BOSTON — It was supposed to lay the foundation. Instead, it raised the ceiling.
This UNO hockey team, the one picked to finish sixth in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and that lost its exhibition game 4-0 to a Canadian college, exceeded all expectations with a Frozen Four run.
The talented young Mavericks, with more freshmen on their roster than juniors and seniors combined, were thought to be building for the future. That future quickly became the here and now.
UNO matched its best start ever through December. It led the nation’s premier conference at the end of January. And, on the final weekend of the season, it was one of four teams vying for the NCAA title.
“We’re obviously happy with what we were able to accomplish this year as a team, coming to the Frozen Four as the program,” senior Brian O’Rourke said. “It puts Omaha on the map with a great young group of players coming back next year. Everyone can look forward to another great season from UNO hockey.”
The pieces for future success are in place. The Mavs potentially could bring back their top two forward lines — 10 of the 12 forwards who suited for Thursday’s national semifinal against Providence could return. Five of the team’s top six defensemen — all but co-captain O’Rourke — could come back if they choose to.
UNO has seven underclassmen who have been drafted by NHL teams. Some may weigh their options.
Junior defenseman Brian Cooper, picked by Anaheim in 2012, is the most seasoned among them. The Alaska native, who became a co-captain during the year, said he hasn’t spoken with the Ducks in months.
“I’m not worried about it right now,” he said. “I’m worried about spending the last three months with my friends and my teammates. Unfortunately, I have to say goodbye to (the) seniors and to two roommates in (Dominic) Zombo and O’Rourke. I’m just worried about spending time with them more than anything.”
Cooper said he’d be more concerned about UNO’s younger forwards leaving than himself, but with seniors Zombo, O’Rourke, Ryan Massa and James Polk all graduating, Cooper is a guy the Mavs would look to for valuable leadership.
He’d be joined by fellow juniors Tanner Lane and Aaron Pearce as elder statesmen in the program.
“We’ve got great leadership, great captains coming through,” Cooper said. “We’re just going to continue to build and build and build. Lane, Pearce and myself have all been under great captains before. We’re just going to, hopefully, take traits from them, traits from ourselves, and just build off each other — continue to build what this program already has.”
UNO should be a top-10, if not top-five, team in the preseason. It may return 14 of its top 15 scorers. And those who come back will bring the experience of playing on college hockey’s biggest stage.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we got, and we’re excited that we got (to the Frozen Four),” sophomore forward Jake Guentzel said. “Not the way we wanted it to end (with a semifinal loss). But I think looking forward with all the underclassmen, it’s going to be a bright future. It’s going to be fun.”
The biggest concern for the Mavs will be replacing Massa, who had arguably the best season of any goaltender in UNO’s 18-year history. His teammates credit him for the team making the Frozen Four.
Sophomore Kirk Thompson played in 12 games, starting 10, as Massa’s backup. He went 5-5 and posted a 1-0 shutout against Denver in January. He also went 0-2 in the NCHC playoffs as the Mavs were swept by St. Cloud State — he was starting for Massa, who was out of the lineup with a knee injury.
While Massa’s impact on UNO’s big season can be statistically put into perspective, the intangibles that his class brought to the team as a whole cannot. Sophomore forward Austin Ortega, who broke the NCAA single-season record with 11 game-winning goals in 2014-15, said that group made a major contribution.
“We were excited with how far we’ve come and did something special with our program, and I think the seniors should get all the credit for that,” he said. “They showed us the ropes. For the next couple of years, it’ll all be dedicated to them for that success, whatever comes next.
“The upperclassmen, they were the backbone of this team. They led us in the right direction.”
“Obviously, with these seniors, we’re going to miss them,” he said. “They were the team this year. They led everyone, and they put a good stamp on us younger guys — what to look up to and what to do next year. So (we’re) really looking forward to the future.”
O’Rourke said feels this week’s Frozen Four appearance set the bar high for the Mavs in upcoming years.
“I think, definitely, one thing it will do is it just lets the players know what it takes to get to this level,” he said. “Obviously it’s a long season, and there’s a lot of highs and lows. But this year I think we were able to kind of keep the ship steady toward our main goal ... and that was trying to win a championship.
“Yeah, we fell short. But I think we were able to establish a little bit of a culture, a team culture, that is going to be the standard from here on out. And what is expected each and every day (with) these younger guys, they really took to it and really understood it. That just carries over.”
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