Preview: UNO v Minnesota State

Nebraska-Omaha celebrates an Andrej Sustr goal against Minnesota State on Nov. 6, 2010. (Photo credit: Michelle Bishop)

It wasn’t that long ago – most notably during the mid-2000s – that Nebraska-Omaha couldn’t buy a break against Minnesota State, a program UNO was building a hockey rivalry with to go along with that between the schools in all their other sports in NCAA Division II’s North Central Conference.

The NCC is no more, however, and current WCHA basement-dweller MSU’s dominance on the ice over UNO has faded to black, as well.

The purple Mavericks of Mankato host their red counterparts this weekend, though, and if the visitors don’t keep their wits about them, they may see their recent control of the rivalry slip.

On paper, UNO (11-9-4, 8-5-3 WCHA) should be able to navigate this weekend’s series with little trouble. MSU (7-16-1, 3-12-1) has only won four of 12 games at Mankato’s Verizon Wireless Center so far this season, and the purple Mavs have yet to win at home against any of the league’s current top six teams.

Just as UNO is coming off of a big win over No. 1 Minnesota Duluth on Jan. 14, however, MSU is fresh off a morale-boosting victory of it’s own, a 3-0 home win over Wisconsin on the same night that UNO picked up its, up to now, season-defining win.

MSU goaltender Phil Cook was particularly stellar in the win over the Badgers, turning aside all 32 shots he faced. He should get the nod again against UNO on Friday.

The purple Mavericks’ forwards have picked up the pace lately, as well, with MSU averaging north of three goals per game in its last ten outings.

That should prove to be food for thought for UNO, which has shipped just under three goals per game this season and is still operating its goaltending carousel while Dean Blais waits to decide which if any of his four goaltenders to ride going into the postseason.

Having said that, UNO is currently experiencing one of its better stretches of the season. The red Mavs are 2-1-1 in their last four games, and UNO boasts the best penalty-killing unit in the WCHA at 84.5 percent.

Ryan Massa, having saved 43 UMD shots in UNO’s 3-1 win last time out, should get the start on Friday against MSU. John Faulkner may get a look, as well, though, and he played deceptively well on Jan. 13 despite conceding five Bulldog goals in UNO’s 6-2 loss.

UNO, still in the hunt for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, will feel some pressure to pick up a couple of good results in Mankato. Three points would be welcome as UNO works toward clinching home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, but four points would look better in the eyes of the NCAA’s selection committee.

Even though MSU’s play has improved lately, though, the red Mavericks have enough of an advantage that they should be able to return to Omaha with no less than three points in tow.

UNO leads MSU in all team statistical categories, and the idea that UNO’s postseason goals appear more attainable than MSU’s should give the red Mavericks enough incentive to go out and do the business on the ice.

UNO will need to stay sharp against the purple Mavericks, however. Home advantage counts for something, and if MSU’s offense doesn’t suddenly run cold, the opportunity is still very much there for MSU to get something from the two-game set.

PREDICTION:
Fri., Jan. 20: UNO 4-1 MSU (First UNO scorer: Jayson Megna)
Sat., Jan. 21: UNO 3-3 MSU (First UNO scorer: Bryce Aneloski)

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