That wasn’t so hard, was it?
A month ago, UNO was 2-4 and staring at a November nightmare.
Denver, North Dakota, Michigan, Miami (Ohio). A road series where UNO had never won (Denver). Then three top 10 teams at home. Six league games out of eight.
But with a 3-1 victory Saturday night over eighth-ranked Miami, the Mavericks completed a weekend sweep and finished off their November to remember at 6-2 to improve to 8-6 overall.
They’ll almost certainly make their first appearance of the season in the national ratings this week and — though picked to finish last in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference — they merely added to their first-place cushion while improving to 5-1.
“(Critics) were saying maybe it wasn’t going to be our year,” senior forward Ryan Walters said. “Obviously we’re not the same team we were a month ago. I think it goes to show that if you keep working hard and know that you can do it ... it shows a lot of character.”
Walters and Tanner Lane scored unassisted goals — Walters on a power-play blue-line blast and Lane on the shorthanded breakaway game-winner in the second period — and Ryan Massa appeared to cement his status as UNO’s No. 1 goaltender with his fifth straight victory, making 25 saves before 5,972 at the CenturyLink Center.
Dominic Zombo’s power-play goal on the rebound of a Michael Young shot from the point gave UNO a 3-1 lead with 9:49 left, and UNO cruised to the finish.
“Those are the kinds of games we’ve got to win in this league, when you got into the third period and you’re one goal up,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “You’ve got to figure out a way to win those games. We’re going to see this all year long.”
Top Miami scorers Riley Barber and Austin Czarnik manned the points on the RedHawks’ power play, but Barber’s turnover at the blue line set Lane free on a breakaway and the sophomore — with Czarnik in hot pursuit — slid a backhander between goalie Ryan McKay’s legs to make it 2-1 with 15:05 left in the second period.
“I skated as hard as I could because Czarnik is one of the fastest guys in the nation,” Lane said. “So I got on my horse and luckily I made a pretty good move and opened him up five-hole. I was happy to get it done for the boys.”
Massa hadn’t started on back-to-back nights all season, but he got the call Saturday and came through. Although for the season his goals-against average is 2.73 and his save percentage is .899, during his win streak he’s been sparkling with a 1.99 GAA and .934 save percentage. Only three of the 10 goals he’s allowed have come at even strength — the rest have been against the Mavs’ incrementally improving penalty kill.
“He was the difference in the game for us,” Blais said. “He made big saves at the right time. Even when they pulled their goaltender (in the closing minutes), he had a heck of a save to keep it from getting to 3-2.”
Miami scored first, on a power play 10:42 into the game, as defenseman Matthew Caito followed up a blast from Kevin Morris and tapped the rebound under Massa before the UNO goalie could cover it.
“I should have had that covered,” Massa said, “but Wally stepped up and found the empty net right away.”
UNO, which scored all three of its goals on special teams — twice on the power play in addition to Lane’s short-handed goal — bounced back 1:40 later as Walters gloved a clearing attempt out of the air at the blue line, dropped it at his feet, then wound up and blasted it through traffic in front and past McKay.
“I thought it was a better effort by our guys tonight,” said Miami coach Enrico Blasi, whose team gave up five second-period goals in a 6-3 loss Friday. “(It was a) special-teams kind of a game: two power play goals, and a shorty was the difference ... The credit goes to UNO. They played great all weekend, deserved to win both nights, and we’ve got some work to do to get back on track.”
The RedHawks used Czarnik — the NCHC’s co-leader with 19 points — on the blue line for all of his shifts except when they were killing penalties.
“Every time I looked up and saw the rush coming, it seemed like No. 7 was right there,” Massa said. “He had some great chances again. He’s a creator and certainly one of the better players in the nation. But tonight he wasn’t a match for our defensemen and our forwards.”
With 15 NCHC points, UNO has a two-point lead over St. Cloud State (4-1-1) and a four-point lead over the third-place Denver team the Mavs swept in early November. UNO has next weekend off, then plays a league series at Colorado College on Dec. 6 and 7.
“We can’t head into Thanksgiving break feeling like we’ve accomplished something, because we certainly haven’t,” Massa said. “We’re happy with our progress, but by no means are we ready to let off the gas.”