Records can be deceiving, especially in hockey. If you look at the Omaha hockey team’s win-loss record, you might think the Mavericks are a “middle of the road” team.
If you would have asked me early in the season, I would have said that you are probably right. But since the winter break hiatus, it looks like the Mavericks have found their stride. In fact, they look like a whole new team on the ice. This team is no middle of the pack squad; this team has the ability to be special. Not only can the team be special, but they have a really good chance to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
In all reality, Omaha only needs to do one thing: Play defense. Offensive production has been abundant this season. Led by senior forward David Pope, who is third in the NCAA in points with 31 (13 goals, 18 assists), Omaha has the No. 4 offense in the country at 3.79 goals per game. Pope has been the table-setter for one of the best lines in the country, which consists of seniors Jake Randolph, Tyler Vesel and Pope. Randolph is coming off NCHC player of the week honors and Vesel had a resurgence last weekend after a scoreless stretch. Pope, with his great size and ability to shoot as well as he passes, can be a solid NHL player in the future. With six players that have at least seven goals, scoring can really come from anywhere for Omaha.
Unfortunately, the Mavericks are giving up 3.68 goals per game, which is last in the NCHC conference. This comes as a surprise to nearly everyone, because at the beginning of the season everyone thought Omaha’s depth with three solid goaltenders would anchor the defense. Evan Weninger, the usual starter, has struggled this season giving up 55 goals while having just a .882 save percentage. Kris Oldham and Alex Blankenburg haven’t been stopping the goals either, posting .867 and .830 save percentages respectively.
But since Dec. 29, following a 20-day layoff between games, Omaha has won five of six games, all against top-25 teams. While they are only outscoring opponents 29-24 in those games, two seven-goal outliers heavily drown those numbers. In all reality, Omaha is playing great hockey against really good teams. More importantly, after a slow start to the season, they are now sitting tied for fifth in the conference. That doesn’t sound great, but considering the NCHC has five teams in the top-15, Omaha would equate to a three-seed in the national tournament if the season ended today.
Fans will get a true chance to see how serious the Mavericks are in their quest to make a run to the Frozen Four this weekend when they square off against No. 5 Denver on the road. A true top-5 team, Omaha won’t be able to be lackadaisical on defense. In the North Dakota series, Omaha came out in the opening game and dominated the Hawks, winning 4-1 with Weninger playing a stellar game in-net. The following night, however, the Mavericks lost 7-0 as the defense fell apart. This weekend, and the rest of the season, all comes down to which team Omaha plays like. If they play smart on defense and take advantage of turnovers and odd-man opportunities, Omaha can beat anyone. If they get lazy though, don’t be surprised if Denver puts up a touchdown on the Omaha defense.
We’ll learn a lot from the Mavericks this weekend. Regardless of how they play, Omaha will be the one team nobody wants to face when the postseason comes around.