Omaha Hockey versus Denver Series Preview

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Jordan McAlpine
CONTRIBUTOR 

Sophomore forward Taylor Ward on the ice as Omaha prepares to take on No. 4 Denver at Baxter Arena. Ward finished the North Dakota series with two goals and an assist in what Coach Gabinet considers his most complete weekend of the season. Photo by Jordan McAlpine.

Another week, another top-five opponent. Back on home ice for the first time in nearly a month, the Mavericks will welcome the Denver Pioneers to Baxter Arena for another tough NCHC weekend.

Just one week prior, the Mavericks knocked off the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in game one, 6-3. The win was Omaha’s first over a top-rated team since Jan. 15, 2016, when they also beat UND in Grand Forks. For Gabinet, it was a huge night for this program.

“Obviously you’ve got to be happy with the weekend,” Gabinet said. “To go into that building, they hadn’t lost in over 300 days and to come away with a big win, it takes a lot of effort from a lot of people to make that happen. Really proud of our group.”

In a win that he considers his biggest since taking over as the Mavericks’ head man, Gabinet said Friday’s game can also give this team a lot of confidence going forward. It’s something that’s continued to grow all season long.

“When you experience that success, you can always draw back on it. We’ve been fortunate this year to have a couple big wins against Ohio State, Wisconsin, or up in St. Cloud, which we hadn’t done in a long time,” Gabinet said. “Now up at North Dakota against the No. 1 team, it’s something that they’ve done, they can say they’ve done it, and they know they’ve done it.”

Moving onto this weekend, it’s another highly ranked team as the Denver Pioneers venture to Omaha. The Mavericks haven’t played on home ice since their series with Arizona State Dec. 21-22, but it’ll be no easy homecoming in facing the No. 4 team in the country.

“I think North Dakota was, and now Denver might be, the top team in college hockey right now,” said Gabinet. “They’re a little bit different than North Dakota – a little bit smaller, quicker, faster, probably a little more skilled. They’ll be quick out there, they’ll be making high skilled plays and they like that puck possession game, so they’ve got a lot of things going well for them.”

The Pioneers are a team UNO has struggled with over the years. The Mavericks took the very first two meetings back in 1997, but since then, it’s been nearly all DU. Denver leads the all-time series (30-9-3), are currently on a 16-game unbeaten streak against Omaha and they have never lost at Baxter Arena, (5-0-1).

As if the all-time numbers weren’t enough, they come into this weekend (15-4-3, 5-3-2) and (7-2-1) in their last 10. One of the hottest teams in the country, they currently ride a six-game win streak where they’ve outscored their opponents 25-12.

Injuries may also be a big factor for Omaha this weekend, as center Joey Abate and defensemen Jason Smallidge and Alex Roy, all injured at North Dakota, are doubtful to play. Kirby Proctor, who missed the entire UND series, is also questionable on the blue line as he comes back from an injury. Proctor was on the ice for practice Tuesday.

Senior defenseman Dean Stewart said that when you combine all of these factors together, the team will continue to embrace the underdog mentality – something they’ve done all season. This group also knows they’ll have to stick to their game, but he said they’re ready for the challenge.

“We just worry about ourselves. Obviously we’ll still do video on other teams and see what their systems are, but if we can play to our strengths and to our identity as Maverick hockey, I think it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’re going to have a good chance to win,” Stewart said. “I think that’s what we did Friday night against North Dakota, and that’s the same approach we’ll have going into this weekend against Denver.”

In addition to the team’s recent struggles with DU, there’s also a little added motivation for one particular individual in the Omaha locker room, junior winger Kevin Conley. Conley, who won a ring with Denver his freshman season before transferring to Omaha, is excited to face some old friends. At the same time, his only focus is on getting back into the win column.

“It’s always fun seeing those guys again, but it’s all about Omaha this weekend. Hopefully we can get some wins,” Conley said. “I know how much it means to a lot of the guys in this room to beat Denver. Not getting a win against them in however many years (Omaha’s last win against Denver came on Jan. 10, 2015, a 1-0 shutout victory) and that’s the number one goal of the weekend.”

As one of the leading scorers and most experienced guys on this roster, Conley also echoed the message heard around the team: last Friday will only help them going forward.

“It’s a little bit of a confidence boost for sure, with them being the No. 1 team,” Conley said. “That sets the bar now for the rest of the year if we can beat the No. 1 team in the country. We’ll have to continue to work at being consistent in every game.”

In the UND series, the Mavericks also got back a familiar face with the return of Isaiah Saville, who made his impact felt right away. The freshman made 26 saves Friday night in the win, his first game with Omaha in just under a month.

Being at the World Junior tournament with team USA was a great experience, Saville said, but he’s excited to be back in Omaha and playing at Baxter Arena.

“The whole locker room is really excited to get back here,” Saville said. “We have amazing fans, amazing support, and so we’re excited to show everyone how much we’ve improved over a month, give the fans a great series, show our confidence and show how we can play.”

He’ll definitely be seeing a lot of rubber this weekend with another top-tier opponent looming. The Pioneers average 35.5 shots per game and have been a threat on the power play, 21-97 (21.6%), which ranks 17th in the country. They also own the nation’s 7th best penalty kill unit.

Led in scoring by sophomore Emilio Pettersen, who has 21 points (6g,15a), the Pioneers have seen production from up and down the lineup similar to Omaha. These two teams are actually tied in scoring nationally with 75 goals, an average of 3.41 per game. That is tied for the 11th most in the country. However, Denver has only let in 47 compared to Omaha’s 69.

Those goals against have been key, as Denver only allows an average of 2.1 per game. Between the pipes, it’s been Magnus Chrona carrying the baton most of the way. Chrona has started 18 of their 22 games, going (12-4-2) with a 0.917 save percentage and 2.31 GAA.

Chicago Blackhawks second round pick Ian Mitchell sits second on the team with 4-14-18. Freshman standout and Flyers second round pick Bobby Brink and Montreal 7th rounder Brett Stapley sit right on his heels, with 8-9-17 and 4-13-17 respectively. Liam Finlay (4-12-16) and leading goal scorer Cole Guttman (9-6-15) round out the leading scorers for DU.

It’s another big challenge for Omaha, but the message is clear around the locker room. The momentum gained last Friday was big, and this team believes they can play with anybody.

“It was huge,” said Saville. “Not only for the next game, but to start the second half of the season off it’s brought us a lot of confidence. It’s proven to people we can beat anyone if we’re playing the right way.”

Luckily for Saville, the Mavericks will get another chance to prove it this weekend. It’s the Mavericks and the Pioneers Friday and Saturday night at Baxter Arena. The opening faceoffs are set for 7:07 p.m. both nights.

Make sure to follow @jordan_mcalpine on Twitter for live game updates and check out http://unothegateway.com/category/sports/ice-hockey/ for postgame recaps and Maverick Hockey coverage all season long.

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