Monday, March 11, 2013

Searching For Answers For Maverick Hockey Collapse

Two months ago, UNO sat on top of the WCHA standings after sweeping Colorado College and setting the expectations of more - much more - in the second half of the season.
"...this is UNO's best start to a hockey season ever.  And considering that Dean Blais teams traditionally have been stronger down the stretch, that's a really positive sign."
 Well, that didn't happen. Not even close.  In fact, just the opposite.  It's almost like it was bizarro opposite world for UNO hockey.  The Mavs only won five of the remaining 13 games, and ironically two of those wins were actually against Bemidji State, UNO's version of Kryptonite.  Even worse, UNO has lost their last five games and fell all the way to seventh place in the WCHA. UNO now has to go on the road to play Minnesota State in Mankato for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

The first signs of trouble emerged when North Dakota swept the Mavs in early February, but my warning alarms went off last weekend against Wisconsin. Crisp passing always seemed to be a trademark of UNO's teams under Dean Blais, but against the Badgers, they were anything but.  Off target, and too frequently picked off.

A good Twitter exchange between myself and UNO's Red Army Supreme Commander Rick Jeffries ensued during the early stages of Saturday night's 6-0 loss to Minnesota-Duluth:
He points out that UNO has gone 3-11 in March under Blais.  That's significant.  Another statistic that's eye-popping is that UNO hasn't been to Joe Louis Arena since 2005...and has never been to the Exel Energy Center since moving to the WCHA.  And right now, nobody in Omaha sees much hope of UNO getting there this season.

The March losses are one thing, but the February swoons are a recent development, but a trend emerged.  In Blais' first season (with Mike Kemp's players, mind you), UNO finished the season 10-5...the last two losses were in the CCHA quarterfinals to Ferris State.  In 2010-11, UNO finished the season 8-8, but the last three losses were to arch-nemesis Bemidji State then that disputed Michigan NCAA tournament game.  Last season, UNO ended the season on a 5-10-2 run. And this season, UNO is 2-8 in their last ten games.
I agree, this looks like a conditioning problem. That's a layman - and outsider's perspective - to the problem. I could be wrong, but I remember when Dean Blais first came to town, he told his players to get ready to run.  And run.  And run.  That first team was stronger down the stretch.  His second wasn't bad down the stretch.  But it's getting progressively worse and worse down the stretch.
I could very well be wrong here.  Conditioning wasn't a problem with Blais' North Dakota teams, but it's looking like it is in Omaha. Blais is a proven winner, so you have to believe that his system works.

That being said, it isn't working in Omaha.  Which raises the question as to why.  That's the question that Dean Blais needs to answer.  That's the question that Trev Alberts needs to be asking.  That's the question that Mike Kemp needs to be asking.  It's not a question as to whether Dean Blais is the right coach for UNO; he undoubtedly is.

But something needs to change with UNO hockey. And frankly, this is more urgent than any arena plans, unless the root cause can somehow be traced back to the lack of campus practice facilities.

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