When North Dakota came to town nine months ago, UNO was sitting in second place in the WCHA, three points out of first.
A big crowd was on hand for the series opener, and a much-anticipated outdoor game was set for the finale.
“Kind of a distraction,” University of Nebraska at Omaha coach Dean Blais said. “It’s like opening a new arena — you never seem to win that first game in a new arena. After we lost the Friday (indoor) game, there was more pressure on the players to win the Saturday game, and it didn’t work out.”
North Dakota won a tightly contested 2-1 opener, then raced to an early lead outdoors and cruised to a 5-2 win.
Maybe that was when Mavericks’ free fall began.
“I think it was kind of a turning point,” said senior forward Brock Montpetit, who missed last year’s series because of an injury. “Before the season, everyone was looking forward to that outdoor game, North Dakota at our place. But they came in and played well. I think guys got let down. It wasn’t everything they imagined it could be.”
The Mavs, after sweeping last-place Alaska-Anchorage, lost their final four regular-season games, missed out on home ice for the playoffs, then lost a best-of-three series at Minnesota State-Mankato to end the season.
Blais doesn’t look at that series as the beginning of the end. He sees it as an opportunity missed.
“Just points lost,” Blais said. “You start losing home points that time of year, you end up losing home ice for the playoffs and your season is over.”
North Dakota, ranked Nos. 10 and 11 in the national polls, is back this weekend for games Saturday at 7:07 p.m. and Sunday at 5:07 p.m. at CenturyLink Center.
And, though it’s early, it represents a potential turning point in this season.
North Dakota, 2-3-1, is going to be angry. It has lost three straight — though all were against top-10 teams, with a defeat against Miami (Ohio) preceding last weekend’s home sweep by St. Cloud State. It was the first time North Dakota had been swept at home in four seasons.
“I was just hoping they’d win on Saturday (against St. Cloud State), crossing my fingers,” Blais said. “We’re going to see their best. I was talking to (North Dakota coach) Dave Hakstol on the phone Monday, and you could just feel the intensity in his voice … not happy.”
Though North Dakota lost some of its top players from last season, as usual it has reloaded. It still sends out a whopping 15 NHL draft picks, including first-round defenseman Jordan Schmaltz, high-scoring second-round forward Rocco Grimaldi and third-rounder Adam Tambellini.
“They’re obviously really talented and we’ve got to respect that,” said UNO defenseman Michael Young, a senior captain. “But hard work can outwork talent. If they’re not going to work, they’re not going to win. We’ve got a lot of talent, too, a lot of high-skilled forwards, shutdown D and our goalies are playing unreal.”
UNO (4-4-0, 2-0-0 NCHC) is coming off a confidence-building sweep at Denver in its National Collegiate Hockey Conference debut. The Mavs would like to continue that momentum with home series the next three weekends. But following North Dakota are No. 2 Michigan and No. 7 Miami.
“You look at the schedule and see they’re all top-10 teams and you’re thinking, ‘Holy crap,’ ” Young said. “But you just can’t worry about it. You have to focus on the task at hand and not worry about next weekend, because if you look at our schedule in general, you’ve got to worry about the teams that come after them, too.”
UNO can take solace in opening November with the sweep at Denver. The Mavs would be pleased if they could go 3-3 the next three weekends, which would boost their power rankings and put them in solid position in the NCHC.
“I think the guys are ready,” Blais said. “They know what we have ahead of us. We talked about this being a tough month. We’ve gotten Denver out of the way so it’s less tough — six games instead of eight. When you look at it ahead of time you think, ‘What are we heading for? Disaster.’ But now it’s less of a disaster because we’ve already got two wins. … The next three weeks are going to be huge.”