UNO is as unprepared for its weekend series with Western Michigan as it has been since early in the season.
It’s not that the Mavericks haven’t done all they could. It’s that Western Michigan, one of the two CCHA teams that joined six WCHA teams in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, hasn’t played against the Mavs since early in 2009-10.
“Nothing will be surprising,” UNO coach Dean Blais said of the Mavs’ scouting efforts. “But you feel less comfortable playing against them than probably anyone else.”
Western Michigan, known for playing a physical “NHL-style” game under 10-year NHL coach Andy Murray (Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues), can make things uncomfortable for opponents, particularly at Lawson Ice Arena, site of games Friday and Saturday at 6:07 p.m. CST.
“It’ll be cool,” UNO center Dominic Zombo said of facing a fresh opponent. “I’ve heard it’s a great environment and that they’ve got a pretty interesting student section.”
Western Michigan leads the NCHC and ranks fourth nationally with an average of 16.5 penalty minutes per game (UNO ranks third in the league and 12th in the country). Western Michigan leads the league with 427 blocked shots.
“It’s going to be a tough, hard series,” said Murray, whose son, Brady, played for Blais when Blais coached North Dakota. “We’re going to have to man up in these games.”
If nothing else, maybe last weekend’s home series split against Denver will give the Mavs a primer for the Broncos, who also play low-scoring games and have outstanding goaltending.
While the Mavs discovered that Denver actually has a quality backup goalie in Evan Cowley, who beat them 4-1 on Saturday, in addition to star Sam Brittain, Western Michigan has been using Frank Slubowski (8-7-3) and Lukas Hafner (6-4-2) in net with equal success.
Slubowski was the Broncos’ clear-cut No. 1 last season and has been solid this season while ranking fourth in the NCHC in goals-against average (2.65) and save percentage (.912). But Hafner has been a little better — he’s second in the NCHC and 11th nationally in GAA (2.08) and second in the league in save percentage (.923).
And, despite lower-end overall offensive numbers, the Broncos have some high-end individuals in Shane Berschbach (13 goals, 16 assists), Justin Kovacs (11 goals, 16 assists) and Chase Balisy (six goals, 19 assists).
Both teams will be fighting it out for a spot in the top four in the NCHC to secure home ice for the first round of the playoffs. Home ice is magnified for both because, with PairWise rankings of No. 28 (UNO) and No. 23 (Western Michigan), it looks increasingly like each will have to win the NCHC tournament to earn one of 16 spots in the NCAA tournament field.
UNO (12-14-2 overall) is 9-7-2-1 in NCHC play for 30 points, good for sole possession of third place, six points behind leader St. Cloud State and three behind second-place North Dakota. Western Michigan (14-11-5) is 8-8-2-2 and tied for fifth place, though the Broncos are just two points behind UNO with 28.
“To get home ice, we’re going to need three wins (in the final six games),” Blais said. “To make a run at it (the NCHC title), we’re going to have to at least get a sweep somewhere.”
A sweep would seem to be a tall task this weekend.
“A split would be nice, but this late in the season, we need to get more than that to clinch home ice and make a push at the championship,” senior forward Ryan Walters said. “If you want to be a championship team, you’ve got to do more than just split on the weekends.”
Like the Denver series, this will be a contrast of styles with the high-scoring, high-volume shooting Mavs — they are second in the NCHC in goals (3.2 per game) and are in the national top six in shots on goal, fewest shots against and shot margin — against a team that is tied for sixth in the league and 38th nationally in both goals (2.6 per game) and shot margin (minus-1.5).
Unlike Denver, however, Western Michigan struggles on the power play, having converted 13.3 percent of its chances — that’s next to last in the NCHC and 53rd among 59 teams nationally.
Meanwhile, UNO’s penalty kill, once dreadful, has become the NCHC’s best in league games (88.8 percent) and has improved to 78.6 percent overall. UNO has killed off 40 of opponents’ last 41 man advantages.
“Anyone in our league can score on the power play,” Zombo said of Western Michigan’s struggles on the power play. “You don’t look at a stat and think that way. It doesn’t mean anything. We’ve stopped 40 of 41, and it’s something to take pride in. But it’s nothing you can hang your hat on.”
» NOTES: Western Michigan is recognizing Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy this weekend. Louie Facca, son of Western Michigan assistant Rob Facca — who formerly was a UNO player and assistant — was diagnosed with Duchenne’s four years ago. Louie’s grandpa, Bob, will walk 2,500 miles from Quebec City to Winnipeg beginning in May to raise money and increase awareness for DMD.