Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Will This March Be Different For UNO Hockey?

It's hard to believe that UNO's best March of hockey was the first season the Mavs were eligible to play in the post-season. In March 2000, UNO made a bold push in their initial season in the CCHA, winning a best of three first round series on the road against Northern Michigan, setting up an unexpected play-in game two days later.  Unexpected...because the City of Omaha had already melted the ice at the Civic Auditorium for a car show.  So as game three came to a conclusion in Marquette, Michigan, the staff at the Civic fired up the compressors and began a rush job to put down a new ice surface for what is now known as "Tuesday Night."

Tuesday night might be the greatest night of hockey in the city limits of Omaha.  People rearranged their schedules, and there was hardly an empty seat at the Civic that night and the atmosphere was electric, much like it was when North Dakota came to town in January. It was a close defensive battle until Jeff Hoggan scored the game winning goal against Bowling Green late in the third period, sending the Mavs to "the Joe" for the CCHA semifinals.  Three days later, UNO beat the University of Michigan 7-4 in what is remembered as the "St. Patrick's Day Massacre."  Nevermind that UNO lost 6-0 to Michigan State the next night to end the Mavs' Cinderella season.

The future was bright, right?  Just year three, and UNO was right there, on the cusp of national prominence.

But UNO never quite made it back to that same stage.  They played again at Joe Louis Arena a few more times, but never made it past the semifinals.  UNO has even made it to the NCAA tournament twice, losing both times.

Arguably, it's gotten worse under Dean Blais.  UNO moved to the WCHA in 2010 and the NCHC in 2013, and UNO hasn't even made it to Minneapolis for either conference tournament.  The second weekend of March has been awful for UNO hockey historically.

This weekend, it's St. Cloud State up for the Mavs in a best of three series.  The Huskies swept UNO three weeks ago up north, though UNO had their chances up there.  In December, UNO swept St. Cloud State, so the series is tied for the season.  UNO may not need to win this series to advance to the NCAA tournament; they may have done enough to earn a berth at this point.

But if UNO wants to reset the trajectory of the program, this weekend is a must-win.  Post-season wins are too few in number, and this UNO team is by far it's most talented.  It's time to put the past behind and set a new course.

Seniors like goalie Ryan Massa have never played in the conference tournament semifinals, and this is their last chance.  Massa was a late scratch last Saturday night after injuring his knee in warmups, but may be able to go this weekend. A hot goaltender can carry a hockey team far during the postseason, and Massa has been stellar all season long.  No word as to whether senior captain Dominic Zombo will be able to go this weekend either; I suspect he won't, though I imagine that's killing him to not be able to contribute.

I understand the doubts based on the past, but UNO hockey has done things this season nobody expected they would early on.  Will that be enough to get UNO to Minneapolis next weekend?

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