It’s hockey time in Omaha. So you know what to do.
Wipe your feet.
Walking into Baxter Arena is still like going into a new house. You wouldn’t want to leave any remnants of winter on the nice new carpet.
It leads into the coaches’ offices area, down the hall to the head coach’s office, complete with a tall wood cabinet. No refrigerator. Yet.
Go through a side door and you’re in the players lounge, a hockey man cave, with giant leather couches and a big screen TV and tables for the post-practice snacks and meals.
Wind through another door and you’re in the equipment room, which looks like a small hardware store. Down another hall is the training room, where you can have a hot tub or ice bath, depending on the mood of your muscles.
The basketball Mavericks occupy the arena. So here come the hockey boys — clop, clop, clop — out of the locker room and heading down to their auxiliary ice sheet, with the bright sun blasting through the windows onto practice like some kind of movie.
This isn’t exactly Old Time Hockey. After years of living out of their cars, the Mavericks have found the perfect home.
Well, almost perfect.
Baxter Arena is nirvana, except for one small thing.
UNO suddenly can’t win there.
The Mavs are in sixth place in the NCHC, six points out of fourth and home ice for the league playoffs. No problem. With four NCHC series left, UNO has the next three weekends at home.
After starting the season 8-0 at Baxter, UNO has been swept by Denver and Miami (Ohio) in its last two home weekends. Neither opponent was ranked, and both trailed UNO in the standings at the time.
Now here comes Western Michigan, followed by co-league leaders St. Cloud state and North Dakota.
Is the Civic Auditorium still available this month?
Kidding. Baxter Arena is innocent. The men on the ice, not so much.
“We love the place,” Jake Guentzel said. “We started 8-0 there. We’ve got to start playing better, get back to what we were doing before.”
UNO seasons have gone cold before. A Frozen Four season is a tough act to follow. Expectations this year were way up.
Life is good at Baxter Arena. Is it too good?
Has the Frozen Four program gone soft?
“I’m not getting soft,” coach Dean Blais said. “You might have to ask (the players). I haven’t backed off since I started coaching.”
The fancy digs are not the culprit. Nobody is resting on memories of Boston.
“I think about Tim Miles,” Blais said of the Nebraska basketball coach. “I like what he did, kicking his players out of the locker room last year.
“It’s not the case of that at all here. We got beat square by Denver — after we beat them twice at our place last year. We went into Miami last year with their veteran team and split. So, it’s not that we’ve let down.
“It’s just that the league is that tough.”
Look, you bring up the word “soft” around hockey players at the risk of having them jam a stick into your mouth like a toothpick. There’s nothing soft about the sport.
So maybe the words “distraction,” “hype” and “expectations” are more appropriate. Or not.
“The other day, I listened to something McDermott said,” Blais said of Creighton’s basketball coach. “Greg’s done a great job there. I’ve taken some of the things he’s said and done.
“He was talking about the pace of his team, how they’ve been up and down a little bit. I don’t think that’s been us. We’ve played at a pretty even level. There were no games that we just did not show up.”
Pressure is an interesting topic. These players went to their first Frozen Four last spring. They came back and raised a banner and opened an arena and heard everyone say how cool it would be to do it again.
And then they went 10-0 in nonconference. Good thing: that 10-0 record has helped the Mavs secure a No. 9 spot in the Pairwise Rankings and put them in good shape to make the NCAA tournament.
So who knows why they’ve gone 2-6 in their last eight games (including a split at North Dakota). Maybe they’ve taken their eye off the puck. Maybe the Mavs wear a new target to go along with their new arena.
“I think so,” Blais said. “It’s 8,000 fans. Why are we so good at North Dakota? Because it’s 11,000 fans cheering against you. Our guys rally at that.
“Just because we’re at home doesn’t mean we’re going to win.”
There was definitely pressure early in the season, Austin Ortega said. “But at this point, that’s all gone now. It’s just a matter of us finding our game.”
Blais says that will be found on the boards and on the ice. The constant theme in the losses was UNO players losing the puck on the boards — and not going after loose pucks.
Somewhere, UNO became tentative. Can’t blame the hot tub for that one. But can a team taking everyone’s best shot get tired mentally? Bingo.
“I don’t put pressure on them,” Blais said. “They talked about going back to the Frozen Four. Well, are we that type of team? Do we have that type of talent? Do we have that type of leadership?
“I think we do. But, all of a sudden, Denver beats us twice, Miami beats us twice at home. Are we going to fold it and lose all six (home) games?
“We’ve had a week off, we’re healthy and we’re ready to go. We want to get home ice.”
On the other hand, careful what you wish for.
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