The University of Nebraska at Omaha wasn’t expected to challenge for the WCHA championship going into the 2012-13 college hockey season.
The Mavericks were picked to finish 8th in the 12-team Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The Mavs exceeded expectations for much of their final season in the WCHA. They move to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC or National) in 2013-14.
UNO was the host school as the season kicked off with the annual Ice Breaker tournament. The Mavs were one of four teams gathering in Kansas City for the tourney.
UNO beat Army 5-1 in the opening round’s night cap. Senior goaltender John Faulkner picked up the win. Notre Dame had slipped by Maine in the other semifinal game.
In the Ice Breaker championship game, Notre Dame, a top 15 team at the time, nipped UNO 3-2. Anthony Stolarz, a freshman, started between the pipes for the Mavericks. The second round draft pick of the Boston Bruins left the team a few months later to play in the Canadian major juniors. He recently signed a contract with the Bruins.
The next weekend, UNO hosted its nemesis Bemidji State. The Beavers owned the Mavericks since both teams joined the WCHA three seasons ago. The Beavers were 7-3-4 against the Mavs beginning with the 2010-11 season.
Bemidji maintained its control over UNO, going 1-0-1 that weekend. Later in the season, UNO got its first sweep of the Beavers.
With the Mavs 1-2-1 after the first two weekends, UNO went on a 7-game win streak. The second longest winning streak in school history was snapped when the then-No. 1 rated Minnesota Gophers earned a split with the Mavs in Minneapolis.
The Mavs went 4-5-1 in their next 10 games. During this period, UNO faced four teams that would eventually advance to the NCAA hockey tournament – St. Cloud State (the Huskies ended up winning the league’s regular season championship), Minnesota State Mankato (who ended UNO’s season during the WCHA playoffs), Quinnipiac (the No. 1 rated team most of the college season), and Denver (a top 6 team in the league).
The season’s final six series spelled the Mavs’ doom. UNO reached the top spot in the league for a weekend. Then, the Mavs quickly fell from that perch.
The Mavs went 5-7 down the stretch, finishing seventh in the 12-team league. That would “earn” them a road playoff series for the second consecutive season.
During that time, UNO was swept by Top-10 North Dakota in a home series. The former Sioux won the outdoor game played at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. The outdoor game proved a flop with fans. About 13,000 tickets were sold. Most of those were bought by UND fans.
The sad thing about that weekend was there were more UND fans at both games than UNO fans. The chants from UND fans drowned out anything UNO fans could muster.
I am a fan of both schools, so I am always torn during the series. I root for a split each time. UND was just the better team this season.
The UND series marked the season debut of Dayn Belfour in goal for the Mavs. The son of NHL Hall of Famer and former UND goalie Ed Belfour, was solid in his first game. The younger Belfour had 34 saves in a 2-1 loss.
The next night in the outdoor game, Belfour replaced Faulkner in goal in the first period. The senior had surrendered three goals in 10:32 of action. Belfour played strongly for the second in as many nights, stopping 20 of 22 shots.
UNO picked up its last victories of the regular season Feb. 15-16 with a sweep of hapless Alaska-Anchorage (4-25-7). The Mavs won 3-0 and 6-5 (overtime) as they fought to cling to a top-half finish in league play.
Belfour picked up his first career shutout during the trip to the Last Frontier.
Belfour fell apart in the second Anchorage game. The Seawolves, who led most of the way, scored their third goal just 5 minutes into the second period. Faulkner relieved Belfour in net and ended up getting the win in overtime.
Then, UNO’s season fell apart.
The Mavericks went 0-5 to end the regular season.
UNO’s season ended with a playoff loss at Mankato. The Mavs of the North beat UNO 2-1 in a best-of-three games playoff series.
In looking at the NCAA hockey tournament, I noticed that eight of the 16 teams played UNO this season. The Mavs were 4-13-1 against them.
A big loss for UNO will be junior defenseman Andrej Sustr. The 6-8 Czech native signed a pro contract with Tampa Bay of the National Hockey League.
In addition to Sustr, UNO loses seniors Faulkner, defenseman Bryce Aneloski and forward Brent Gwidt.
Faulkner finished his career as the all-time winning goalie in UNO history with 54 wins. He eclipsed former Mav Dan Ellis, who has forged a solid career in the NHL. The Canadian native finished with a career mark of 54-44-10.
Ryan Walters, a junior forward, finished the regular season as the nation’s top scorer. The Rosemount MN native is also a Hobey Baker Award Top 10 finalist. The Hobey recognizes hockey’s best college player.
As the players pack away their gear, they can look forward to the 2013-14 season. The Mavs return a solid roster of Coach Dean Blais recruits. They will have key senior leadership in guys like Matt White, Brock Montpetit and Johnnie Searfoss.
The Mavericks move to their new hockey league, National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The move was the result of the Big Ten schools moving to their own B1G hockey league.
Joining UNO in the NCHC are former WCHA opponents North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Colorado College, Denver, St. Cloud State and former CCHA rivals Miami (OH) and Western Michigan.
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State are leaving the WCHA and CCHA to join Penn State in the
new Big Ten Hockey Conference.
The Central Collegiate Hockey Association has seen its last game played as a conference. The CCHA will shut down after the playoffs.
Former CCHA schools Alaska (Fairbanks), Lake Superior State, Bowling Green, Ferris State and Northern Michigan are joining the WCHA. Holdovers Mankato, Anchorage, Bemidji and Michigan Tech will help make up the new configuration for the league. Alabama-Huntsville joins the WCHA after the last few seasons as an independent.
As the 2012-13 season comes to a close with this weekend’s NCAA regionals, followed by the Frozen Four, the 2013-14 season is only six short months away. Next season will bring exciting challenges for UNO as the Mavs kick off the inaugural NCHC season.