For the fourth time in program history and for the first time under fourth-year head coach Mike Gabinet, the Mavericks will find themselves playing in the NCAA Tournament. The first test comes Saturday night against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Loveland, Colorado.
The Mavericks (14-10-1) come into Saturday as the fourth seed in the West Regional and are ranked No. 12 in the country. As for the Gophers, they find themselves at No. 2. Minnesota has compiled a 23-6-0 record this season, finished second in the Big Ten standings during the regular season, and won the Big Ten Tournament. They’ve also got an extremely talented roster with the most NHL draft picks in college hockey, 14.
“We know they’re a high-skilled team that has had a good year,” Gabinet said. “We’ve got to prepare accordingly and be ready for a tough game on Saturday night.”
Preparation will have a little different look as there will surely be some extra nerves Saturday night with this being the first NCAA Tournament experience for nearly everybody on both sides. However, this won’t be the first time the Mavericks have seen an opponent of this caliber this season.
“We’ve experienced the best of the best and know what we have to do to be successful against those opponents,” Gabinet said. “We’ve shown we can do that.”
Especially after seeing North Dakota six times down the stretch, Gabinet feels his group is more than ready for the challenge. This will mark the Mavericks fifth game in the state of Colorado this season, as they’re the only team in the regional that has experienced the altitude.
Another big key in this one will be the depth, which has been a big strength for the Omaha roster this season.
“When you look at their lineup, it’s tough to distinguish their (lines) 1-3. They do have some balance there and some depth,” Gabinet said. “I think that’s a strength of ours as well. It’s hard for us to determine who is our 1, 2 and 3, and I think being the visiting team that’s going to be good for us.”
Long time no see
It’s been a while since the Mavericks visited Mariucci Arena on Dec. 1, 2012. Don Lucia is no longer behind the Minnesota bench and the two schools are no longer both members of the WCHA, but Saturday will be the eighth time the Mavericks see the maroon and gold.
Minnesota leads the all-time series, 4-3-0, as six of those meetings came in a three-year stretch in the WCHA. The Mavericks first WCHA wins actually came at Mariucci Arena in October of 2010. It’s been a small sample size, but five of the seven meetings have been one-goal games.
The Minnesota program is no stranger to playing at this time of year and at this stage. It’ll be the 38th NCAA Tournament appearance for the Gophers, who lead the NCAA with 55 all-time NCAA Tournament wins.
With this year’s group specifically, there’s no denying they’ve been one of the best teams in the country. After getting off to a 10-0-0 start, Minnesota has been in the top-five of both polls since early December. They were also ranked No. 1 for part of that stretch.
The Gophers rank fourth in the country in scoring at 3.79 goals per game and seventh defensively, as they’ve only given up an average of 2.00 goals per game. A big part of that is thanks to the play of goaltender Jack LaFontaine.
A teammate of Omaha’s Martin Sundberg on the 2015-16 Janesville Jets (NAHL) before initially going to Michigan, LaFontaine has been lights out in net this season. The senior owns an NCAA-leading 21 wins and .936 save percentage. He’s also second in the country in goals-against average, 1.74, and shutouts with five.
His stellar play has been recognized the past few weeks as LaFontaine was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten Tournament and the Big Ten Goaltender of the year. He’s also a finalist for both the Hobey Baker and Mike Richter Award.
Beyond the crease, Bob Motzko’s team boasts an extremely talented defensive core that features NHL draft picks Jackson Lacombe, Brock Faber and Ryan Johnson. Faber was a member of the Big Ten All-Rookie Team, while Lacombe landed on the All-Big Ten First Team.
Forward Sampo Ranta joined Lacombe on that list, and he leads Minnesota with 18 goals and 29 points. Ranta and Lacombe are two of seven different Gophers that come into this weekend with 20 or more points. Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin, Scott Reedy, Ben Myers and Brannon McManus round out that group. Five of the seven have netted 10 or more goals.
The ‘U’ closed out the season with an 8-2-0 stretch in their final 10. They’re also coming off a 6-4 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship.
It’s a broken record at this point in the season, but if the Mavericks want to have a chance, they’ll need to stay out of the box. This Omaha team is averaging 15.7 penalty minutes per game, which leads the NCHC and is the second-most in the country. It started to especially be a problem in recent losses to North Dakota and Denver.
The Mavericks were called for nine penalties, three of which negated their own power plays, and gave up two power play goals in their NCHC playoff loss to Denver. Individually, Joey Abate ranks second in the NCAA with 61 penalty minutes. Omaha is 9-2-0 this season when Abate is penalty-free and 2-7-1 when the sophomore center finds himself in the box.
For comparison’s sake, the Gophers rank 51st in the country with just 6.1 penalty minutes per game. Similar to the Mavericks, Minnesota’s penalty kill unit has been very reliable at 84.7 percent. Omaha is 85.1 percent. Both teams rank second in their respective conference and 13th and 9th in the NCAA respectively.
Back on the big stage
Saturday’s contest will mark the fourth appearance and sixth NCAA Tournament game in Omaha program history. The Mavericks are 2-3 in their five previous games, but it’s been six years since an Omaha team has played on this stage.
