Somebody is going to win this series.
And that will be a major accomplishment for either Minnesota State-Mankato or UNO, two hockey programs starved for postseason success.
No. 20 UNO, in its third season in the WCHA, hasn’t won a playoff series since the 2009-10 season, when it was still a member of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The Mavericks have gone 0-7 in postseason games since then, including 0-4 in the WCHA playoffs.
Nos. 10 and 11 Minnesota State has won just two of its 15 all-time first-round WCHA series, none since 2003. MSU is 9-28 in WCHA postseason games.
The winner of the best-of-three series — games are scheduled for 7:07 p.m. Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday at the Verizon Wireless Center — will advance to the WCHA’s Final Five.
“We look at it as an opportunity,” said first-year MSU coach Mike Hastings, the longtime Omaha Lancers coach and former UNO assistant. “Everybody, at the beginning of the year, has as one of their goals getting to the Final Five. That goal is still ahead of us — it’s not behind us.”
With home ice, MSU has a leg up on a UNO team that shared first place in the league in mid-January and sat in second-place in early February. UNO slid to seventh place by losing seven of their last nine regular-season games, including the final four for the second season in a row.
“We’re capable of much better things than what we’ve been showing,” said forward Ryan Walters, UNO’s Hobey Baker Award candidate. “It happens to every team — you go on a winning streak or a losing streak every once in a while, and it’s eventually going to come to an end. We’ve got to make sure this ends this weekend.
“This is our last chance to get to the Final Five, and I know it’s something I’ve grown up watching all my life … and I’d really like to get there.”
UNO leaves the WCHA for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference next season. Recent results — 26 goals allowed in five games — appear to indicate the Mavs have one skate out the door.
But the playoffs are a different animal, and UNO is looking to regroup.
“I think mentally we’re fine,” co-captain Matt White said. “It’s just not working right now — our record shows that. But we’re a better team than that. I don’t really have an answer for what’s going on right now, but playoffs are a different story.”
UNO’s late-season swoon is part of a larger trend. UNO is 2-7 after Feb. 1 this year and 4-15-2 after that date the past two seasons. The numbers in March are even more bleak: 1-12 over the past three seasons, with 11 straight March losses.
This season started much more promisingly, as the Mavs used a 7-0 November to vault into the national conversation and position themselves near the top of the WCHA.
But, since splitting a home series with Minnesota State in mid-December, UNO has gone 7-10-1. MSU has gone 12-5-1 over the same time frame. MSU is also 19-6-1 since a 3-5-2 start that included a 1-5 mark in WCHA games.
“Everything was new (in November),” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “Guys were competing for positions, for ice time. We were trying to come together as a team. We had a good schedule that month. We didn’t have a whole lot of injuries.
“Since then, I’m not saying we’re playing worse, but it’s a whole new season. You’ve got to be optimistic about what we’ve accomplished over the year.”
While continuing at a productive offensive pace, UNO has had major problems in goal — there is no clear starter now among John Faulkner, Ryan Massa and Dayn Belfour (Massa and Belfour didn’t make their season debuts until March and February, respectively) — and on the penalty kill.
“We’re still the fourth-leading team in the country in scoring,” Blais said. “The only ones ahead of us are Minnesota, Boston College and Denver — that’s pretty good company. Now if we can shore up our defense a little bit, not make back-checking mistakes, be accountable defensively, I like our chances.”
UNO likes the matchup with sixth-seeded MSU — which actually tied for fourth in the WCHA — because both teams are “skating” teams and because the split with MSU was more than UNO had accomplished against the other fourth-place teams, Wisconsin (swept at home) and Denver (one point on the road).
MSU, meanwhile, could have had a better fate after going 16-11-1 in league play — winning two more games than Denver and three more than Wisconsin. MSU tied Minnesota — which shared the league title — for second with 16 league wins.
And, even after a thrilling overtime win against North Dakota to wrap up the regular season, MSU still had to settle for the sixth seed.
“We just try to control what we can control, and all the other stuff is probably for a later time,” Hastings said. “I do, as a coach, put some value on winning … but we knew the (tiebreaker) rules going in, and nobody stole any points from us — they earned them.”
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