Dean Blais is in his fourth season as UNO's head coach, but really has brought in only three recruiting classes that were truly all his own.
The numbers indicate that the two-time national championship coach still knows what he's doing.
Heading into another key weekend WCHA road series at No. 17 St. Cloud State, the 14th-ranked Mavericks' junior class leads the country in goals (29), assists (50), points (79) and points per game (5.6). Only four other junior classes average more than 3.3 points per game.
“That's something we were brought in to do,” junior center Brock Montpetit said. “We were the top freshman class coming in our freshman year, and we just need to keep that going.”
UNO has just three seniors on its roster — goalie John Faulkner, forward Brent Gwidt and defenseman Bryce Aneloski. Only Aneloski came on board after Blais was hired.
Blais won his first national championship in his third season at North Dakota, but didn't live up to that timetable with the Mavs, who slipped to 14-18-6 last year. But he doesn't seem too far behind schedule now, and a primary reason is the junior class bouncing back from a collective sophomore slump.
UNO (9-4-1 overall, 5-2-1 WCHA) went 7-0 in November and enters the weekend in fourth place in the league standings. The Mavs have the second-best winning percentage in the league in WCHA games.
“We were just looking for the best guys we could find,” said Blais, who was hired four months before the start of the 2009-10 season. “We were looking for overall talent, from top to bottom.”
It looks like the Mavs were on target.
Forward Ryan Walters leads the WCHA with 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) and ranks in the national top 10 in assists per game (1.0, tied for fourth) and points per game (1.43, ninth).
Montpetit is tied for sixth in the WCHA in assists (11). Michael Young is tied for seventh in the league in power-play points (2-5-7) and tied for 10th in scoring by defensemen (3-6-9). Zahn Raubenheimer is tied for the league lead with two game-winning goals. Andrej Sustr is tied for fifth in defenseman scoring (4-7-11).
Now consider that Matt White, the team's leading returning scorer from last year when he had 17 goals and 23 assists for 40 points, is 10th on the team in scoring (5-3-8) this year.
“We're hoping Matt White gets on track pretty soon,” Blais said.
So is it time for Blais to kick back and feel like he's got the program going the direction he wants it?
“Yeah, every time you do that, something stops it,” Blais said. “Just imagine how good we'd be with the two Broadhursts and Jayson Megna in the lineup.”
Blais doesn't hesitate to lament where this team might be had Terry Broadhurst, Alex Broadhurst and Megna played this season.
Terry Broadhurst passed up his senior season to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks organization. His brother Alex, a Blackhawks draft pick, would have been a freshman but elected to play major-junior instead. Jayson Megna left for the Pittsburgh Penguins organization with three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Still, to the surprise of many, the cupboard wound up being well-stocked. The bounce-back season from the junior class helps.
“We didn't expect them to put up the (quality) numbers they did their freshman year, but then you could say the opposite about their sophomore years,” Blais said. “A lot of guys went down — I don't know if it was sophomore-itis or if they got too comfortable.
“But they're back on track now.”
And the Mavs' sophomore class has come through, too. Dominic Zombo, moved to center, is second on the team with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) and Josh Archibald is third with 13 (7-6).
“A lot of us (juniors) are already 22 or 23 years old — we could be graduated, really,” Montpetit said. “We're older and more mature. We just have to play like we're that age and not like we're 19 or 20 any more.”
It shapes up that 2013-14 could be a special season for a team that is on track to have 10 of its top 11 leading scorers coming back.
But this team is thinking only about this season, and why not?
“We've got a special team, and we can do something,” Zombo said. “Coach has said it the last couple of weekends, 'I like what we've got here. Keep playing hard and we'll see what happens at the end of the year.'”
»NOTES: Blais said freshman defensemen Nick Seeler (upper body) and Brian Cooper (lower body) have a chance to return to the lineup this weekend. Cooper has missed the past six games, while Seeler missed last weekend's series at Minnesota.
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