After dropping game one Friday night, the Mavericks rallied back after giving up another first-minute goal against, earning a much-needed win and a split with Western Michigan.
“Great response by the group,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “I thought we were a little nervous last night, and it was nice to see the guys play, compete, skate and be physical. Big-time win for our team tonight and very, very proud of the group.”
Saturday night marked the Mavericks’ first home conference win of the season and the fifth game they’ve won at Baxter Arena overall in the 2019-2020 campaign. Coming into this weekend, Omaha had only won once on home ice since early November.
“It’s big, because you need it,” said Nolan Sullivan, who scored the Mavericks’ first of four goals on the night. “You cannot get swept in a series—you just can’t afford it. It’s really easy to quit, but that’s not what this group does. We got back at it, got on the saddle and it was fun to see the result tonight. It’s a good feeling for once at home. It was big, and I think it’s a good morale boost for the team moving forward.”
Saturday’s win was critical for the team to keep pace as they make a push for a top-4 seed in the NCHC standings, and both St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth also picked up wins on the night. This Omaha group knows where they’re at, and after game one, Sullivan said they just needed to get back to their game. His group did exactly that.
“I think we just knew what was on the line. The boys didn’t point fingers. We just looked in the mirror and said ‘what can I do differently,’ made a couple tweaks from the coaches and just went out and executed,” said Sullivan. “Good effort, especially coming off the early one we let up, it would’ve been easy to get deflated, but we rallied and were able to come back.”
And comeback they did. Omaha trailed just a mere 46 seconds into the game, this coming off the heels of giving up the opening goal 1:36 into Friday night’s contest. Rhett Kingston knocked home a rebound, assisted by Wade Allison and Austin Rueschhoff, giving the Broncos an early 1-0 lead. The Mavericks have seen opponents score four different times within the first two minutes of a game this season, but it’s something they try not to think too much about.
“I don’t think that we were thinking about last night,” Taylor Ward said about heading into game two. “It happened in CC too, and we came back from that one. It’s not fun going down early – obviously you want to get that first one, it’s a big goal for the momentum for the rest of the game – but they got it [the first score] tonight.”
“You have one of two choices, you can either pack it in, call it a night and accept the fact that they scored the first goal one minute in, or you can strap up the boots, get to work and realize there’s 59 more minutes to play,” Ward continued. “I was proud of the decision that our team made tonight, and it paid off.”
Speaking of Ward, the Kelowna, British Columbia native played a huge part in this one, as three of the Mavericks’ four goals came off his stick. Technically one of them was thanks to a deflection by Western Michigan defenseman Kale Bennett, but the sophomore finished the night with three goals and an assist.
“Great night for him,” said Gabinet. “Nice to see him respond with a great night, and you need guys to step up and capitalize. He did that tonight for us.”
No matter how they come, Ward will take them, and tonight was a big win for this group.
“Some crazy bounces, but that’s hockey I guess,” said Ward. “Sometimes the ones that should go in don’t, and the ones that you’re not even trying to put in go in sometimes. What goes around comes around, and you get the bounces some nights, and you don’t the others. Tonight, we were lucky to get the bounces.”
Ward still ranks second the NCHC in goals on the season and is tied for the third-most points with 16 goals and 11 assists. However, he hasn’t been able to do it alone, and a big part of it comes from his teammates.
“There’s a lot of credit to be spread around between a lot of guys. Obviously you can’t do it all by yourself – this league is way too good – so the credit goes to all my teammates. It’s just about focusing on playing the right way and the offense will take care of itself.”
After Kingston opened up the scoring early on, Sullivan buried a beautiful tic-tac-toe play set up by Ward and Kevin Conley with just 1:55 left in the first, knotting it up 1-1. The Mavericks jumped ahead late in the second thanks to the previously mentioned Ward goal which tipped off a Bronco defender, sending Omaha to the room ahead 2-1.
The Mavericks outshot the Broncos 16-3 in the second, but that period also saw the start of a Western Michigan parade to the penalty box. WMU finished the night with six penalties, including a 5-minute major to one of their biggest weapons, Wade Allison.
Western Michigan tied it up 2-2 a little over five minutes into the third thanks to a Rueschhoff power play tally, assisted by Allison and Dawson DiPietro. The Broncos power play unit is now six for their last 13, and Allison owns a 6-game point streak. He has six goals and five assists in that stretch.
Being tied up in the third period is not unfamiliar territory for Omaha this season, however, as 13 of the Mavericks’ 28 games this season have been decided by one goal or less. It especially seems to be a theme lately.
“It seems like all the time it’s a close game,” said Gabinet. “It’s tough on your heart, but you get used to it eventually. Nice to be calm, have some poise and learn from where we were before. We’ve been in that situation not too long ago at home up by one, and they were able to capitalize. Nice to be able to finish it off the right way tonight.”
The Mavericks jumped back ahead with just 4:35 left thanks to Ward’s second of the night, as he corralled a rebound in the slot and put it past Brandon Bussi, giving Omaha a 3-2 lead. Kevin Conley, who finished with a two-point night, was given an assist on the goal. Ward also added some insurance with just 48 seconds left, an empty net goal making it 4-2 and also giving himself his first career hat trick.
“I honestly wasn’t even trying to shoot it in—I was trying to just lob it down there and not ice it,” Conley said. “It just kind of kept rolling and going toward the net, and I’m trying to push it with the force a little bit, but that didn’t matter. We just wanted to win real bad, and I thought we deserved it tonight.”
On a night where Omaha ended up outshooting the Broncos 28-26 and controlling the play for much of the final 40 minutes, the effort was there, and it’s something the head man behind the bench was happy to see.
“It’s tough when you lose on Friday to come back with an even stronger effort on Saturday,” said Gabinet. “But our guys showed up tonight ready to go. Very proud of the group.”
With the win Omaha improves to (12-11-5, 6-7-3) on the season. Impressively, the Mavericks are (6-1-0) in game two of series where they’ve lost the first game. Omaha will now head to Minnesota-Duluth next weekend for another big NCHC series. They’ll return to Baxter Arena – where they’re now (5-6-3) this season – in three weeks for a series with Colorado College.
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