Mavericks head to Kalamazoo for arguably toughest test yet against No. 4 Broncos

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Kevin Conley pictured the Mavericks’ loss last Saturday against Colorado College. Photo taken by Stephanie Veloso/The Gateway.

The matchup

Another week, another challenge as No. 14 Omaha (12-4) heads to Kalamazoo to face No. 4 Western Michigan (12-4). The Mavericks already played No. 1 on the road this season, and came out of St. Cloud with a win, but it could be argued this weekend’s trip will be the Mavericks’ toughest test of the season so far.

The Mavericks are coming off a split with Colorado College, which featured their most disappointing effort of the season in a 4-0 loss last Saturday. The Mavericks were shut out for the first time since Dec. 12, 2020, and the first time at home since March 7, 2020. It was also the first time Omaha had dropped the second game of a series this season.

“It was a disappointing loss to say the least,” said Omaha captain Kevin Conley. “We just weren’t on top of our game and doing the things that give us success on a night to night basis, and it showed. In the NCHC you can’t take any nights off because things like what happened on Saturday can happen.”

They’ll look to get back on track this weekend, but it won’t be easy sledding. The Broncos come in winners of six straight. They’re first in the pairwise nationally, the No. 4 team in the country and it seems every button first-year head coach Pat Ferschweiler is pressing lately is working.

Tack on the challenge of playing in the tough environment that is Lawson Arena, and the Mavericks have their hands full. At the same time, just as they did last month at St. Cloud State, the Mavericks are embracing the challenge.

“The opportunity that we have in front of us this weekend is a great challenge,” Conley. “I think coming off of that will give us extra motivation to have a good weekend.”

Western keeps winning

The darkhorse team amongst several NCHC media members heading into this season, the Broncos have charged out of the game. Ethen Frank leads the country with 15 goals, Drew Worrad is second nationally with 26 points and the Broncos are tied for the fourth-most goals as a team in the country with 66. Plus Brandon Bussi is back healthy and has provided stability between the pipes, which killed the Broncos last season.

Western Michigan earned a road win and nearly swept then-No. 1 Michigan, they beat then-No. 4 Minnesota Duluth and swept then-No. 2 St. Cloud State last month. They sit second in the NCHC, they’re 4-4 against ranked teams and although it’s only early December, the Broncos are right in the thick of the national conversation.

“Lot of depth on their team, lot of experience on their team — I think they’re one of the most experienced teams out there this season, and I think they might be one of the heaviest teams in the NCAA from a size standpoint as well,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “They’re having a very good season and we’ll have to be ready to go.”

That experience is led by Frank, Josh Passolt and Paul Washe, who all returned for a fifth season. Attard, a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, also returned. There was a consensus in Kalamazoo that this season could be a special one and so far it’s been exactly that.

“They’re similar to us in my opinion,” Conley said. “They play hard in all three zones, so we’re going to have to be ready for them.”

‘Flush it’

That’s been the message around Baxter Arena this week.

“We know we’re better than what we showed on Saturday,” Conley said. “We’re going to have a good week of practice and a hard week of practice to get better and back on top of our game.”

Even in the win against CC on Friday night, the Mavericks allowed three third-period goals and the momentum was clearly on the CC side heading into the series finale. There was no hiding the sense of frustration and the disappointment on the home side last time out, understandably so.

At the same time, that frustration can sometimes be used as a positive and many hope it’ll light a fire under the Mavericks this weekend. Gabinet said the key is to learn from Saturday’s mistakes and move forward, which was the focus in practice leading into this week.

“You can’t sweep it under the rug, you have to address it,” Gabinet said. “You have to have accountability about it and get better from it. So that’s what we did.

“Whether we played well or not well, you’ve got to reflect and make sure you’re learning from your past games, positively or negatively. Now you’ve got to get ready for your next opponent, so we’re definitely focused on Western Michigan.”

Ending the half on a high note

This weekend’s series will mark the Mavericks’ final games of the first half, which has been a success. Omaha has a chance to tie the 2015-16 team, which had 14 wins in the first half, with a sweep. Looking beyond this weekend though, a good weekend in Kalamazoo could go a long way.

“You don’t want to have that bad taste in your mouth when you have the long break ahead of you, so there’s a little extra motivation to do well this weekend,” Conley said. “On top of that, they’re a good team and we want to beat a good team.”

