coach Dean Blais expects his club to approach those games like any other.
"We know what Colorado College is," Blais said. "They're always a good team at home on the Olympic sheet. They move the puck well. It's a league game, and our guys will be ready for it. They're heading home for the holiday, so it'll be a nice break after the last few weeks. We had a good practice (Monday), and we'll have another (Tuesday) before they leave."
Last Friday night, the Mavericks trailed Miami, 1-0, after the first period. For Blais, the tough first 20 minutes came with a simple fix. UNO's excellence in November was a product of even-strength dominance. Making simple plays, possessing the puck and getting shots. In the second period, UNO reverted back to its old self, getting 14 shots and scoring five goals — all at even strength.
"We got away from our strengths," Blais said. "Guys we're trying to get too cute, and you're not going to score on a team like Miami that way. In the second, we got back to what we do well. We're averaging about 40 shots per game in these last few weeks, and that's how we have to score goals. Getting pucks to the net and guys to the net, goalies can't save what they can't see. We got back to that. We got some shots and some bounces."
Four different players scored in the period with freshman Austin Ortega getting a pair. Despite the impressive offensive display, the Mavericks allowed two goals in the final minute of the period. A four-goal cushion heading into the third period quickly turned into a two-goal lead, the type that's never safe against a club as talented as Miami.
"We fell asleep a little at the end of the period, so instead of a four-goal lead going into the third period, we had a dog fight.," Blais said. "We responded well. Ryan Massa made some big saves for us, and we got a goal halfway through the period from Josh Archibald."
Massa made 29 saves on the night. He followed that performance with 24 saves on 25 shots in Saturday's 3-1 win over Miami to complete the sweep. Through the first half, Massa has shared time with freshmen goaltenders Kirk Thompson and Reed Peters. The first-year duo will likely see some more time as the year progresses. However, Blais knows Massa is his No. 1, and he's played like it of late.
"It's too early in the season to ride one goaltender," Blais said. "Unless one guy is much better than the others or he's especially hot, you don't want to ride one guy the whole time. Ryan's won five straight for us, and he'll be back in goal next Friday night in Colorado College. We'll see for Saturday, but he's played very well in the last few weeks."
On the surface, Massa's .899 save percentage and 2.73 goals-against average aren't particularly strong numbers. However, the Mavericks have improved defensively in this last stretch, especially at even strength. Many of the club's issues defensively stem from a troublesome penalty kill, which ended November at 69.5 percent. Moving forward, this is a bit of a concern for Blais. In general, though, UNO's even-strength play is good enough to sustain its success while it figures out its special teams issues.
"The way games are called now, you're seeing nine or 10 power plays in a game instead of four or five," he said. "You don't have much time to prepare, so it's hard to be at your best on specialty teams early in the year.
"Obviously, you want to score on the power play and keep them from scoring on the penalty kill. But we're more focused on our play at even strength. If we're playing well there, possessing the puck and getting shots, we're going to score goals."