In order for Nebraska Omaha to clinch home ice for the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, the Mavericks need to pick up two of the four points on offer in its two-game set this weekend.
Against ninth-ranked Denver, though, reaching that objective will be anything but easy.
The Pioneers (19-11-4, 14-8-4 WCHA) come to Omaha for Friday and Saturday’s series with UNO already having clinched home ice for the first round of the postseason, which begins this time next week. DU, currently in third place in the WCHA, can now finish the regular season no lower than fourth in the league standings.
UNO (14-14-6, 11-10-5), on the other hand, finds itself this weekend in a much more difficult position.
The good news is that the Mavericks, currently sitting in sixth place in the conference, control their own destiny insofar as two points earned in their series with DU would ensure a top six-finish.
However, earning less than two points this weekend would leave UNO, currently on 27 points, watching to see what fifth-place Colorado College (27) and seventh-place Michigan Tech (26) do in their final two games.
Perhaps handily for UNO, the Tigers and Huskies play each other this weekend in Colorado Springs, although a positive result or two for Tech could spell danger for UNO if the Mavericks lay an egg against DU.
Injury woes have left the Pioneers a frustratingly inconsistent team this season, but DU does have one big thing going for it coming into this weekend’s games: History.
UNO earned a split with Denver just over a year ago when DU came to what was then Qwest Center, with the Mavericks’ winning 5-2 on Feb. 25. That was something of an aberration, though, as that was – and still is – UNO’s only win over the Pioneers since the 1997-98 season, where UNO swept DU in Omaha during the Maverick hockey program’s inaugural campaign.
On paper, however, the Pioneers look like favorites in this weekend’s series at CenturyLink Center. DU leads UNO in both scoring offense and scoring defense, and the Pioneers boast the WCHA’s best power play unit, whirring at a 24.5 percent clip over the course of the season.
DU isn’t short on high-powered weapons, either. Four Pioneers (Drew and Nick Shore, Jason Zucker and Joey LaLeggia) are among the WCHA’s top 20 point-scorers. Those four players have combined to score 60 of DU’s 119 goals so far in the current campaign.
DU’s goaltending situation is a question mark, though, and Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky has taken three goaltenders to Omaha. Junior netminder Adam Murray played against UNO in Omaha last season, but sophomore Sam Brittain looks to be the more likely starter this time around.
UNO is coming off of a disappointing pair of losses at the hands of sixth-ranked Minnesota in Omaha last weekend, and the Maverick players won’t have had an easy time getting the resulting bad taste out of their mouths.
The Mavericks need at least two points this weekend, though – and surely they need points more than DU does – and UNO’s icers can’t afford to not rise to the occasion.
Fri., Mar. 2: UNO 4-3 DU (First UNO scorer: Jayson Megna)
Sat., Mar. 3: UNO 1-3 DU (First UNO scorer: Matt White)
What are your predictions for this weekend’s series? Let us know in the comments box below this article.