With the holiday break right around the corner, the Mavericks will be off until their series at St. Lawrence on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. With three weeks in between, the Omaha bench boss wants to see his team leave everything on the ice this weekend.

“Any time you get a chance to end the half on a good note it’s a positive,” Gabinet said. “You want to go up there and give your best effort. I think that’s the biggest thing we’re looking for. Just our best effort, making sure we’re competing hard and showing up ready to play.”

Around the NCHC

St. Cloud State has the weekend off and Miami will play one lone non-conference game on Sunday (at Mercyhurst), but there are three other NCHC series on the docket. Omaha travels to Western Michigan, North Dakota heads west to Colorado College and Minnesota Duluth hosts Denver.

The Mavericks and Tigers split in Omaha last weekend and the Fighting Hawks and Huskies split their series last weekend in St. Cloud. The Huskies erupted for eight goals in game one, including Jami Krannila’s ‘Michigan’ goal, and cruised to a lopsided 8-1 win. However, UND responded in game two, 5-3. Western Michigan swept Miami, Denver swept Arizona State and in a bit of a surprise, then-No. 1 Minnesota Duluth was swept at North Michigan. However, the Bulldogs were down to their third goalie, Ben Patt, as Zach Stejskal is dealing with testicular cancer and Ryan Fanti was dealing with COVID-19.

This was all on top of the news that the conference will be searching for a new commissioner as Josh Fenton will be taking over that same role for the Summit League. It’s another busy weekend in the and here are the updated NCHC standings:

No. 7 North Dakota  18 PTS / 8 GP / 6-2-0

No. 4 Western Michigan 15 PTS / 8 GP / 5-3-0

No. 11 Denver 12 PTS / 6 GP / 4-2-0

No. 6 St. Cloud State 12 PTS / 8 GP / 4-4-0

No. 5 Minnesota Duluth 11 PTS / 6 GP / 3-2-1

No. 14 Omaha 8 PTS / 4 GP / 3-3-0

Colorado College 5 PTS / 4 GP / 1-4-1

Miami 3 PTS / 8 GP / 1-7-0

*All rankings according to the most recent Dec. 6 poll from USCHO.com.

News and notes

  • Last weekend saw the return of Isaiah Saville, Jonny Tychonick, Chayse Primeau, Matt Miller and Martin Sundberg from injury. Tychonick played in both games, however, the other four played in just one game each. Gabinet said they’ll continue to ease guys in and it wouldn’t be surprising if at least one of those five is not in the lineup this weekend.
  • Taylor Ward enters this weekend with 97 career points. Ward was named a candidate for the Senior CLASS Award earlier this week, which recognizes excellence in the community, classroom, character and competition.
  • The Mavericks have been outshot in five of their last six games.
  • During their six-game win streak, the Broncos are averaging 5.67 goals per game and their power play is 11-for-35 (35.5 percent) during the stretch.
  • Omaha leads the all-time series with Western Michigan 30-21-6.
  • With several future nonconference opponents and dates being announced around the country this week, Omaha’s nonconference slate next season should include return trips to Lake Superior State and Long Island, along with another home series against Alaska and also St. Lawrence. It’s believed Niagara is likely to be the other team on next season’s schedule, but Omaha’s 2022-23 schedule has not been finalized yet.

They said it

Conley on playing at Lawson Arena this weekend: “The crowd feels like they’re right on top of you in your ear, but it’s always a fun place to play. We enjoy playing there. It’s a hostile environment and I think we do well in those kinds of environments.”

Gabinet on the Mavericks’ practices of late. He said his team might’ve had their best week of practice yet this season leading into the Colorado College series: “You’ve got to think in the long run good practices lead to good games. Sometimes you have a weird situation like that on Saturday where we were really good all week in practice and then on Saturday our juice just didn’t seem to be there.”

Gabinet on the effort level last Saturday: “We have to make sure hard comes before skill, and not the other way around. For us to be successful in this conference the first thing you have to do is make sure you’re playing hard. Then allow your skill the opportunity to succeed in the right areas from the hard work you’ve done to get there.”

Ways to follow

Friday night’s game is set for a 6:05 p.m. CDT opening faceoff at Lawson Arena. Game two will follow at the same time on Saturday. Both games will be available on NCHC.tv. You can also listen to the radio broadcast on 1180 Zone 2 with Casey Roehl 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.

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