By Jackson Taylor
If there was any suspicion that Omaha Hockey might have a let-down season after the program’s most successful campaign last year, the Mavericks put it to rest over the weekend. Omaha opened up their 2015-2016 season with a sweep over No. 6 Minnesota State, winning 3-2 Friday and 2-0 on Saturday.
Junior Kirk Thompson was given the nod in the first game of the series. The junior from British Columbia played in 12 games last year including the Minnesota State game in which he surrendered four goals. Thompson looked sharper in this year’s matchup, recording 24 saves and allowing just two goals.
Just minutes after Minnesota State unveiled their Western Collegiate Hockey Association and NCAA tournament banners, Omaha went on the attack and got on the board early. Jake Randolph scored the season’s first just 4:34 into the game as he slapped a pass from Justin Parizek past MSU goalie Cole Huggins. Then with 1:38 left in the period, UNO went up by two after Jake Guentzel capitalized off of an MSU neutral-zone turnover.
Things got even quieter in Mankato when just 53 seconds into the second period, none other than Austin Ortega netted a rebound to make it 3-0.
MSU tightened up defensively following their slow start and began putting more pressure on Thompson and the Omaha defense. With the help of a power-play, MSU was able to cut the lead to two when Jimmy Mullen snuck one past Thompson 13 minutes into the second period.
The goal was just what MSU needed to reinvigorate the crowd of more than 4,000 and get Mankato back within striking distance.
Coach Blais and his players knew coming into the game that a Minnesota State team with momentum is a dangerous one. The team was 15-2-1 at home last year; home losses simply didn’t happen.
C.J. Franklin kept MSU’s hopes alive when he scored 4:37 into the third. The goal came on a rebound after Thompson lost control of his stick trying to reach for the puck earlier in MSU’s attack.
Omaha’s lead was nearly erased with 8 minutes to go when last year’s leading scorer Bryce Gervais found himself all alone with Thompson in a breakaway. Gervais fumbled the puck and ended up slinging one off the post and away from the goal in a play that Thompson described as “fortunate.”
Despite the late scares from MSU, Omaha was able to stave off any other good shots to earn their first win of the season, 3-2.
The Mavericks jumped out to another early lead in the second and final game of the series leading to a 2-0 victory, their first 2-0 start since 2010.
Jake Randolph netted a pair of goals off of breakaways. His first came 12:02 into the game, converting a pass cross-ice pass from Justin Parizek into an early 1-0 lead.
Randolph created a take-away-turned-breakaway and pushed his second goal across in the early minutes of the third to put UNO up 2-0. Randolph finished the weekend with three goals after totaling five all of last year.
Freshman goalie Evan Weninger made his collegiate debut in the game and was tested early and of-ten. The 19-year-old Saskatchewan native saw 40 shots come at him and turned them all away for the shutout.
Weninger’s shutout was briefly in danger during a 5-on-3 pow-er-play, but the freshman forced a shot wide to keep MSU’s zero on the board.
In a game that saw MSU outshoot-ing UNO 40-18, Omaha’s defense had to be stellar in order to come out with a win. With senior captain Brian Cooper out of the game resting his back, several Omaha defensemen rose to the occasion, forcing MSU’s attacks away from the goal.
With the sweep, Omaha has hand-ed MSU as many home losses as they suffered all of last year (2). After seeing exceptional play from both Thompson and Weninger in the net, Blais has the right pieces to fill the place of graduated goalie Ryan Massa.
Omaha Hockey is back in action in a pair of games at Vermont on Oct. 16-17, before returning home for their inaugural game at Baxter Are-na versus Air Force the following weekend.