If you like your hockey fast-paced and high-scoring, then this weekend is for you.
No. 8 Miami (Ohio) comes to CenturyLink Center for games Friday night at 7:37 and Saturday night at 7:07. The RedHawks feature the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s top two scorers in forwards Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber, while UNO counters with the two players tied for third in points, Ryan Walters and Josh Archibald.
“It’ll be good up-and-down hockey, just like the North Dakota series,” UNO coach Dean Blais said.
Czarnik and Walters were among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award last season. Czarnik, a senior, leads the NCHC with 11 assists and 18 points and is tied for third with seven goals. Barber, a sophomore, is tied for the NCHC lead with nine goals and ranks second with 17 points.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there with Miami (7-4-1 overall, 2-2-0 NCHC), which is second in the league with 3.4 goals per game.
“You can’t really focus on four guys for the whole weekend,” Walters said of the high-scoring matchup. “Obviously Czarnik and Barber are premier players in our league and we have all the respect in the world for them and we’re going to have to watch them because they’re dangerous with and without the puck. But … anything can happen any game.”
Walters and Archibald are tied for third in the NCHC with 13 points. Archibald is tied with Barber for the league lead with nine goals, while Walters is second to Czarnik with 10 assists.
But, Archibald said, responsibility is key — even for a team that ranks third in the NCHC with 3.1 goals per game.
“Going up against guys like that, you can’t be too offensive-minded when you’re on the ice,” he said. “We’ve got to play more of a defensive game.”
Miami coach Enrico Blasi also wants his players focused on all aspects.
“We’ve always preached playing in all three zones, with and without the puck,” he said. “So for all the guys, including Czarnik and Barber, we’ve got to be a little more determined away from the puck.”
Blais expects to juice up the offense by reuniting Walters with Archibald and Dominic Zombo on what has been the Mavs’ top line, countering Czarnik and Barber. Walters has gone seven games without a goal, though he’s produced six assists and put 37 shots on goal during the drought.
“He’s doing well passing the puck and he’s getting lots of chances,” Archibald said. “So hopefully we can help him put the puck in the net this weekend.”
Walters, who has been kept off the scoresheet completely in the second game of each of the past three series, said he’s ready for the challenge and expects to be more productive.
“I’m still producing over a point a game, but I feel like I can contribute even more,” he said. “… I’m not playing to my potential and not helping the team as much as I could.”
Ultimately responsible for stopping all of the offense are the goaltenders.
Miami’s Ryan McKay is 5-2-1 and ranks second in the NCHC in goals-against average (1.74) and save percentage (.943). UNO is expected to go with Ryan Massa on Friday and, as usual, wait and see about Saturday. Massa started slowly this season but has won three straight Friday starts, allowing two goals in each for a 1.98 GAA and a .935 save percentage.
Blais said a factor in Massa not starting last Saturday against Michigan is that the junior was cramping up toward the end of Friday’s game.
“If this was the end of the year, Ryan would be our goalie,” Blais said. “He’s proven that he’s consistent. Has he proven he can go back-to-back? We’ll see.
“I think teams are realizing it’s pretty tough to ride one goaltender, at the intensity that we’re playing, the whole way early.”
After a disappointing 2-4 start, UNO has negotiated its way through a potentially devastating stretch against top opponents by going 4-2 thus far.
UNO is 3-1 in the NCHC — tied for second with nine points, but tied for first in winning percentage.
“We’ve got something pretty good going right now,” Blais said. “Let’s try to keep it going.”
The Mavs haven’t generated much national buzz — they are 23rd in the USCHO.com poll.
“That’s not even close,” Blais said. “I’d say right now we’re playing (like a) top 10.”
Blasi, at his weekly press conference, didn’t disagree.
“Watching Omaha on video, they’re as good as any team in the country,” he said.