Pardon the Halloween pun, but Denver’s Magness Arena has been a house of horrors for the UNO hockey program.
And guess where the Mavericks are heading this weekend for their inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference series? The puck drops there at 8:37 p.m. Friday and 8:07 p.m. Saturday.
“I think we’ve just been a little snakebit when we’ve played at Denver,” UNO forward Ryan Walters said. “We haven’t won there since I’ve been here, and we really want to change that.”
UNO hasn’t won at Denver ever, actually.
The Mavs are 0-8-2 all-time there, and the past two seasons have actually represented their best showings ever — they earned 3-3 ties on the second night of each series.
But those series openers ... ouch. Denver won 7-4 in last year’s opener and 7-3 in 2011-12.
UNO played a single tournament game in Denver during the 2009-10 season and lost 7-0.
All told, UNO has been outscored 49-21 in 10 games in Denver. All-time against the Pioneers, UNO is 3-12-2.
“We’re confident that we can win a game there,” said senior forward Johnnie Searfoss, an assistant captain. “It’s not that we’re cursed. They’ve obviously had good teams, and maybe we’ve had some bad bounces.”
True, Denver is usually one of the best programs in college hockey.
Is Denver good again? Probably, though it’s still hard to tell.
The Pioneers, who surprised many by parting ways with former coach George Gwozdecky despite a 12th straight 20-win season and sixth straight trip to the NCAA tournament, are 3-3.
They were picked to finish fourth in what figures to be a rugged NCHC and have spent time in the national top 20.
But they lost to both Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska-Anchorage on the road, and lost to Canisius — picked fourth in Atlantic Hockey — 4-1 last Saturday, one night after beating Atlantic Hockey favorite Niagara.
They have arguably the best group of defensemen in the NCHC and senior NHL draft pick Sam Brittain in goal, but also lost firepower from last year’s team when forward Nick Shore (14 goals, 20 assists) turned pro with collegiate eligibility remaining.
But what the Pioneers might lack in depth up front, they more than make up for on the blueline with junior Joey LaLeggia, senior David Makowski and others.
LaLeggia has three goals — all on power plays. Makowski has four goals, two on power plays. And former Omaha Lancers defenseman Nolan Zajac, who tortured UNO last season with three goals and two assists in two games, has five assists this year — tied for third in the NCHC.
Note the power play goals by LaLeggia and Makowski.
“They take advantage of the power play because those two offensive-minded defensemen are dangerous,” UNO coach Dean Blais said.
Denver has the nation’s 11th-best power play, scoring on 25.7 percent (9 of 35) of its man-advantage chances. And it’s been well-chronicled that UNO has been abysmal killing penalties — at 65.9 percent (29 of 44), UNO ranks 57th of 59 teams. Cornell scored seven power-play goals (in 15 chances) in sweeping the Mavs last weekend.
“Your goaltender is your best penalty-killer,” Blais said. “But we’ve got to help him out a little bit. We’ve been giving up some tap-in goals, not covering the right guys around the net. Our defensemen are good enough to recognize who’s more dangerous — the guy beside the net, the guy in front of the net or the shooter from the point.”
Blais said personnel changes on the penalty kill will be minimal. Mindset, attacking rather than hesitating, is more important.
“We want to get into what other teams do to us ... real aggressive kills, take away time and space, make them complete three or four great passes,” Blais said. “Cornell did that a couple of times, but it’s hard to do.”
At 2-4, UNO hasn’t had the start it was anticipating. But in some ways, opening the NCHC season offers a chance to hit the reset button.
“Our October didn’t really go the way we planned, but we got our first month out of the way and things have started to fall into place,” said Walters, who was the national player of the month in November 2012.
So, starting in Denver? Sure, why not?
“Good building to play in,” Walters said. “Good crowd, so we’ve got to try to take them out of it right away. ... I know we’ve got the offense to do it, we’ve just got to tighten up our ‘D’ zone.”
Notes: Among skaters who have taken 40 or more faceoffs, UNO forward Josh Archibald leads the country by winning 73.2 percent (30 of 41). ... UNO defenseman Michael Young missed some practice time this week with an upper-body injury, but is expected to be available Friday. ... UNO is also hopeful defenseman Brian O’Rourke will be back after missing last weekend’s series with an injury. ... Brittain, Denver’s senior goalie, leads the NCHC in goals-against average (1.40), save percentage (.945) and shutouts (two). Nationally in those categories, he ranks seventh, eighth and tied for first.