With four games left to go in the regular season and with Nebraska Omaha within touching distance of clinching home ice in the first round of the playoffs, the Mavericks have many things going for them right now.
UNO (14-12-6, 11-8-5 WCHA) is fresh off of a difficult four-game stretch at league foes Michigan Tech and Colorado College, where the Mavericks went 2-1-1, including a potentially season-defining 5-3 win over CC on Feb. 18. UNO got key goals from its leading lights in that stretch – and even from some of its supporting cast – and freshman goaltender Ryan Massa shined in the Maverick nets.
One thing UNO doesn’t have going for it heading into the final two weeks of the regular season, however, is its schedule.
Currently stuck in a three-way tie for fourth place in the conference – UNO currently sits in fifth place through tiebreakers and would face St. Cloud State at home in the first round of the playoffs if the regular season had ended Thursday – but the Mavericks’ remaining fixtures are less than favorable.
Sixth-ranked Minnesota comes to Omaha’s CenturyLink Center on Friday and Saturday to face UNO for the first time in Nebraska in the time that both schools have been WCHA members. Things hardly get easier for the Mavericks next week, with No. 9 Denver coming to town.
The Gophers (21-11-1, 17-7-0) are up first, though, and they, too, have business that they’re looking to finish.
Minnesota is currently two points clear at the top of the WCHA table, and the Gophers are looking to give their senior class their first big taste on-ice success as collegians.
The Gophers’ current senior class has won plenty of games, sure, but its trophy cabinet, up to now, has remained empty.
Not once in their years at Minnesota have the Gophers won the MacNaughton Cup, given to the WCHA’s regular season champion.
Not once have they won a single game in the WCHA Final Five.
In fact, not once have they won an NCAA tournament game.
Minnesota looks poised to wipe that very sour taste out of its seniors’ mouths, though, and it has the quality to make it happen.
The Gophers have scored more goals this season (121) than any other team in the WCHA, and they average 3.67 goals scored per game. Six Gophers have scored at least ten goals apiece this season, and seven have at least 25 points each to their names.
They also boast the league’s stingiest – and the country’s second-best – defense, only allowing just north of two goals per game over the course of the 2011-12 campaign.
Minnesota’s goaltending is another of the Gophers’ strong suits. Senior goaltender Kent Patterson, having played in all 33 of Minnesota’s games this season, leads from the back with a .917 save percentage.
The Gophers cannot clinch the league regular season title this weekend, but in order to ensure that they stay at the top of the tree, they will have to shut down, on their own ice, a UNO team that’s playing well and with plenty of confidence.
UNO forwards Matt White and Terry Broadhurst are among the WCHA’s top 15 scorers, and freshmen such as Jayson Megna and Josh Archibald have quickly made their mark in the Mavericks’ offensive corps.
Sophomore Ryan Walters, a Rosemount, Minn. native and former Gopher recruit, is also on a roll of late, having scored UNO’s game-tying and game-winning goals in its last game.
Looking long-term, UNO and Minnesota would probably both be happy with a split this weekend, and that looks to be the likeliest result from this series.
Both teams will be looking over their shoulders at the trailing packs anyway, though, and a sweep for one team in this two-game set might spell disaster for the other.
Fri., Feb. 24: UNO 2-4 Minnesota (First UNO goalscorer: Ryan Walters)
Sat., Feb. 25: UNO 2-1 Minnesota (First UNO goalscorer: Josh Archibald)