One of the biggest eye-openers of the initial weekend of the hockey season was Northern Michigan.
And the Wildcats, fresh off a “neutral-ice” sweep of Wisconsin, are coming to CenturyLink Center this weekend, for games Friday (7:37 p.m.) and Saturday (7:07 p.m.) against UNO.
Northern Michigan, picked to finish eighth in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, moved into the national rankings this week at Nos. 15 and 17 after sweeping then-No. 15 Wisconsin 2-1 and 4-2 in a series played in Green Bay, Wis.
“Very impressive, especially in the state of Wisconsin,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “For them to sweep Wisconsin says a lot about the talent Northern has and how well they played.”
Meanwhile UNO got an idea where it might stand in its season-opening weekend in Kansas City, Mo., skating past Army 5-1 before hanging close in a 3-2 loss to Notre Dame, which moved from 13th and 14th in the polls to ninth and 10th.
“We know they swept Wisconsin and we take them like everyone else,” UNO center Brock Montpetit said. “We believe if we play our best that nobody will be able to beat us.”
The Mavericks hope to be playing close to their best on a regular basis through at least Thanksgiving, as they embark on a stretch in which eight of their next 10 games are at home.
“This is a huge weekend,” Blais said. “I thought we made a step between Lethbridge (the Oct. 8 exhibition game) and Army and Notre Dame. Now it's another step forward to come back home and have four straight home games.”
UNO opens WCHA play next weekend against Bemidji State, then plays a series at Michigan Tech on Nov. 2 and 3 — where at least two points doesn't seem out of the question.
The Mavs are back at CenturyLink Center Nov. 10 and 11 for No. 13 Minnesota-Duluth, then should have an opportunity to sharpen up for a road series at top-ranked Minnesota during a Nov. 23 and 24 home series with Alabama-Huntsville.
Then UNO has only one home series in December and one in January.
With the front-loaded home schedule, playing well at home early seems vital to establishing UNO's potential staying power in 2012-13.
“Especially in the WCHA where every place you go is a crazy atmosphere with a crazy crowd,” Montpetit said. “Whether they're winnable or not, you never know what's going to happen in this league. Home games are the most important. Getting halfway through the year towards the top of the WCHA is definitely something we want to do.”
But first comes the non-conference series with Northern Michigan.
“They're a salt-of-the-earth hockey team,” UNO assistant Troy Jutting said. “They're going to play you hard. They're going to be honest. They're not one of those teams that try to win with gimmicks. They win with good, hard, solid play.”
Freshman Cohen Adair was the CCHA rookie of the week after scoring a goal in each game, including a third-period game-winner in the opener.
Senior forward Matt Thurber, who leads the Wildcats' returners after ranking third on the team last year with 30 points (11 goals), had a goal and two assists. Defenseman Kyle Follmer, a former Lincoln Star, is a preseason second-team All-CCHA selection.
And goaltender Jared Coreau — 6-foot-4 and 208 pounds — posted a 1.50 goals-against average and .925 save percentage against the Badgers, picking up where he left off last season (17-12-4, 2.74, .920).
“It's going to be a weekend where we're going to have to play our best hockey,” Jutting said. “We're going to have to play great defensively and we're going to have to score when we get quality opportunities. Against a great goaltender, when you get your great chances, you've got to take advantage of them.”
» MAV NOTES: Blais said he'll likely use both senior John Faulkner and freshman Anthony Stolarz in goal again this weekend, and sophomore Dayn Belfour is also a possibility. … UNO is 15-15-2 all-time against Northern Michigan, including 7-3 at home. … UNO has won eight straight home openers. … An assist originally credited to Zahn Raubenheimer against Army has been given instead to Montpetit.
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