Mavericks Try to Leverage New Identity Down the Stretch
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
Much is often said, and written, of the concept of a team’s “identity” – and the season-long search for one – even though it’s a concept that’s inherently intangible. So is the concept overstated?
Nebraska-Omaha head coach and former two-time national champion Dean Blais, for one, doesn’t think so.
“You can’t win without it,” says Blais of “identity,” before continuing, rhetorically, “What kind of team are you?”
For Nebraska-Omaha, when Zahn Raubenheimer broke his foot last Saturday by blocking a shot against Western Michigan, the senior seemed to define in one play the emerging identity for the 2013-14 Mavericks.
With a freshly broken foot, and clearly in pain, he instinctively dropped to the ice to block yet another one – in what appears to have been, unfortunately, the final shift of his college hockey career.
“The team that has the most ice bags at the end of the game usually wins,” said Blais. “To not only block a shot, but to go and block a second one – it just goes to show you what type of character he has, not only his physical play but just what he adds in leadership.
“When the other [team] gets done playing Omaha in a weekend, they're going to think ‘they're gritty enough to block shots and finish checks.’ You have to be honest in the game of hockey. Our identity is a hard-nosed hockey team that keeps coming and will never quit.”
That identity has developed during what has certainly been a strange and unpredictable season for the Mavericks. After a strong November, UNO struggled in December and January, finishing that two-month span with a 1-6-2 record, including three losses in which Blais wasn’t behind the bench due to a suspension stemming from NCAA regulations regarding improper benefits. Blais had reimbursed junior defenseman Jaycob Megna for a watch – an honest mistake that Blais himself reported.
Soon after his return, in a game at North Dakota, Blais was ejected, and the Mavericks turned a 3-1 deficit at their coach’s old stomping grounds into a rousing come-from-behind 6-3 win. And although UNO is 3-2 in its last five games, the Mavericks have split each of their last four weekend series, all against NCHC teams.
“It's so tough to win two games in a weekend,” said Blais, preparing to play a Colorado College team this weekend that just swept archrival Denver. “The team that loses is desperate. If you lose Friday night, you're desperate to win on Saturday night.”
UNO, led by senior Josh Archibald’s 26 goals thus far, has produced one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, averaging 3.27 goals per game. That’s put the pressure on opponents to score as well, as Nebraska-Omaha is a dominant 10-0-1 when allowing two goals or less. The problem, though, has been that on many nights, Maverick opponents have scored abundantly. In a two-game weekend series four weeks ago against St. Cloud, for instance, the Mavericks scored 11 goals in the two games combined – but also allowed 11 goals.
“All we can do is continue to play hard,” says Blais. “We've had a lot of individual successes and also a lot of team successes.
“[Our identity] comes from all of our seniors. Those guys are the leaders. Without them, you don’t have a chance. There are teams that can do things during the year with just talent, but if you don’t have that senior leadership, you pretty much don’t have anything.”
The current senior group for Omaha was the first recruiting class for Blais, who is in his fifth season as head coach of the Mavericks. Now at stake for that class, and for UNO – with just four NCHC regular season games remaining – is the opportunity to position itself well for the postseason.
Thanks to Blais – and examples like Raubenheimer – they’ll do so, clearly, with strong leadership.
And with another new-found “intangible,” too.