“It’s exciting,” Gabinet said. “I think we’ve really got to celebrate the moment and to make the NCAA Tournament is a big accomplishment. Not only that, but to do it in the NCHC is even extra special. To be a top four in the NCHC means we’ve had a great season, so we’ve really got to celebrate that.”
It hasn’t been an easy road to get to this point, but there’s been a lot of buzz around the group this week heading into Loveland.
“Lots of nervous energy all last week leading up to it, but the guys were excited,” Gabinet said. “You can tell this is a group that wants to play. This is a group that isn’t just happy being a good team, they want to play the game.
“Those are the type of guys we recruited here, those are the type of guys you want playing, and you want guys that are hungry to compete.”
Especially after getting knocked out by Denver in the NCHC Tournament and posting a 1-4 record in their last five games, there were no guarantees the Mavericks season would continue. There was a little bit of scoreboard watching and waiting around Baxter Arena the week leading up to Sunday night’s selection show, but business and preparation still went on as normal. Just with a little extra stress.
“It was stressful,” Gabinet said. “I worked out three times, cleaned my wife’s car a couple times, and just tried to stay busy. It’s out of your control as much as you tell yourself that, but it’s still a stressful time to go through.”
Nobody knew whether the team was in the tournament or not before the show, which the Mavericks watched as a team at Aksarben Cinema. However, Gabinet was extremely happy with the season his team has put together and knew there was a good chance they’d get in.
As for the loss to Denver, it’s something they’ve moved on from and used to grow in practice leading up to this weekend.
“It’s a great opportunity for growth,” Gabinet said. “I think that’s been a testament to this team all season long in that we’ve been able to really learn from our experiences, grow and get better, and that led us to the season we’ve had so far.”
The message around the group this week has been to “embrace the moment.” Only one member of the Omaha roster (Kevin Conley, Denver) has any type of NCAA Tournament experience, however, he didn’t appear in a game in that stretch. The Mavericks playoff game against the Pioneers was the first collegiate postseason game for 10 of the 19 skaters, plus goaltender Isaiah Saville.
There’s added pressure playing at this time of year, but not everyone gets this opportunity. Especially with a young roster that features 18 underclassmen.
“You can live a long time without ever being in a real pressure situation and that usually means nothing important is on the line,” Gabinet said. “We’ve got something important on the line, and we’ve earned that right.”
The head coach has told his team to embrace it and enjoy the setting once the puck drops Saturday night, but also use those nerves and channel them in a positive way.
It starts between the pipes
A big part of the Mavericks fate this weekend will depend on what type of play they get between the pipes. Similar to LaFontaine for Minnesota, Saville has carried the torch all season long for Omaha, posting a 12-10-1 record with a 2.86 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
When the 2015 team made their run to the Frozen Four, it was goaltender Ryan Massa who led the way through the South Bend Regional. Now Saville will now try to do that himself.
“Isaiah has just grown so much this season, not only during the games but even in practices,” Gabinet said of his sophomore netminder. “So we believe in that, we believe in him and the process that he’s been committed to all season long. He’ll be sharp come game time on Saturday night.”
News and notes
- Omaha will be the fourth seed in a regional for the second time (2006) in program history this weekend.
- In five previous NCAA Tournament games, the Mavericks have scored 13 goals and allowed 17.
- The Mavericks are ninth in the country with 354 blocked shots, while Minnesota ranks seventh with 366.
- Nine of the 29 members of the Omaha roster are from the state of Minnesota.
- Omaha senior defenseman Nate Knoepke hails from Farmington, MN, just south of Minneapolis, and played two games for the Gophers during the 2017-18 season before transferring to Omaha.
- Jonny Tychonick (UND) and Jack Randl (Michigan) are the only two players on the Omaha roster who have ever played against the Gophers.
- Mike Gabinet was 0-1 against Minnesota as a player. Minnesota defeated Omaha, 7-3, in October of 2003 while Gabinet was a defenseman for the Mavericks.
- Omaha is 8-2-0 in one-goal games this season.
- Omaha finished with the most overtime wins in the NCHC, four, which is tied with Penn State and Army for the most in the country. They are 4-0-1 in overtime this season. Minnesota is 2-0-0.
- Brock Bremer leads NCHC rookies with an average of 1.29 points per game this season.
- Omaha has spent 14 straight weeks in the rankings. They’re currently No. 12 in both major polls.
- Knoepke, Chayse Primeau, Kirby Proctor, Jack Randl, Martin Sundberg and Tyler Weiss have all set career-highs in goals this season.
Ways to follow
Opening faceoff Saturday night is set for 9 p.m. CT and will be televised on ESPNU. With a win, Omaha will face the winner of Mankato St. and Quinnipiac on Sunday at 7 p.m. CT in the West Regional Championship. You can also listen to the radio broadcast on 1180 Zone 2 with Donny Baarns and Terry Leahy. As always check out https://unothegateway.com/category/sports/ice-hockey/ and follow @jordan_mcalpine on Twitter for live game updates and Omaha Hockey coverage all season long.