The list of important little things was being checked off by UNO coach Dean Blais.
Faceoffs. Coverage. Back-checking. Communication.
“Right now, little things are so doggone important,” he said. “All the things you’ve worked on all year long make a huge difference.
“It’s like a playoff weekend all over (the WCHA). This is just a rehearsal for what’s going to happen two weeks from now.”
Nos. 13 and 15 UNO plays host to No. 16 Wisconsin this weekend, with games at 6:37 p.m. Friday and 7:07 p.m. Saturday at the CenturyLink Center.
Both teams are jostling for playoff position and a shot at home ice for the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, March 15 through 17.
UNO (18-12-2 overall, 14-8-2 and tied for third in the WCHA with 30 points) still has a chance at winning the MacNaughton Cup as the regular-season champion, but might have to win out to do so. The Mavs, 22nd in the PairWise rankings that simulate the formula used to determine the 16-team NCAA tournament field, play next weekend at Minnesota-Duluth.
Wisconsin (14-11-7, 10-7-7 and tied for sixth with 27 points) is in position to claim home ice as one of the top six finishers, but might need to win out to rekindle its NCAA tournament at-large berth potential after a devastating overtime loss to upstart Penn State on Monday night. The Badgers, tied for 25th in PairWise, finish the regular season with a series against first-place St. Cloud State.
“We’re going to be ready to play, and they’ll be ready to play,” UNO defenseman Bryce Aneloski said. “There are only four games left in their season as well, so I think everybody is going to be ready to go. It’s just an exciting time right now.”
While taking care of the little things is a high priority for UNO, so too are a couple of major items.
Like goaltending. And the power play.
The Mavs pulled goalie Ryan Massa out of a redshirt season last weekend for their exhibition game against Team USA, a clear sign that they intend to have the sophomore from Littleton, Colo., play a major role for the final month of the season — though Blais says the choice in net is still a game-by-game proposition.
Senior John Faulkner has spent the majority of the minutes in goal. Sophomore Dayn Belfour made his season debut Feb. 8 and has appeared in all four games since, starting three.
“We’re going to look for consistency and for who is doing the job,” Blais said. “All of a sudden we’ve got three goaltenders who we feel can play, and play well.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re — not lucky — but that you’re picking the right goaltender on that particular evening.”
Meanwhile, UNO has converted on just two of its last 19 power-play opportunities, and both of those came in desperation situations — when Blais pulled his goalie to create a 6-on-4 advantage late in the third period against North Dakota on Feb. 9 and Alaska-Anchorage on Feb. 16.
“We’ve got to get better on our power play,” Blais said. “It’s a concern right now. We’re working on it every day and hopefully it’ll pay dividends as we go through the playoffs.
“If you don’t have a power play in the playoffs, you’re not going to advance anywhere.”
UNO’s power play has been successful 18.8 percent of the time for the season, and has been less effective in league games at 16.2 percent. Only Wisconsin, which is a national-worst 10.9 percent on the power play, has struggled more in the WCHA (9.2 percent).
UNO, though, gave up four power-play goals to a struggling Alaska-Anchorage unit in its wild 6-5 overtime win in its last game on Feb. 16, and doesn’t want to see another team get healthy against its penalty killers.
At even strength, UNO and Wisconsin offer contrasting styles.
The Mavs lead the WCHA in league games with an average of 3.46 goals per game, and their overall average of 3.5 ranks second in the country. Wisconsin is tied for the league lead in allowing only 2.2 per game against WCHA foes and ranks fifth in the country overall with 2.03 goals allowed.
“They work hard and play good defense — a lot of their opportunities come from good defense,” UNO captain Brent Gwidt said.
Both teams have had their moments, too. UNO was 7-0 in November. Wisconsin went 8-0-3 from late November through mid-January.
The Mavs’ high-octane offense is paced by Hobey Baker Award candidate Ryan Walters, second in the country with 45 points (19 goals, 26 assists). He gets plenty of help from Matt White (15-16-31), Josh Archibald (17-14-31), Dominic Zombo (10-17-27) and Johnnie Searfoss (10 goals).
They’re expected to be rejoined this weekend by center Brock Montpetit, out since mid-December with an ankle injury.
“We’ve got to get back to how we were in November, when our offense was almost a little bit overwhelming, and people around the country were taking notice,” Gwidt said. “If we continue to work hard and use our speed — we’ve got a full lineup now — we should be able to get that back.”
Wisconsin gets the bulk of its points from Michael Mersch (17-9-26, including six of the Badgers’ 11 power-play goals), but Mark Zengerle is a creative center and forward Nic Kerdiles is one of the league’s top freshmen.
The Badgers’ brightest stars have been goalies Joel Rumpel (8-7-4, 1.82 goals against average, .934 save percentage) and Landon Peterson (6-4-3, 2.01, .926). Rumpel ranks in the top 10 nationally in GAA and save percentage.
“They were the hottest team in the country at one point this season, just like we were (in November),” Blais said.
Now both teams are trying to heat up again this weekend.
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