Sunday, March 03, 2013

Another Wisconsin Beat-Down

After the results of the last week, the only thing left for Wisconsin to do is annex the state of Nebraska. The Badgers blew out Nebraska 77-46 on Tuesday in basketball, then swept UNO in hockey this weekend. Nobody should have been surprised by the basketball loss, though Huskers fans should have been dismayed by the margin of defeat.

The hockey losses were a most disappointing surprise. Certainly UNO went into it looking for the sweep themselves, but never led all weekend.  (Well, they did briefly take a 2-1 lead on Wisconsin until the call was reversed after a ridiculously long goal review.)  UNO entered the weekend in third place, just one point behind Minnesota. Now they sit precariously in sixth place, one point ahead of Denver.  The top six teams host first round playoff series games in two weeks, and Denver finishes the season with last place Alaska-Anchorage.

UNO has to travel to Minnesota Duluth.  With the presumption that Denver is going to win both games at home, UNO probably needs to get a road sweep to retain home ice.  Or maybe a split of the series, and hope that North Dakota sweeps Minnesota State-Mankato.  There are a few other wacky scenarios that help, but for the most part, UNO is in the same situation they were in last week:  two wins gets you home ice.  The problem is that they failed both times this weekend.

Here's what's more ominous:  UNO has now lost five straight home games (not including the exhibition game loss last weekend).  So frankly, I'm not sure home ice is any sort of advantage for this team.  It's hard to understand, but perhaps without having the distractions of having class and friends around, this team might play better.  Maybe it really would be best for UNO to finish the season on the road.

So what has happened to UNO hockey over the last month or so? Deep down, I think it's the same problem they had last season: they are worn down. All weekend long, we saw sloppy imprecise passes that, when lucky, just failed to reach their target, and sometimes resulted in a turnover.  Add in some questionable goaltending, especially by senior John Faulkner, and you've got a leaky ship.  For much of this season, UNO's defense has been pretty solid, but it's was broken down badly by the Badgers this weekend.  North Dakota had their way with the Mavs three weeks ago as well.

The move to pull the redshirt off of Ryan Massa now looks like a desperation move in hindsight. He's probably UNO's best goaltender at this point of the season, but he's anything but in the form he showed last season.  I'm still not sure why Faulkner didn't get pulled last night in the third period of last night's 6-2 loss.  A goalie change wouldn't have changed the outcome, but it would have given a rusty Massa another opportunity to get some game action.

The officiating crew didn't help things much. The waived-off goal on Friday night didn't take nearly as long as the infamous Michigan "goal" in the 2011 NCAA tournament, but it was the same sour result for UNO.  Did James Polk interfere with Wisconsin's Joel Rumpel? Yes, but only after he got hauled down by the Badger defenseman.  A phantom "embellishment" penalty on Johnnie Searfoss after he was tripped up by Joseph LaBate? It was almost like officials Brian Thul and Craig Welker were auditioning for jobs in the Big Ten next season.

But that's not why UNO lost on Saturday night, and not really why UNO got swept.  UNO isn't playing very good hockey at this point, and that's a very dangerous thing to be doing in March. Up until last season, Dean Blais teams hit their stride in the second half of the season, but injuries and defections seem to have overwhelmed the Mavs the last two seasons.  This season isn't over; UNO still has a chance to regroup and make a run on things.  But they have to turn it around and fast.  Wisconsin has only lost three games since Thanksgiving, so it could be that the Badgers are just playing that well.  But the margin for error is gone now.  UNO must win on the road now to keep the season alive. And any dreams of playing in the NCAA tournament depend solely on winning three games in St. Paul and earning the WCHA's autobid.  And to do that, UNO first has to find a way to get to St. Paul.

And that road just got a whole lot tougher with a lost weekend against Wisconsin. And after the B1G football championship game and all of the other games against the Badgers, I've seen too much heartbreak from watching my teams battle Wisconsin in recent months.

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