To slow down high-scoring St. Cloud State, UNO wants to make sure it starts its efforts well before the Huskies reach the offensive zone.
“We have to do a better job of angling and checking,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “I'm looking at our forwards in particular. Our defensemen are making good checks when they're there. But our forwards are missing checks and allowing (opponents) to skate 100 feet into our zone, in some cases 150 feet.”
Fifth-ranked St. Cloud State comes to CenturyLink Center on Friday (7:37 p.m.) and Saturday (7:07 p.m.) for a National Collegiate Hockey Conference series matching teams in the top half of the conference race. The Huskies (13-5-4, 7-3-2 NCHC) are in third place with 23 points, one point behind co-leaders North Dakota and Denver. UNO (9-11-2, 6-4-2-1) is in fourth place with 21 points.
And while a fast-skating, high-scoring series seems likely, anything UNO can do to save a goal or two would be beneficial.
“It's definitely going to be challenging,” UNO defenseman Brian Cooper said. “What Western (Michigan) did to beat them plays into our hands if we play the way we (want to) play in our defensive zone. We've got a solid 'D' corps and three good tendies (goaltenders) who can help us out.”
St. Cloud State leads the NCHC and is tied for fifth nationally with an average of 3.5 goals per game. The Huskies' league-best power play (23.4 percent success rate) ranks fourth in the country. UNO is the only NCHC team that averages more shots on goal per game than St. Cloud State's 33.1.
“You have to look out for their speed,” said Nick Seeler, another UNO defenseman. “We have to have good gaps and play physical. We can't let them make the plays they want.”
St. Cloud State, which reached the Frozen Four last season, is led by Jonny Brodzinski, a 6-foot, 205-pound finisher who is fourth in the league with 25 points (14 goals, 11 assists). Nic Dowd, 6-2 and 196, is seventh with 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists). But David Morley (5-7, 170), Kalle Kossila (5-10, 175) and Jimmy Murray (5-7, 165) are among the diminutive speedsters Blais worries about just as much.
“They've got about four guys like (North Dakota's) Rocco Grimaldi,” Blais said.
Morley, who has six goals and 15 assists, had a hat trick against the Mavs in their wild 6-5 victory over St. Cloud State last season.
“As long as the forwards can get in their way and make them move side to side, and also come back and help, it allows us to stay up and confront them so they don't get in our zone too easily,” Cooper said. “If they get into our zone with that extra second, good forwards will pick you apart.”
St. Cloud State had gone 0-3-1 with a shootout loss over four games — and 1-4-2 with two shootout losses over seven games — before winning last Saturday against Minnesota State-Mankato.
UNO has had an extra week to prepare for St. Cloud State after getting back on track by picking up four of a possible six points at Miami (Ohio) on Jan. 17 and 18.
The focus for the UNO defensemen has been to take away the time and space of the Huskies' forwards, similar to the way hard-nosed Western Michigan did in taking five points out of St. Cloud the same weekend UNO was at Miami.
“We just have to counter them,” defenseman Michael Young said. “We've got speed up front (at forward), too, and I think our 'D' are really good, really defensive and with a lot of speed. I don't think it'll be a problem.
“We've been preaching to take away their time and space, and just do everything we can to keep the puck. It's a puck-possession game. If they don't have it, they can't do anything.”
Blais said checking by the Mavs' forwards, whether on forechecking or backchecking, has improved.
“But we still can't check the way we have been,” he said. “That's one of our weaknesses right now, and other teams are going to see that.
“Our first guy misses, our second guy misses ... now you're broken down. We've given up goals like that — more the first half of the season than the second half — but it's still a concern.
One key to playing physically is to make sure the physical play gets made — not missed.
“It's not necessarily hitting and knocking them head over heels,” Blais said. “With small, quick guys, you don't want to be overphysical, but you want to finish your checks and not let them get going.”