It’s a building the Mavericks have struggled in and a team Omaha has struggled against the last few years overall, but make no mistake, the Mavericks are heading into Duluth this weekend confident and ready to go.
“We know what we can do if we play as a team, and if we show up with the right mentality, I think we can take anybody on,” said head coach Mike Gabinet.
They’ll get an opportunity to prove that this weekend, as the Mavericks head to the home of the back-to-back defending national champions. The Bulldogs come into this weekend fresh off a sweep at then No. 4 Denver.
Minnesota-Duluth swept Omaha at Baxter Arena back in early December and has a (15-9-2, 10-4-2) record on the season, but it hasn’t been by accident. Their work ethic and compete level is something Gabinet said the Mavericks could not only learn from, but it’s something they’ll need to do themselves this weekend.
“One thing I admire about Duluth is they’ve got a really talented group of hockey players, but they all compete, and they all work hard,” said Gabinet. “I think that’s why they’ve won a couple national championships. When you combine that talent with the work ethic and compete level, you get something special … really important for our group that we match that, if not exceed that level of intensity.”
The word intensity has been a topic early this week, and a focus of the practices leading up to this series. After game one of the Western Michigan series, Gabinet said his group was “a little casual” and didn’t put in the work necessary to be ready to go Friday night against the Broncos. They won’t have a repeat of that this week.
“We talked to our team Monday before practice and again on Tuesday,” said Gabinet. “There’s a difference between being good and great, and having that swagger, having that confidence, but still doing the work.
“It’s really, really important that elite players have that confidence about them, but it’s because it’s earned by what you do everyday in practice and your daily approach to things,” Gabinet continued. “Even though we have confidence and are doing some good things, we have to make sure that the work is getting put in, because that ultimately leads to success.”
That work in practice is something the coaching staff has harped on all season long, and the results have started to show lately.
“I’d say over the course of the last three weeks to a month, we’ve been really solid and playing really good hockey,” said freshman defenseman Kirby Proctor. “I think it’s just been something that’s come out of practice and what we’ve been putting in during the week.”
The Mavericks have been trending in the right direction lately, and their most recent task finished in a split – a series against a talented Western Michigan team. Omaha is (4-2-2) over the past four weeks, which also includes series with, at the time, No. 1 North Dakota and No. 4 Denver.
“To have that win on Saturday night at home in front of a great crowd, I think just really gives a lot of energy to the program and the guys,” said Gabinet. “You could tell in practice they’re feeling good, and we’re looking forward to the tough weekend ahead.”
For Noah Prokop, that win Saturday was a big boost for this group – not only to rebound after a disappointing performance Friday in game one, but more importantly to take with them into the next few weeks.
“It’s think it’s big going into a week with Duluth. They’re a hot team right now and they just swept DU, so I think it’s big we have that momentum coming into the weekend,” Prokop said.
In addition to the momentum aspect, last weekend was a big boost for Prokop personally. With Teemu Pulkkinen out on Friday, and Joey Abate out of the lineup both nights, the Colorado native was the recipient of more ice time and an elevated role.
“Being a freshman, you’ve kind of got to be that swiss army knife and go wherever Coach Gabinet needs you,” said Prokop. “Lucky enough, I got the opportunity to play with Ward and Kevin [Conley] on Friday night, so it’s just a great opportunity and I’m glad for it.”
Abate will once again be out of the lineup this weekend.
Across the rink, it’s a lot of familiar faces leading the way for the Bulldogs since these two teams met back on that first weekend in December. Since that series, UMD has posted a (6-3-1) record and sits second in the NCHC standings with 32 points.
Once again, defenseman Scott Perunovich still leads the Bulldogs in scoring on the season with 32 points, four goals and 28 assists. However, one area to keep an eye on will be the penalty box, as Perunovich leads UMD with 60 minutes on the season, the fourth most in the country.
Noah and Jackson Cates, who both put up good numbers in Omaha, sit near the top of the team with 12-13-25 and 8-14-22 respectively. Cole Koepke, who had three goals in the previous series, ranks third with 11-12-23, and Nick Swaney sits behind with 11-11-22.
No surprise in net, as the man who recently started his 100th career collegiate game, Hunter Shepard will carry the baton for the Bulldogs. Sheppard, who is (8-1-0) against Omaha all-time, is (15-9-2) on the season with a 2.31 GAA and 0.913 save percentage. He has also added two shutouts to his stat line this season.
The Bulldogs lead the all-time series between the two schools, (23-11-3), which includes a seven game win streak against Omaha. However, UNO’s last win came in Amsoil Arena. The Mavericks are (7-5-2) away from Baxter Arena this year, including five of their six conference wins on the season.
“We’ve got a young team, and there’s probably less pressure being on the road, and they just want to show up and play, and get after it,” said Gabinet. “I think part of it too has been the competition we’ve had in this rink, but we don’t read into it too much. We stick to the normal routine and continue that road success this weekend.”
With home ice aspirations still in reach, this weekend will provide the Mavericks another opportunity to close the gap in a tight race for the top four spots. Omaha is currently tied for fifth with St. Cloud State at 21 points, seven back of Western Michigan and Denver, who are tied for third place. Omaha also sits tied for 25th in the pairwise, while Minnesota-Duluth is tied for fourth in the country.
“We just need to stick with the process and make sure we’re doing everything we can to give ourselves the best chance at success,” said Gabinet. “They’re a good hockey team and they’ve had some recent success, but again, they’re still just a team like we are. We’ve got to show up and be ready to play.”
The series gets underway at 7:07 p.m. Friday night at AMSOIL Arena, followed up at the same time and the same place on Saturday. The Mavericks will then have a bye week followed by a home series in two weeks against Colorado College, Feb. 21 and 22.
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.