Three weekends ago, Michigan State marched into Nebraska-Omaha”s Civic Auditorium on top of the world, leading both national polls. But it was quickly brought back down to earth as the Mavericks swept the series, stealing the first game by a score of 4-3 and dominating the Spartans in the finale 5-1 an embarrassment for the top-ranked team in the nation.
“Those wins gave us a certain level of confidence,” Nebraska-Omaha coach Mike Kemp said.
“They come after you, and forecheck really well,” Michigan State coach Ron Mason said. “They”ve got very enthusiastic fans, and a great atmosphere for hockey.”
The seventh-ranked Mavericks will try to duplicate their sweep of the Spartans this Friday and Saturday when they host the 12th-ranked Wolverines (3-3-1 CCHA, 4-4-1 overall).
Nebraska-Omaha (4-2-0, 7-3-0) posted an impressive record of 17-5-1 last season in the Civic Auditorium and is ready to return home to its friendly confines after splitting two consecutive weekend series at Western Michigan and Ohio State.
“There”s a lot of energy in our arena,” said Nebraska-Omaha goaltender Dan Ellis. “(The fans) are screaming at the top of their lungs as soon as we come out from the very start and the guys feed off of that.”
A major factor in Nebraska-Omaha”s fast start has been its play between the pipes. Ellis, the sophomore goaltender, is currently leading the CCHA in goals against average, giving up only 1.5 goals per game in conference play.
He worked hard to improve over last summer, working tirelessly on his flexibility. Ellis attended a goalie camp to refine his skills and worked with his coach from home on his fundamentals.
“Here”s a guy with a tremendous work ethic,” Kemp said of his last line of defense. “His commitment is really second to none, and as a result of that he has experienced a great deal of improvement most notably in his control and his poise.”
Ellis played in the same junior hockey league as junior forward Mike Cammalleri, the Wolverines” top offensive threat. Both players hail from Ontario and know quite a bit about each other.
“We know that he”s a good goaltender,” Cammalleri said. “Like any good goaltender you want to get some shots on him, get traffic in front of him and not let him see the puck.”
Said Ellis: “He”s a guy you want to keep an eye on. He”s so crafty and such a skilled offensive player probably the most skilled player I”ve ever played against.”
A key aspect of this weekend”s series will be the performance of each team”s special teams. Nebraska-Omaha has scored only one powerplay goal in its last five games, and its penalty killing unit has allowed a goal in each of the last four games.
“We”ve put emphasis this week on making sure that our guys really step up on special teams,” Kemp said. “Our penalty killing has been consistent, but we have to get over that instance when we give up a goal. In our league, one goal is a huge difference.”
This weekend”s series has become even more important for both teams because they are in the same CCHA cluster. The conference has three clusters, made up of four teams each. Teams in the same cluster will play each other four times during the season, compared to two games against teams outside their cluster.
“Teams that win their clusters win home ice in the playoffs year in and year out,” Kemp said. “(A sweep) will be a benefit to us in the conference standings.”