Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Myths and Reality of UNO Hockey's "Swoontober"

There's been no lack of animosity surrounding UNO hockey over the last year or so.  Some of it focused at me for my skepticism of Mike Gabinet, but mostly at former head coach Dean Blais. Much of the criticism of Blais focuses on the notion of "Swoontober", a phenomenon where UNO's hockey season fades away in the closing weeks of the season.  Ill-prepared for the modern college hockey game, Blais' coaching philosophies were at the core of UNO's failure to make it to Minneapolis to play in the WCHA's "Final Five" or NCHC's "Frozen Faceoff" semifinals.

At least that's the narrative.

And now that UNO hockey sits ever-so-slightly-above-.500 after New Years' Day, some proclaim that "Swoontober is Over!"  Yes, finally winning a game against (slumping) North Dakota at Baxter Arena proves that Gabinet was the answer.

Well, maybe.  Or maybe not.  Let's look a little closer at the phenomenon known as "Swoontober" - specifically the schedule. You see, UNO is a member of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference which, quite frankly, is to college hockey what the SEC thinks they are to college football.  Pretty damn good.  How good?  Each of the last three years, two of the four NCAA Frozen Four teams have been NCHC teams.  UNO made it in 2015, North Dakota in 2015 and 2016, Denver in 2016 and 2017, and Minnesota-Duluth in 2017.

And it's not just that the NCHC had two excellent teams; in 2016 and 2017, four NCHC teams earned bids to the 16 team NCAA tournament.  In 2015, six of the eight teams made it.  So one fact is blatantly clear:  UNO's conference schedule is about as tough as it gets.

Here's another fact to keep in mind about "Swoontober":  UNO plays all of their nonconference games in the first half of the season.  So the schedule is, almost by definition, backloaded to be tougher at the end than at the beginning.  For comparison, look at Nebraska football in 2016:  the Huskers jumped out to a 7-0 start (and a Top Ten ranking under Mike Riley), thanks to a relatively weak schedule.  And then lost four out of the last six games as they played the best teams late in the year.

Did the Huskers have a "swoon"? Nope.  Just a dose of reality combined with injuries to the best quarterback Mike Riley had throughout his three year tenure.  Nebraska wasn't as good as they looked when they arrived in Madison with a top ten ranking, nor nearly as bad as they looked against Iowa in that bloodbath.

So let's look at UNO hockey over the last few years.  I've compared UNO's opponents Pairwise rankings in both the first half and the second half of each season, just to get a relative idea of the strength of the schedules.  It's eye opening.

Pairwise RankingsFall 2015Winter 2016Fall 2016Winter 2017Fall 2017Winter 2018
1 - 101-11-111-33-11-12-40-4
11 - 202-00-02-2-20-04-24-2
21 - 303-0-10-20-00-01-13-0-1
31 - 606-22-28-1-13-0-12-1-10-0

There's not a lot of difference between the seasons when looking at opponents ranked outside the top ten in the Pairwise...but that top line is eye-catching.  In the winter of 2016, UNO played 12 games against the top ten, winning just one.  Last winter, 14 games against the top ten, winning just three with a tie.

This winter?  Just four games so far.  Two more this weekend against number 8 Minnesota-Duluth on the road, and if UNO wins those, you probably have a case to say that Swoontober is over.  If UNO gets swept, then the Mavs probably end up having to go back to Denver, the defending national champions.  That probably makes 0-8 against the top ten a very likely scenario...and Swoontober lives on.

I used to think UNO's issue was with Baxter Arena, but this year's home record suddenly reversed that trend.  Digging into this further, I realized that UNO went 0-6 and 1-5 at home against top ten teams the last two seasons after Christmas.  This year?  The last top ten team to visit Baxter Arena was Duluth in December.

And those home losses the last two seasons take a toll on the fan base.  Nobody likes losing; it's caused fans to turn on each other and spew a lot of nonsense.  (The worst take has to be that Dean Blais went to the UNO/North Dakota game in early January to cheer against his former players.  My goodness.)

This "Swoontober" is nothing more than having to face the best teams in the nation...and UNO isn't there yet.  It's not even really a swoon, which implies that UNO suddenly started playing worse than they are capable of.

No comments: