In the race for home ice in the upcoming National Collegiate Hockey Conference playoffs, No. 12 UNO lost no ground following its 6-3 defeat at the hands of No. 3 St. Cloud State on Saturday at Baxter Arena.
Miami and Minnesota Duluth, the teams tied with the Mavericks for fourth in the league, also lost.
But in the bigger picture, as far as an NCAA tournament bid is concerned, UNO is skating on thin ice.
The Mavs (18-11-1) dropped to 11th in the PairWise rankings after they were swept at home for the third time in their last four series at Baxter. St. Cloud State (25-6-1) never trailed in its weekend wins.
UNO is still in good shape overall, coach Dean Blais said. But with only a home series with No. 4 North Dakota and two games at No. 10 Denver left in the regular season, the pressure to win is now on.
“Every game now down the stretch is a must-win to get that home ice and for the PairWise rankings,” UNO captain Jake Guentzel said. “We’ve got to start winning some games here against some top teams.”
The Mavs were down 3-0 to the NCHC co-leaders midway through the second before rallying to within one twice on Saturday. Kalle Kossila’s goal with 3:29 to go gave the Huskies an insurmountable 5-3 lead.
UNO was in danger of being blown out when Ethan Prow scored six seconds into a power play in the second period to put his team up 3-0. But Luke Nogard notched his first career goal 44 seconds later to give the Mavs some life. They pulled within 3-2 when Guentzel scored with a second left in the period.
“We were battling all game,” Nogard said. “It was a crucial time to put one in. It definitely rallied the team up a little bit and got it going, followed by (Guentzel’s) goal later in the period. And we didn’t quit.”
Guentzel answered Blake Winiecki’s second goal of the night in the third period to get UNO within 4-3 with 9:34 left. Kossila put the Huskies over the top and kept them in a first-place tie with North Dakota.
“That was a good game for us, start to finish,” St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. “We haven’t had that effort in a while. We needed to get it back. We needed to feel it again. And we had to have it to win tonight.”
The Huskies dominated the opening five minutes. All of the action took place in UNO’s defensive zone and St. Cloud State put seven shots on goal, including one from Winiecki that put his team up for good.
Blais used his timeout immediately after. If he hadn’t, he said, things were going to completely crumble.
“Every line that got out there, it didn’t matter who it was, we were getting outplayed,” he said. “We had the matchups. We could do whatever we want. We had the right matchups. But every line, it didn’t matter who we were out there against, we were getting outplayed by St. Cloud’s guys. We just needed a wake-up call. But, too late, the puck’s already in the net.”
It was an uphill battle for UNO from that point forward. And Blais said it wasn’t all bad.
“It was still a character (effort) to come from behind,” he said. “We never led in the game, but we never gave up. There was some good out of it. But, unfortunately, six points just skated right out the door.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Mavs going forward. The race for home ice will play out over the next two weekends. The positioning nationally will continue as well, but with little margin for error.
With automatic bids going to two leagues that currently don’t have teams within the top 16 of the PairWise Rankings and the possibility of surprise winners in conference tourneys, teams don’t really want to be below the No. 12 spot as the regular season closes. The Mavs are hovering right around it.
Going into last weekend’s series with Western Michigan, which UNO swept, Blais said he felt the Mavs needed four wins in eight games down the stretch to secure an NCAA spot. They have two as of now.
“We got our two wins, but we didn’t count on two losses,” he said. “It definitely puts more importance on splitting with North Dakota in here and going out to Denver.”
St. Cloud State (25-6-1, 15-4-1-1)............1 2 3—6
UNO (18-11-1, 8-11-1).............................0 2 1—3
First period: 1, SCSU, Blake Winiecki (Robby Jackson, Jacob Benson) 5:02.
Second period: 2, SCSU, Patrick Russell (Mikey Eyssimont) 10:25. 3, SCSU, Ethan Prow (Joey Benik, Russell) 12:10 (power play). 4, UNO, Luke Nogard (Ryan Galt, Lukas Buchta) 12:54. 5, Jake Guentzel (Fredrik Olofsson, Luc Snuggerud) 19:59.
Third period: 6, SCSU, Winiecki (Benson, Ben Storm) 8:07. 7, UNO, Guentzel (Austin Ortega, Snuggerud) 10:26. 8, SCSU, Kalle Kossila (Eyssimont) 16:31. 9, SCSU, Judd Peterson 18:52 (empty net).
Shots on goal:
St. Cloud State 10 8 9—27
UNO 11 11 10—32
Power plays: SCSU 1-4, UNO 0-6.
Penalties-minutes: SCSU 6-12, UNO 4-8.
Goalies: SCSU, Charlie Lindgren (32 shots, 29 saves), 60:00. UNO, Evan Weninger (26 shots, 21 saves), 58:14.
Three stars: Blake Winiecki, Jake Guentzel, Patrick Russell.
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