UNO was arguably the hottest team in the country in November.
Its 6-2 run against the often-repeated lineup of national powers — Denver, North Dakota, Michigan and Miami (Ohio) — capped by a sweep of Miami, has been frequently recounted.
But now, after a monthlong break, having played just two games since the Miami sweep was completed on Nov. 23, and with the second half of the season set to start, the hot streak seems like ancient history.
And history is sometimes rewritten.
“We want to prove that it wasn't a fluke,” said senior defenseman Michael Young, the Mavs' captain. “We want to make a statement that those teams weren't just off when we played them, or that we were lucky, or we got bounces. We want to prove that we're that good every night, that we can beat any team in the nation on any night, that we can be the national champion this year.”
So the question now becomes, can the Mavericks still be the team they were in November?
“I think so,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “You go 6-2 against those teams, it doesn't get any harder than that. The thing you have to remember is, how did you do that? It was all-out effort. For us to be effective, every guy has to play up to his ability — we can't have any passengers.”
The halfway point of the regular season will be reached Friday, when the 19th-ranked Mavs (8-7-1) face ratings contender New Hampshire (10-10-1) in a 6:35 p.m. game at the Whittemore Center in Durham, N.H. The first game of the second half is Saturday's 6:05 p.m. series finale.
“We just need to keep getting better at our all-around game,” said junior center Dominic Zombo, one of the Mavs' alternate captains. “We've done that so far. We built off a relatively slow start (UNO opened 2-4 against a far less formidable lot than their November foes), and now we need to be even better.”
The Mavs are hopeful that, in just over a week of practice since returning from Christmas break, they've been able to knock off whatever rust accumulated in having 10 days off. They haven't skated in a game since Dec. 6 and 7, when they went to then-last place Colorado College — after having the previous weekend off — and managed only two points out of a possible six, winning a shootout after the Saturday game was tied after overtime.
“We really made it a key to focus on working hard at home over Christmas, because we came out flat after Thanksgiving break against Colorado College — especially the first game,” Zombo said. “Our strength coaches and Coach Blais made sure we were ready, with long workout routines that were really detailed and designed for us to come back in the same shape as when we left — if not better.”
But it takes more than conditioning to win hockey games.
And while the Mavs have displayed the skill necessary to win important games against good teams, there's also something to be said for being sharp. That's a little harder to achieve after going nearly a month between games, especially against a skilled opponent such as New Hampshire, which played two games last weekend.
“The guys did a good job of maintaining their workouts during the break, but some of the guys weren't able to get a lot of ice time,” Blais said. “Things in practice haven't been as crisp. The execution isn't as good. We're a little rusty — but I don't see a big dropoff in intensity.”
How quickly the Mavs can pull things together will impact their success level this weekend.
“We might start off the game missing passes here and there and not doing things we've done before,” Blais said. “We may not execute some 3-on-2s or 2-on-1s, might fumble the puck a bit. But it'll come. We were better yesterday than we were the day before, and we'll be better tomorrow than we are today. There's such a thing as game shape, and we may have lost our game shape, but a lot of teams are in the same boat right now.”
UNO also goes into the second half with both Blais and star defenseman Jaycob Megna sitting out three-game suspensions for violating the NCAA's extra-benefits rule. Blais will travel with the team to New Hampshire but cannot participate in coaching activities beginning one hour prior to game time.
While this weekend's series shapes up as potentially huge for end-of-season PairWise positioning, it's also the end of UNO's nonconference schedule. Sixteen consecutive National Collegiate Hockey Conference games await. Because of the suspensions, neither Megna nor Blais will be available for an NCHC home game against Minnesota-Duluth on Jan. 10.
At 5-2-1 in the NCHC, the Mavs are a strong — and surprising — second behind St. Cloud State.
“We feel really good right now,” Young said. “We would have liked to finish off the first half a little better and take both games in Colorado. That didn't happen, but we'll just build off our mistakes and keep gaining on St. Cloud State and stay up there to the finish.”