A few items from the first weekend of college hockey season:
UNO goalie Kirk Thompson looked solid in his collegiate debut on Saturday, making 25 saves in a 4-2 victory over Bentley that helped the Mavericks earn a split. The Surrey, B.C., product seemed to be enjoying himself, too.
“I was out there having fun,” Thompson said. “As long as I’m doing my job, giving the team a chance to win, it makes it fun for me.”
It wasn’t just Thompson’s shot-stopping that pleased UNO coach Dean Blais.
“Kirk handled the puck real well around the net,” Blais said. “He knew when to throw it around, and he knew when to stop it and set it up for the D, and he knew when to freeze it. It was important a couple of times because we got overextended on some shifts and he froze it and we could get fresh skaters in.”
Last season with Prince George of the BCHL, Thompson was 24-22-1 with a 2.84 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage. He was the expected Saturday night starter for the Mavs, even before Ryan Massa gave up five goals in the 6-4 season-opening Friday loss.
Time will tell if Thompson can make a run at full-time duty.
“All I know is this is a performance-based industry,” Thompson said. “If you win, you’re going to get to play. All three of us (including freshman Reed Peters) are battling as hard as we can.”
Good weekend for NCHC
All in all, the opening weekend went pretty well for the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference, whose teams went 8-3-3 in non-conference play for a .679 winning percentage, second nationally to the Big Ten, which was at .779 while going 7-2.
The Big Ten’s only losses were Ohio State being swept in a home-and-home series with new national No. 1 Miami (Ohio) of the NCHC.
Atlantic Hockey was just 2-14 in non-conference games, but the wins were interesting indeed. Sacred Heart knocked off then-No. 1 Massachusetts-Lowell 2-1 on Friday, and Bentley beat UNO.
“They’ve got some good forwards, good D, and obviously their goaltender was pretty strong back there,” UNO forward Josh Archibald said of Bentley. “It’s good when you have someone coming in playing that well. We’re expecting to do good things this year, so it’s a little bit of a wakeup call for us.”
Bentley and Sacred Heart square off in a league game Wednesday. Sacred Heart lost 6-0 to Rensselaer on Saturday.
Megna shows speed
UNO defenseman Jaycob Megna showed heretofore unnoticed, or unappreciated, speed and stickhandling all weekend, beyond just the coast-to-coast rush that set up a huge game-tying goal at the first-period horn Saturday.
The Anaheim Ducks draft pick was a plus-20 last season, then was plus-3 Friday despite the Mavs’ 6-4 loss. UNO lost Andrej Sustr, now with Tampa Bay, a year early to the NHL and is also replacing Bryce Aneloski and summer pro departure Tony Turgeon on the blue line.
“It’s one of those where, when he and Andrej played together, I think maybe you look at Andrej more than Jaycob,” Blais said. “Now that Andrej’s gone he stands out. He makes the right plays. He logs a lot of ice time. And he’s in fantastic shape. He must be our most well-conditioned athlete — and we have quite a few of them.”
Plenty of adjustments still in progress
Blais said UNO had much to learn from playing against Bentley, an experienced team that underachieved last year but may be set up for a solid season in Atlantic Hockey.
“Their defensive posture and positioning was better than ours,” Blais said. “It’s something that we’ve got to work on. We haven’t worked on it a bit. We did some back-checking drills, and our back-checking was good. But we’ve got to have better neutral zone coverage. It’s something you talk about, but you can’t just draw Xs and Os. You’ve got to work on it in practice. I’ll take the blame for that.”
At least UNO corrected some of its Friday night problems, when it gave up two short-handed goals — half as many as it allowed all last season.
“We talked about not being safe on the power play, but being smart on the power play,” Blais said.
Around the NCHC: Western still searching
We knew Western Michigan wouldn’t score many goals and we knew their opening home-and-home assignment with then-No. 6 Notre Dame would be challenging, but losses of 4-0 and 3-0 have the Broncos still searching for their first score heading into this weekend’s Alaska Goal Rush (they’ll play both Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska).
In Friday’s televised game, Western’s Chase Balisy, the Broncos’ leading returning scorer, was shadowed effectively by 6-foot-4, 233-pound Notre Dame defenseman Stephen Johns, and the rest of the Broncos couldn’t produce.
Western Michigan managed just 22 shots on goal each night, with several of Friday’s coming on a late power play after goalie Frank Slubowski was pulled.
Said Western Michigan coach Andy Murray: “This is big boys hockey … it’s not like when you’re playing youth hockey and you forget about it and you want to get to the hotel and go swimming. This hurts and it’s going to right up until the (games this weekend). Losing sucks.”
The league announced its first-ever players of the week Monday. They are: offensive player of the week, Miami sophomore forward Riley Barber (four goals, all on Saturday, and three assists); defensive player of the week, St. Cloud State senior defenseman Kevin Gravel (one goal, five blocked shots, plus-2 rating); goalie of the week, Denver senior Sam Brittain (53 saves, two shutout victories); and rookie of the week, Miami defenseman Trevor Hamilton (three assists, three blocked shots, plus-4 rating).