As the calendar flips to February, it’s one step closer to the start of postseason play. Although the format for the NCHC playoffs and what they’ll look like is still up in the air, this weekend will feature two teams battling for a top-4 spot. With six points and potential playoff positioning on the line, it’ll be an important weekend as the Mavericks travel to Denver.
“Obviously they’re a good team, but so are we,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “They’re the next team on our schedule so we’ve got to get ready for them and put our best foot forward in a tough place to play.”
In a normal season, the top-4 teams in the NCHC standings would qualify for home ice in the opening round. Omaha (10-5-1) currently holds that fourth spot, nine points ahead of fifth-place Denver (6-9-1), so this weekend could prove pivotal down the final stretch of the season. Both teams have eight games remaining, including the two in this series.
Last time out
It’s been a good week of practice at Baxter Arena and spirits are high after the big 5-4 victory over No. 2 North Dakota last Saturday. After falling in a 6-2 contest in game one, which was much closer than the score indicated, the Mavericks responded on Saturday. Omaha is 3-0 in game two to start the second half.
“We haven’t been really happy with game one of our last two series and in this league, anybody can win,” said junior center Chayse Primeau. “It comes down to whoever wants it more, and the second night we’ve been that team the last few weeks. Hopefully this weekend we can get both.”
The Pioneers were idle last week as their series against Colorado College was postponed. The last time Denver took the ice was in Omaha, as the two teams split that series one week before. Omaha won game two by a 5-2 final.
Monkey off the back
In that Jan. 24 win, the Mavericks snapped a 19-game winless streak that dated back to Jan. 10, 2015. Omaha is still 10-31-5 all-time against the Pioneers, but it’s a mental hurdle the Mavericks can finally erase.
“We were so excited to beat those guys,” Primeau said. “We go into every game knowing we have a chance and we can win, so we’re going out there for a business trip. We want to come back home with six points.”
At the same time, it’s a streak the players in the Omaha locker room haven’t paid much attention to, especially with having a young group. Omaha will look to start one of their own this weekend.
“We didn’t ever really pay much attention to it,” Gabinet said. “We’ve got so many young guys that didn’t even know about it honestly, so it wasn’t ever something we were worried about. We know they’re one of the top programs in college hockey, so we’re looking forward to the matchup.”
The matchup got a little bit more challenging the past few days, however, as the Mavericks will be playing without three forwards this weekend.
“We’ll have a depleted roster due to COVID-19 concerns,” Gabinet said. “Everybody on the roster will be traveling this weekend though, so we’ll still be able to meet the NCHC minimum requirement for skaters.”
The last time the Mavericks ventured away from home, the group was without their top defensive pairing in Brandon Scanlin and Jonny Tychonick, along with forward Jack Randl. Omaha ended up sweeping that series in Colorado Springs and will look to overcome being without some of their regulars once again.
On a positive note, defenseman Nate Knoepke is set to return to the Omaha lineup this weekend. He missed game two against North Dakota with a nagging injury. Knoepke ranks second in the conference in blocked shots with 36, while Omaha leads the NCHC with 253 as a team.
It was one of the most impressive stats from the last time these two teams met, as Omaha controlled the faceoffs dots 42-18 in game two and 72-57 in the series overall.
“Denver is a very skilled and fast team, so whenever the puck is on their stick they can make plays,” Primeau said. “Last series that was something we did really well. Having it right off the faceoff is huge, and honestly it can even determine how the shift ends up going. We’re going to focus on that again this weekend.”
The Mavericks will be without a center this weekend, but it’s still an area they’ll try to capitalize. Denver comes into this series ranked fourth from the bottom of the NCAA for team faceoff win percentage at 44.6 percent.
Scanlin standing out
Scanlin was named to the NCHC All-Rookie Team as a freshman and as a sophomore, he’s only continued to impress. He might even play some of his best hockey when he’s quiet on the ice and vastly unnoticed. At the same time, it’s that consistency that has made him stand out on a nightly basis.
