Thursday, February 12, 2015

UNO Hockey Begins Four Week Dash Against Western Michigan

First-place UNO hockey begins the final four weeks of the regular season at #4 nationally in the rankings...and with a relatively favorable schedule down the stretch. I say "relatively" because the NCHC is the toughest conference in college hockey this season.  Of the eight teams, five are ranked in the top nine nationally. (For comparison, #12 Michigan is the highest ranked Big Ten team in college hockey.)

But in these final four weeks, UNO only plays one of those top five teams: #6 Minnesota Duluth on the road in two weeks.  The other three weekends, UNO plays the bottom three teams in the conference: Western Michigan, St. Cloud State, and Colorado College. Normally that would be a good thing, but UNO has found the ability this season to play up - and down - to their competition, as those series against Alabama Huntsville and New Hampshire showed.

The general thought is that UNO is playing more for seeding than to qualify for the NCAA tournament in March; there's probably some truth to that, but it's secondary at this point. The first point of emphasis is to make it to Minneapolis for the conference tournament semi-finals and finals.  I'm not sure which fact is more surprising:  that UNO played for the CCHA championship in 2000 in the first year of membership (and the third season for the program overall)...or that UNO has never made it back to the title game ever again. In recent years, the team has squandered home ice in the playoffs and never made it to the next weekend.

But this year seems to be different, as UNO has found a way to compete with everybody in the nation.  The next two months are shaping up to be the biggest in program history.

The primary concern for this weekend is the status of senior captain Dominic Zombo, who had been centering UNO's top line between super sophomores Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega. Zombo left the North Dakota series with a groin injury and will sit out this weekend.

The question is how long he might be out; hopefully this is more of a preventative measure than anything else.

Speaking of Ortega, the World-Herald's Tom Shatel profiled the San Diego area native (aka "Carolina Hot Sauce") in his Thursday column. If you think Omaha is an unlikely place for hockey to flourish, think Escondido, CA...

After this weekend, UNO hits the road for the next two weeks, so this will be the last chance to catch the Mavs in town this month.  Looking at Ticketmaster seat availability, it looks crowds greater than 8,000 should be on hand each night.  (Preferably more with a good walk-up crowd!)  With all three college basketball programs in the area struggling this year, UNO hockey is the area's hope for March Madness.

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