Nebraska-Omaha and the Wisconsin men’s hockey teams may have a very brief history – only seven matchups on the ice – but there will be no lack of familiarity in the coaching styles as the Mavericks and Badgers enter this weekend’s WCHA showdown.
UW’s (3-3-0, 2-2-0) sweep of North Dakota last weekend was a good preview for UNO’s (3-3-0, 2-0-0) style of play because it’s coached by Dean Blais, who left a lasting imprint on the North Dakota program after coaching there from 1994-2004.
In his press conference earlier in the week, Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves noted it will be much like a simple jersey change when comparing the type of play he saw last weekend and what he expects from the Mavericks Friday and Saturday.
One of the most significant differences between the past two weeks of practice may be the fact that, according to Eaves and multiple players, being on a winning streak has invigorated the team to come out and practice hard.
“There were a few more smiles in the locker room [this week],” sophomore forward Tyler Barnes said. “But we are still focusing hard in practice and working toward next weekend. Last weekend is over and you enjoy that on Sunday, and then it’s back to work for the next game you play.”
The probable starting goalie for game one, Landon Peterson, not only noticed a looser approach on the ice this week but that practices have also been strong.
“The confidence on the team has been a lot better,” Peterson said. “Our practices have been very good this week so far; it’s a whole different mindset. The other team is going to be playing hard; they are very well-coached, so we know it’s going to be another tough series.”
One of the biggest challenges Wisconsin will face this weekend is Nebraska-Omaha’s high-volume shooting offense. The Badgers have already been outshot 187-145 through six games this season, including 42-15 in their 5-4 game two win against North Dakota. The Mavericks shoot at an even higher rate than the Badgers’ opponent averages, 33.8 shots per game compared to 31.2 respectively.
“Keeping them to the outside and keeping their high quality scoring chances down [will be the key to slowing UNO's offense].” Barnes said. “If you have a team that is willing to shoot from everywhere, let them shoot from the outside and protect the middle.”
Fortunately for the Badgers, all of those shots for UNO have not amounted to much for the Mavericks. Nebraska-Omaha ranks 11th out of 12 WCHA teams with 2.67 goals per game, but Peterson knows what needs to be done between the pipes.
“I have to make sure that I am being focused at all times, staying on top of my crease, always expecting shots, just getting my mind focused and playing hard,” Peterson said.
Peterson, who picked up his first win of the season against North Dakota last weekend, also says that not having his first collegiate victory is one less worry that he will have to contend with come Friday night.
“It takes a lot off my shoulders,” Peterson said. “I have been waiting for a win all year, and getting it against North Dakota is very big for me. It’s something to be happy about, but now you just have to keep winning.”
For Wisconsin, getting its power play opportunities will be critical. The task will not be easy for the Badgers, as the Mavericks are ranked second in the WCHA, only serving 7.7 penalty minutes per game, an interesting contrast to the Badgers, who lead the WCHA with 36 power plays this year.
“We just have to work hard down low in their zone,” junior defenseman Justin Schultz said. “When our forwards do that it creates awkward openings and creates opportunities for us as a team to get pucks on net and get some garbage goals. Hopefully we move our feet out there and draw some penalties for them.”
Following a sweep of the No. 5-ranked team in the country, the resulting confidence boost for a young team and a focused week of practice, the game plan will remain relatively standard for Wisconsin.
“We just have to stay simple, play within ourselves, play as a unit, make sure we’re getting pucks out and getting them in the net,” Schultz said. “You have to get your fundamentals down before you can work on anything else.”