At 6’4, he’s one of the smoothest skaters and most dependable defensemen at both ends of the ice. Offensively, he’s tied for third in NCHC scoring by defensemen with 12 points, 11 being assists. Seven of those have come on the power play, which leads the team.
“To me, If you look up consistency in the dictionary, Brandon Scanlin’s picture should be there,” Gabinet said. “He practices the exact same way he plays and when you see the work ethic he has, it’s no surprise that he performs how he does every weekend.”
As an undrafted player, he’s already started to catch some eyes and will surely only continue to do so in the coming years.
As the end of the season draws closer, a few Omaha players have started to find themselves on lists for awards. Taylor Ward and Chayse Primeau were both nominated for the Hobey Baker earlier this week.
“There’s been constant growth for both of them,” Gabinet said. “With Chayse, I think he’s gradually taken a step every year and he’s being rewarded. Taylor has really come as of late and is playing extremely well, so that’s no surprise for either of them.”
Isaiah Saville was also named to the Mike Richter Award watch list. The sophomore netminder is 8-5-1 this season with a .920 save percentage and a 2.53 goals-against average.
“He’s another guy that has taken a step this season and he’s still improving every night,” Gabinet said. “Happy to see his continued development here and that’s what you want to see in all of your players. He’s our guy in net and he’s earned that honor.”
Around the NCHC
Omaha and North Dakota were one of only two series in the conference last weekend as Colorado College and Denver were postponed due to more COVID-19 issues in Colorado Springs. The Tigers are still in their shutdown, while North Dakota has this weekend off. Along with Omaha and Denver, all four schools in the East will be in action as Miami travels to Duluth and Western Michigan heads to St. Cloud.
The Bulldogs swept Miami last weekend in Oxford, taking game one, 2-1, and finishing the sweep with a 6-3 win in game two. The NCHC named their monthly honors for January earlier this week as North Dakota’s Shane Pinto and Adam Scheel were named the NCHC Player of the Month and Goaltender of the Month respectively. SCSU’s Veeti Miettinen was named the NCHC Rookie of the Month for January.
Here are the updated NCHC standings heading into this weekend:
No. 3 NORTH DAKOTA 38 PTS / 18 GP / 13-4-1
No. 5 MINNESOTA DULUTH 33 PTS / 17 GP / 10-5-2
No. 4 ST. CLOUD STATE 33 PTS / 17 GP / 11-6-0
No. 9 OMAHA 30 PTS / 16 GP / 10-5-1
RV. DENVER 21 PTS / 16 GP / 6-9-1
WESTERN MICHIGAN 19 PTS / 18 GP / 5-10-3
COLORADO COLLEGE 15 PTS / 16 GP / 3-11-2
MIAMI 15 PTS / 18 GP / 4-12-2
*All rankings according to the most recent Feb. 1 poll from USCHO.com.
News and notes
- Saturday’s win over North Dakota was Mike Gabinet’s 50th as the Mavericks head coach. “In this conference you’ll take the wins whenever you can get them, but you’ve got to take one game at a time.”
- Taylor Ward, Chayse Primeau and Kevin Conley all come into this series on three-game point streaks. Primeau led Omaha with two goals and two assists last weekend against UND.
- After having their consecutive kills streak snapped at 50 (the most in program history), the Omaha penalty kill is now second in the country at 93.3 percent. On the flip side, their power play had their best showing of the season in game two against UND (3-for-5). Denver’s penalty kill is 35th in the NCAA at 77.6 percent.
- Kevin Conley is tied for the NCHC lead and fourth in the NCAA with three game-winning goals this season.
- Nolan Sullivan leads NCHC forwards in blocked shots with 17.
- Isaiah Saville set a single-game career-high by recording 43 in the game two win over UND last Saturday.
Ways to follow
Friday night is set for a 8:07 p.m. CT start and will be available on NCHC.tv. Game two starts an hour earlier at 7:07 p.m. CT and will be televised on CBS Sports Network. 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.