The Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks skate off to their third NCAA hockey tournament appearance in the program’s 18 seasons this week.
UNO will travel to South Bend, IN, for a first round match-up against Harvard. The winner of this game will take on the winner of the top-seeded Minnesota State (Mankato) – Rochester Institute of Technology game for a shot at the NCAA’s Frozen Four (hockey’s Final Four) in Boston April 9-11. UNO is the second seed in the Midwest Regional.
The No. 10-rated Mavericks have compiled a record of 18-12-6. Expectations were not high prior to the season. They had a team fielding 11 freshmen. The Mavs opened the season with a shutout loss in an exhibition game. If you had told me the team would be making a trip to the NCAA tournament the first of October, I’d have thought you were crazy.
While it’s always an honor to be invited to the NCAA tournament, the Mavericks go in limping. Starting off the season strong with seven wins in its first 10 games, UNO found itself rated in the hockey polls’ Top 10 most of the season. However, as has become the norm the past few seasons, the Mavs struggled to play consistently in the second half of the season, compiling a 6-7-3 record (including a 1-4-3 mark in the final four series).
UNO has a chance to reverse the trend and score the school’s first NCAA tournament win this week.
Once the season ends, UNO will look to perform well in its new home – the UNO/Community Arena – near the school’s campus. The arena will sit about 7,500 people. School leaders anticipate a better product on the ice as a result of having a real home.
Moving into its own arena means saying good-bye to its home for the last 12 seasons. UNO played its final series at the Century Link Omaha arena in the conference’s playoffs’ first round. The Mavs were swept by St. Cloud in two games.
UNO had a decent record during its run at the Century Link. The Mavs had a 120-80-27 mark there. They averaged 12 home wins a season. Not shabby.
UNO played in an NHL-caliber arena at the Century Link. I’ve not been a fan of the move to the new, smaller hockey arena. I understand the school’s leaders’ thoughts on it, but I remain skeptical. I feel playing in an arena that seats almost 16,000 fans for hockey was a great place to build the program. Attendance has grown during the past few seasons to about 6500-7000 per game. But, I guess the argument for staying at the “Clink” is moot when a two-game playoff series draws a total of about 9,500 people.
UNO has staged some great wins in the Century Link over some of the traditional powerhouses of college hockey – North Dakota, Michigan, and Minnesota. Alex Hudson (one of my all-time favorite Mavs) scored the winning goal against North Dakota with .1 second left in the third period to break a scoreless tie.
I wanted to remember the last hockey game I would watch at the Century Link. The Mavs and St. Cloud State gave the fans their money’s worth – a 2-1 Huskie win in double overtime.
The action on the ice was good to watch. Both teams played hard. The Huskies needed to win to keep their national tournament hopes alive. UNO needed the win to get the late season collapse monkey off the Mavs’ back.
I walked around the arena, checking out the fans and action.
The UNO cheerleaders were doing their thing, perched in their corner of the main concourse. One thing I’d like to see is the cheerleaders actually be located closer to the fans at the new arena. I’m not saying they have to skate on the ice between periods like North Dakota’s do, but they need to be in a spot where fans can actually see and hear them cheer.
The Red Army – a gang of fans that beat their trash barrels and lead fans in chants – should be given a prime spot at the new arena. They seem to be the closest thing to a pep band we’ve had in the six years we’ve had season tickets.
As the season winds down to the last few games of the national tournament, UNO and its fans prepare to move on to a new era in their third hockey home. We can look back and appreciate the program’s growth over the past two decades – from playing in the old Civic Auditorium (soon to be demolished and replaced with a retail/business area) and the Century Link (Qwest Center when it opened).
With Coach Dean Blais coming back for a seventh season and leading the Mavs into the new home, I anticipate better days ahead for UNO. Who knows, maybe one day people will think of the Mavs as a tough team to beat in its new “barn.” Go Mavs!