By Andrew Nelson
Omaha goalie Evan Weninger’s first career start was one to remember. It came on the road, against the then No. 6/9 ranked Minnesota State. Weninger recorded his first collegiate win and shutout. The freshmen from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan made 40 saves that night including a two-on-one breakaway stop to earn the sweep for the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“Towards the end of the game I just thought ‘wow this has been something special; there’s a chance
that I could get the shutout,’ Weninger said. “It was in the back of my mind but I wasn’t thinking of it too much.”
UNO retained the Spirit of the Maverick trophy in the weekend sweep which they’ve kept in Omaha since the 2009 season, the beginning of the Dean Blais era. Weninger’s 40 saves was one shy of the school record for saves made in a shutout.
The record is still owed by nine-year NHL veteran, current Washington Capital, and fellow Saskatoon native Dan Ellis.
Weninger followed up his debut for the Mavericks allowing just one goal in each of his next two starts turning away 29 shots on the road against then No. 20 Vermont, and then a 27 save night in the home opener at Baxter Arena.
He says the speed of the college game has been the hardest thing to transition to from his junior hockey days in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. In that league, Weninger went 27-10 and led the league in save percentage for the Kindersley Klippers.
“The first couple weeks were a little difficult, but now that I’ve kind of gotten used to it, I’m starting to feel a little nimble, and feel a part of the routine,” he said.
Omaha has a young squad of goalies between Weninger, junior Kirk Thompson., and freshman Alex Blankenburg. Weninger and Thompson, have been splitting weekend duties thus far with Thompson starting on Friday nights, and Weninger on Saturdays.
Blankenburg has yet to see any ice time this season, but goalies coach Leigh Mendelson said that could change if head coach Dean Blais decides to switch things up when conference play gets going.
“I think Evan’s done a good job, but every day in practice you can’t pick out which guy’s been better than the other,” Mendelson said. “Those guys are all pretty good every day. There’s not a huge drop-off from Kirk to Evan to Alex in any shape or form, so they’re all just battling for ice time.”
Even though UNO has been out-shot this season in six of its seven wins, its outstanding play in goal has gelled well with an offense that has been efficiently averaging 3.33 goals per game, and a penalty-kill unit converting on 23 of 26 at-tempts.
“Coach went with his gut in the opening weekend — it was going to be Kirk and Evan, and it’s obviously working out for three straight weeks,” Mendelson said. “So we’ll probably go with that until he decides it’s time to change with the conference schedule.”
“It’s like if you had five pitchers that can throw no-hitters on your pitching staff, it’s a great problem to have.”
Weninger probably wouldn’t have guessed his hockey career would take him to the Omaha. “Every kid up in Saskatchewan and Western Canada, their dream is to play in the WHL. I kind of wanted to try it out, and took in all the options, and thought college was the best choice,” Weninger said.
Maverick fans are glad he made the decision to come to Omaha to help in their goal of getting back to the Frozen Four.
“I didn’t expect to be in Omaha, Weninger said. “But now that I am I couldn’t be happier.”