It’s Minnesota week for the UNO hockey team, which means it’s an obvious time to check in with Ryan Walters, the kid who committed to his hometown program but eventually got tired of waiting for the Gophers and wound up a Maverick.
This week, though, it’s a really, really good time to catch up with Walters.
In the past five games, the 6-foot 196-pounder from Rosemount, Minn., has scored all six of his goals and has added seven assists. The junior is tied for fourth in the WCHA and 10th nationally in assists with 10 and is tied for fifth in the WCHA and 10th in the country in points with 16.
“He’s come along and done exactly what we thought he could do,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “We thought he could be an All-American his senior year. It might happen this year, the way he’s putting up numbers all of a sudden.”
Walters had three goals and two assists in last weekend’s sweep of Alabama-Huntsville. At this rate, he could match the totals from each of his first two seasons (11 goals, 12 assists for 23 points as a freshman, 10-15-25 as a sophomore) by Christmas.
“He’s our best player, that’s what it comes down to,” said captain Matt White, UNO’s leading returning scorer from 2011-12. “He scores every game, and that’s what we expect from him.”
Walters started this season a bit slowly, with no goals and three assists through seven games. He’d gone without a point in four straight games before breaking out with a goal and two assists as the Mavs completed a sweep of Michigan Tech on Nov. 3.
“I went four games straight with no points,” Walters said. “That’s unacceptable. The role coach has put me in, and with the linemates I have — they’re nice players to play with — we accommodate each other well.
“When I was in the drought, I just took a moment and prayed, talked to God and asked him to show me the way. And He has, so I think Him for that, too.”
Blais said he intends to keep together what has turned into the Mavs’ top line — Walters alongside center Dominic Zombo and forward Josh Archibald — as the Nos. 13 and 14 Mavs head into Mariucci Arena for 7 p.m. games Friday and Saturday against No. 3 Minnesota.
It’s been two years since the upstart Mavs waltzed in to Mariucci for their first-ever WCHA series and swept the Gophers. Minnesota returned the favor last year, posting a late-season sweep with a pair of 3-2 wins at the CenturyLink Center.
This is the final year for each team in the WCHA — Minnesota leaves for the Big Ten and UNO for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference after the season.
“We’re tied,” Walters said. “Hopefully we get the win out of this one, because we don’t get to play them my senior year — at least not in the regular season.”
Walters was a freshman still fitting into a college program two years ago, but now he’s a focal point on a resurgent surprise team that has won six straight games to improve to 8-3-1 overall and 4-1-1 in the WCHA.
It would probably go without saying that the savvy Gopher fans know all about Walters.
“My freshman year they got on me a little bit,” Walters said. “That happens. It’s just part of the game, and I actually laugh at it. I get a kick out of it.”
Walters, a past member of the United States’ Under-17 and Under-18 national teams, had been committed to the Gophers while playing 2½ seasons for Des Moines of the USHL.
For his second full season, the Gophers set goals for him to be a 60-point scorer, to make the USHL All-Star Game and to become a team captain. He reached all three goals, though his captaincy was taken away during the season.
With a strong recruiting class coming in, Minnesota asked Walters to play one more season of juniors. He decided instead to look elsewhere and wound up at UNO.
“He’s got to be real disciplined,” Blais said. “He committed there and changed his mind, and Minnesota fans know that. They get on him. He’s going to have to prove to them that he was worthy of putting on the big ‘M’ for him as a local boy.”
Walters said his parting with Minnesota was amicable.
“All the players who came in deserved to be on the team,” Walters said. “I’m friends with them. I don’t have hard feelings towards anyone. The coaches made a decision on what they thought was best, and unfortunately it wasn’t for me so I went elsewhere.”
A finisher at the net, Walters scored two goals Saturday against Alabama-Huntsville — on a backhander from the net front and on a wraparound.
“He’s been on fire,” Archibald said. “He’s been working hard in practices and it’s been carrying over into games. He’s going into corners and getting the puck out, and he’s got that scoring touch when he’s got the puck on his stick.”
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