Omaha Hockey versus St. Cloud State series preview

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Jordan McAlpine
CONTRIBUTOR

The UNO hockey goalkeeper makes a save in practice
UNO freshman goaltender Isaiah Saville makes a save in practice before the Mavericks head to St. Cloud, MN. Saville was named to the U.S. National Junior Team roster this week. Photo by Jordan McAlpine/the Gateway

It’s the little things that count—just ask UNO sophomore defenseman Jason Smallidge, and he’ll tell you this team isn’t too far off. But if the Mavericks want to get back on track, it all starts with playing a complete game and eliminating those little mistakes that prove costly.

“I think we’re right there, we just need to play a full 60-minute game,” Smallidge said. “We can’t take a shift or two off, because that’s when the opponent scores.”

For head coach Mike Gabinet, the message is the same. Granted, there were a lot of positives in that Minnesota-Duluth series, but like Smallidge said, the Mavericks can’t afford to take the foot off the gas.

“Some really good habits and good execution for about 45-50 minutes of the game, and then just a few key let-downs and mental mistakes that Minnesota-Duluth made us pay for,” Gabinet said. “Again, it’s a tough lesson against a good opponent, but it’s something we’ve got to learn, keep working on and developing.”

With only one win in conference play, and out of the Top 20 for the first time since Nov. 3, the Mavericks hope they can minimize those mistake this week and get things heading in the right direction. With a lot of excitement around the team, the hope is that it translates to success on the ice—it’ll be a good test as they face the St. Cloud State Huskies this weekend.

After a slow start to the season, the Huskies seem to be starting to hit their stride, just in time for the Mavericks to come to town. In the all-time series, Omaha has had a tough time, trailing 10-24-2, and they have especially struggled in St. Cloud, posting a 4-15-1 record at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

St. Cloud State comes into this weekend with a 4-6-4 overall record and 2-4-0 conference record, but they’re fresh off back-to-back weekends of a hard-fought series with North Dakota and a sweep of Miami, who just recently took five out of six points from Omaha. Gabinet knows this weekend will be no easy task, but he’s looking forward to the challenge for his group.

“Since I’ve been here, we haven’t had a victory up there in St. Cloud,” Gabinet said. “It’s a tough rink to play in—it’s an Olympic size ice sheet, and they’ve kind of built their team with speed and quickness. But again, I’m looking forward to the challenge. I think our guys are improving and learning and growing, so I think it’s going to be a good matchup for us. We’re excited to play them.”

A team that was hurt at the end last season with the loss of a strong senior class and players who signed pro contracts, the Mavericks won’t have to put up with the likes of a Ryan Poehling or Jimmy Schuldt this weekend. However, the Huskies have turned to a couple new faces for that offensive production, especially in sophomore Sam Hentges.

Hentges has already tied his season point total from last season (20), but he’s done it in 23 less games. The Minnesota Wild draft pick leads St. Cloud in both goals and assists on the season, with seven and 13, respectively. In addition to Hentges, senior Jack Ahcan and junior Easton Brodzinski sit tied for second on the roster with 13 points – just a few names the Mavericks will need to keep an eye on this series.

In between the pipes, it’s a familiar name for Maverick fans, as junior David Hrenak has started all 14 games for St. Cloud. The Slovakian netminder carries a 2.97 GAA and 0.887 save percentage this season, but he has played well against Omaha in his career, going 5-0.

For Omaha (6-6-2, 1-4-1), most would look at these next two weeks as a critical stretch to gain some momentum heading into the break and the second half of the season. With that, some may assume there’d be some pressure on this group. However, according to Gabinet, that’s not the case. This group is getting better every day, he said, and there’s still a lot of hockey to be played.

“I think that’s probably not a great way to approach things if you let the noise in a little bit on what the outcome is going to be, and I think you can get distracted on the work necessary to have a good outcome,” Gabinet said. “So again, for us, especially with a young group, I think it’s important to pick two or three things to keep improving at.”

One of the biggest bright spots this season has been the scoring from up and down the roster on a nightly basis, and that’s played a big part of the Mavericks offense, Smallidge said.

“It’s nice that we have a lot of contributors, and we’ve got a lot of depth on our team,” Smallidge said, “because, if one of our top guys isn’t having a great night, we’ve got other guys that can fill their shoes.”

As strange as it may sound, another positive for this young group has actually been the recent struggles and losses these past few weeks, which, Smallidge said, might help his team in the long run. That being said, the Mavericks hope they “get this thing back on track” before the brief holiday break. Junior forward Kevin Conley, who leads Omaha in scoring, said he agrees with Smallidge—although it’s another tough NCHC opponent looming, the Mavericks are up for the task.

“I think these losses have kind of brought our team closer together,” Conley said. “We know what we need to do, so it’s just a matter of doing it. This team has been really close from the start. I like the way that we’ve began things this early in the season, and I’m excited to see where we can take ourselves.”

“I think it’ll be a good weekend for us,” Conley said. “St. Cloud’s always good, they definitely have good players, and they use that big ice to their advantage. We have to be on top of our game this weekend, just like any other weekend, so we’re looking forward to it.”

The series gets underway Friday night from St. Cloud at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. Game one is set for a 7:37 p.m. faceoff Friday night, and game two on Saturday will be an early 6:07 p.m. CDT puck drop.

Omaha will return home the following Saturday and Sunday to take on Arizona State. 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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