What a difference one year can make. On Nov. 9, 2018, the Mavericks entered Kalamazoo, Michigan, with a (1-6-1) record, outscored 22-40 on the young season and struggling to find their way. Just one year later, game number nine will once again be played against those same Broncos. However, this time the stage is very different for Omaha.
Fresh off a split against No. 12 Wisconsin, this weekend will provide yet another test for No. 19 Omaha, as they face their third ranked opponent of the season in No. 20 Western Michigan.
“Reflecting back on the weekend, obviously extremely proud of our group to have two good games back-to-back against a highly ranked opponent in Wisconsin, so very successful weekend for the program,” said Maverick’s head coach Mike Gabinet. “Now, NCHC starting up this weekend in Western Michigan, where we can earn some points. Obviously with the NCHC, we all know how strong the league is, and the schedule, so looking forward to having a focused week of practice, and heading up there to begin league play.”
Looking back on last season’s rough start, Gabinet knows the numbers are not where this program would’ve liked to be. But to him, two of the big differences, 365 days later, have been consistency and comfortability, which has translated into this year’s fast start.
“I know everybody looks into the records, but our approach to things, I think we’ve had a little more time to get prepared appropriately with our staff being consistent and not a lot of offseason changes this summer, so it’s been nice,” Gabinet said. “I just feel like we have a better grasp of what we wanted to do early in the season and from an organization standpoint, so that was really effective. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of new players here this year, so that’s helped our team out, as well.”
Through the eight games this year, it’s a different story. The Mavericks hold a record of (5-2-1) and offensively this team seems to be clicking in every way. Even with a roster that features 12 freshmen, every night it seems they’re getting contributions from a new face, (20 different players have a point), and they’ve had no issues putting the puck in the net.
Omaha is averaging 3.62 goals per game, which ranks third in the conference and 11th nationally. In addition, they own the nation’s ninth best power play (26.2%), and Baxter Arena is home to a ranked team for the first time since March of 2018. More importantly for this young group, this team is starting to gel together. According to junior defenseman Nate Knoepke, it’s a process that started well before the season got underway.
“I think it kind of started out in the summer,” Knoepke said. “I missed out on last year’s summer, but just getting everybody for that month in July was just awesome. To get to know everybody before school started, and you’re the only guys on campus, I think that kind of started it off for us.”
Sophomore forward Taylor Ward has seen a lot of the same and likes the direction this team is going.
“Especially just on the ice getting games in, I think we’ve gelled pretty well together, considering how young we are,” Ward said. “So, I’m pretty happy with how we’ve looked so far, and I think we’re only going to get better.”
Shifting to Omaha’s opponent, the Broncos come in sitting at (5-3-2), but they also own a (1-0-1) record in NCHC play. Last weekend, Western Michigan earned a sweep over Ferris State, winning game one at home 4-2, and erupting for eight goals on Saturday, winning by an 8-2 final. However, this is a team Omaha had success against last year, (splitting the season series 2-2), which is something Gabinet says his team can carry on the road with them.
“I think anytime you experience something in the past, it’s always good to draw on,” Gabinet said. “As much as you’re focused on the process, when you can reflect on something you did well and use that to your advantage, I think it’s a positive.”
Knoepke was part of last year’s group that played well against the Broncos, but he knows there is a lot of talent his group will be going up against.
“They didn’t lose too many seniors last year, so pretty close to the same team as last year,” Knoepke said. “I know they’ve got a few freshmen that put up some good numbers, but it will be a good test for us. I’m excited for it.”
Western Michigan is led in the goal department by Paul Washe and Drew Worrad, who are tied at five. Washe also leads the team in points with 12, while Worrad ranks second with 11. In addition, freshman defenseman Ronnie Attard has been a threat, as he sits third on the team with four goals, and was NCHC defenseman on the week just two weeks ago.
Other names to watch include St. Louis Blues draft pick Hugh McGing (eight points) and Dawson DiPietro (seven points), both of which were thorns in the Mavericks’ sides last season. Sophomore Ethen Frank has one goal and six assists on the season. The Omaha native had a two goal performance, including the game winner at Baxter Arena last February.
In goal for Western Michigan, Brandon Bussi has carried almost all of the workload, starting all 10 games. The freshman is (5-3-2) with a 0.913 save percentage and 2.45 goals against.
One of the biggest keys this weekend will be staying out of the box. Omaha has been called for 54 penalties and has spent 152 minutes in the box throughout eight games. That breaks down a nation leading 6.8 penalties and 19 minutes per game. Coming into this series, Western Michigan has only converted on seven of their 44 power play chances, but the Mavericks will need to play disciplined and clean hockey to get off to a fast start in the NCHC.
The series gets underway Friday night at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Puck drop is set for 6:05 CDT both nights. The Mavericks will return home the following weekend to take on Miami at Baxter Arena.
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.