Take the league’s best goaltender and combine him with the league’s best special teams units and what do you get?
One extremely difficult National Collegiate Hockey Conference opponent.
No. 18 Denver, tied for fifth in the NCHC, comes to CenturyLink Center for games against UNO on Friday at 7:37 p.m. and Saturday at 7:07. The Mavericks are tied for third in the NCHC, just one point ahead of the Pioneers.
UNO trails first-place St. Cloud State by only three points. With eight league games remaining, only four points separate the top six teams.
“These are must-wins. Every game from here on out is,” UNO defenseman Jaycob Megna said. “We want to win a championship in this league. We have to win as much and as often as we can, especially at home.”
That starts this weekend with Denver (13-9-6 overall, 7-6-3-2 NCHC), which ranks fourth in the country on the power play at 23.8 percent and third nationally on the penalty kill with an 87.8-percent success rate. Goalie Sam Brittain’s league-best numbers in save percentage (.934) and goals-against average (1.99) rank fourth and ninth, respectively, in the country.
“You want to keep it 5-on-5 as much as you can,” Megna said. “You know, a goalie can only be so good if you make the right plays. Still, even though our offense has been good lately, if it becomes a game where we have to score four or five goals, that’s not good against a goalie like Brittain.”
Denver is among the lowest-scoring teams in the country, averaging just 2.5 goals per game. But the Pioneers become lights out with the man advantage.
“It starts with (Joey) LaLeggia,” said UNO coach Dean Blais, who calls LaLeggia one of the best, most well-rounded, defensemen in the country. “One defenseman like that can kind of control the power play. Those defensemen don’t come around all that often.”
LaLeggia and fellow defenseman David Makowski are tied for fifth in the NCHC with five power-play goals. Two more defensemen — Will Butcher and Daniel Doremus — each have four power-play goals. So does forward Zac Larraza.
“Certainly you need the guys on the power play and penalty kill to have talent,” Blais said. “But they also execute. It has to be something they work on a lot in practice. Jim’s teams in the past (at the juniors level) have always been good on special teams. He’s done a great job with them.”
First-year Denver coach Jim Montgomery also has one of the league’s top freshmen in forward Trevor Moore, who has 11 goals and 23 points while recording a plus-8 rating.
While UNO’s special teams continue to improve — in NCHC games the Mavs have the second-best power play (21.9 percent) and third-best penalty kill (87.8 percent) — the Mavs are in some ways Denver’s opposite.
UNO (11-13-2, 8-6-2-1) is much more likely to outscore an opponent, particularly on Saturdays. UNO is averaging 6.3 goals in its past three Saturday games, recording an individual hat trick each time (two by Josh Archibald and one by Dominic Zombo).
“Coach always says we’re one of the best-conditioned teams in the nation, and that has a lot to do with it,” Archibald said. “We wear teams down on Friday, and we come out Saturday doing the same thing and just flying. Teams can’t keep up with us at times. And if we get all those shots on net, some of them are bound to go in.”
Prior to the three-game Saturday outburst, UNO had its infamous 53-shot loss on a Saturday against Minnesota-Duluth.
“(Other than that game) I don’t think our shots on net are a whole lot different on Saturday night compared to Friday night,” Blais said. “If a team isn’t used to playing a fast-paced game ... maybe that’s part of it.”
But first things first, and that’s Friday’s series opener.
It’s another big series for UNO, which had a serious gut-check series when it traveled to Denver on Nov. 1 and 2. The Mavs had just been swept at home by Cornell to drop to 2-4, were playing their first league series, had three ranked opponents waiting in the wings and were playing an opponent against whom they’d never beaten on the road (0-8-2).
UNO earned a sweep, winning both games 3-2 on overtime goals by Archibald.
“It was a good team battle, our first NCHC series against a team we hadn’t beaten in Denver before,” said UNO defenseman Brian Cooper, who leads the Mavs and is tied for ninth in the NCHC with a plus-7 rating in league games. “Hopefully we can mimic that, because we’d definitely like to take six points again.”
NOTES: Blais said goalie Ryan Massa, out the past two weekends with a groin injury, is “probable” for the series and could potentially start Friday.