Note: I haven’t asked permission to use any of these photos, so I won’t, but Dave Schwartz from the St. Cloud Times has a great photo gallery from last weekend’s series that you can see here.
1.) Nebraska Omaha’s hockey team was not long for this season.
It largely came down to bad luck for UNO in the home stretch of the 2011-12 season, but, as the final weeks wore on, it was beginning to look as though the Mavericks’ season wouldn’t be continuing for much longer.
That was brought to a head during last weekend’s sweep at the hands of St. Cloud State at the National Hockey Center.
A four-game skid against top-ten competition (No. 6 Minnesota and ninth-ranked Denver, both in Omaha) at the end of the WCHA regular season relegated UNO to a bottom-six finish in the league.
For the Mavericks, that meant a road trip in the first round of the playoffs to face a red-hot Husky side, against which – considering SCSU is now 7-2-1 in its last ten games – there is no shame in losing.
It’s worth noting, though, that while the WCHA schedule-makers were very unkind to UNO when it came to the business end of the season, the last three weeks weren’t all that broke the Mavericks’ campaign.
UNO and its 19 underclassmen – 10 of them freshmen – were too inexperienced to win many of their biggest games this season, and a 3-6-1 non-conference record was never going to help the Mavericks’ chances of making a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
2.) Dean Blais’s lineup reshuffle Saturday nearly worked.
Just as he had against Denver on the final day of the regular season, the UNO head coach decided to change things up again ahead of the Mavericks’ second game against SCSU on Saturday.
Freshman goaltender Ryan Massa, who had started the night before in the Huskies’ 4-0 Game 1 win, was a healthy scratch on Saturday. Dayn Belfour, who hadn’t played in a game since Jan. 21, was brought up to deputize for John Faulkner in the rematch.
Blais also reshuffled all four of UNO’s forward lines, playing with nine forwards and bringing back top defenseman Michael Young from injury.
These changes nearly worked. Faulkner had one of his best games of the season on Saturday, and, on the whole, the Mavericks did enough to keep themselves in the game until Ben Hanowski’s backbreaking goal in the final minute of the game that put SCSU ahead for good.
It was a valiant performance from UNO, and, with the core of the team returning next season, it will give the Mavericks reasons to be optimistic going into the 2012-13 campaign.
3.) SCSU isn’t a lock for the NCAA tournament, but don’t be surprised if the Huskies get there.
If the Huskies make it to the national tournament, they’ll need to win the WCHA Final Five first, and that will be no easy task.
North Dakota will be SCSU’s first opponent on Thursday night at St. Paul, Minn.’s Xcel Energy Center. Minnesota would then be their semifinal opponent, followed by one of Minnesota Duluth, Denver and Michigan Tech in Saturday’s final.
Only a fool would count the Huskies out at this stage, though. SCSU is unbeaten in its last four games and has won five of its last seven.
4.) UNO’s losing streak to end the season was misleading.
The Mavericks lost their last six games of the 2011-12 season, but they probably didn’t deserve to go out the way they did.
UNO did lay two eggs in that span, losing 3-0 to Denver at home on Mar. 2 and dropping a 4-0 decision at SCSU on Friday. In the other four games, though, UNO played very well and were very hard done by in losing them all.
Three of those losses were by one-goal margins, and that number may as well have gone up to four when we consider that St. Cloud State’s last goal in the Huskies 3-1 win on Saturday was an empty-netter that went in inside the final second of the game.
Problems that plagued UNO throughout the season contributed to the Mavericks’ eventual downfall, though. UNO’s goaltending was rarely consistent from one game to the next, and the Mavericks’ horrid power play continued to sputter along at the end of the campaign, with UNO going 0-for-20 on the man advantage over the team’s final seven games of the season.
This season’s UNO team was talented and never gave up, but it wasn’t experienced enough to make a long-lasting postseason run.
5.) Lastly, let’s make one thing very clear: UNO did not choke.
This extends far beyond UNO hockey, so don’t read too much into it: If I wanted half-baked, not wholly informed analysis on a sports team’s performance, I might go have a look at its fans’ message boards.
Surprisingly, though, the biggest gem that I’ve heard so far this week hasn’t come from one of those boards. Instead, a few people I know in real life have come up to me in the last couple days asking why UNO choked in the season’s final run-in.
Where this idea has come from, I have no idea. This was easily one of the youngest teams in the 15-year history of UNO’s program, and the muscle memory in terms of how to get things done at this point in the season wasn’t necessarily there. That’s nobody’s fault.
Experience comes with time, though, and that’s one thing that this UNO program has plenty of. The Mavericks only lose two seniors – both of them third-pair defensemen – from this year’s squad, and, barring any major off-season departures, all of UNO’s leading scorers will be back for the 2012-13 campaign.
Despite the Mavericks’ dip in fortune at the end of 2011-12, confidence should be high in the Maverick camp come this next October.