SCHENECTADY -- The University of Nebraska Omaha men's hockey team wasn't nicknamed after Tom Cruise's character in "Top Gun," but it could've been.
The Mavericks come to Messa Rink for 7 p.m. games against Union College Friday and Saturday, and the Dutchmen are expecting some jets to land on the ice.
The trick will be to prevent them from taking off.
In 38 games last season, Union gave up at least five goals in six of them, and fast-skating, fast-paced UNO was responsible for two of those, beating the Dutchmen 5-1 and 5-3 in Omaha. Despite the roster turnover that is common in college sports from year to year, many of the key players from both teams are back this season, and Union is bracing for the same type of challenge from UNO that it saw last December.
"They're a real explosive team, whether that be shooting the puck, scoring, skating ... they're fast," senior goalie Jake Kupsky said. "We've got to be just as fast, if not faster and prepare that way all week."
"They play hard. They're fast," junior defenseman Vas Kolias said. "We know they're going to go through bodies. Probably one of the most offensively talented teams we faced all last year, so we know they're going to be pushing the pace. We'll work on our systems and on maintaining and containing them."
The Dutchmen opened the season with a 4-1 home win over Army last Saturday.
UNO plays in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference against the likes of Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, Denver and North Dakota, all ranked in the top 13 of the USCHO and USA Today national polls released Monday. The Mavericks make their season debut after beating the University of Manitoba 6-1 in an exhibition game.
Teemu Pulkkinen had a hat trick in that game, and Fredrik Olofsson, who scored in each of the victories over Union last season, had four assists, as the Mavericks enjoyed a 56-23 advantage in shots on goal.
"I'm not going to expect anything different [from last year]," Union head coach Rick Bennett said. "Judging on their exhibition game, their wrists should be sore after putting 56 shots on net. Whoever's in net for us Friday night better be ready.
"They play hard, they play fast. Last year, I think we caught their best weekend, just based on reading. Judged on what they did to us, we took a pretty good pounding there, and hopefully we have some pride here going into Friday night that we're ready for them."
Bennett pulled then-freshman goalie Darion Hanson for Kupsky early in the second period of the first Omaha game after Hanson had given up four goals.
Kupsky got the start the next night and didn't fare any better.
Only two Union players scored that weekend, as Cole Maier had a goal each night and Ryan Walker scored two in the 5-3 loss. His second goal came with 52 seconds left and the game pretty much out of reach.
"They transition to offense probably faster than anybody we've played," Walker said. "I think that's what they're taught, as soon as you get the puck in the 'D' zone, try to get into the offense as fast as possible.
"They're very good at that, and I think they're pretty structurally strong in the defensive zone, so we have to work to break them down and make sure not to turn the puck over easily so they can transition to offense."
"Use our shoulder pads as much as we can," Maier said. "And try and be as fast as we can, also. We think we have a pretty fast team, as well, so if we can bring our speed to the table, hopefully we can match that."
One sticky spot for Union coming out of the Army win was that the power play was 0-for-5.
That's one point of emphasis at practice this week.
"Being a member of it, oh-for-5 is not how you want to start," Walker said. "Just getting pucks on the net. They had five power plays, too, and outshot us on the power play. You're up a guy, and you should be able to get pucks on the net and cause chaos around their goaltender."
Senior center Brett Supinski, Union's best playmaker, missed the Army game with an undisclosed injury. Bennett said he's "questionable" for the Omaha series, as is sophomore forward Parker Foo, who was out with an illness.