It’s a hurdle the Mavericks haven’t been able to climb since Jan. 10, 2015. Coming into this weekend, Omaha is winless in their last 18 games against the Pioneers. At one time Denver had won 15 straight before seeing the last three games end in ties.
Omaha was 13.8 seconds away from that elusive victory last season before Bobby Brink found the back of the net to send it to overtime. At the same time, it’s a new year and a new opportunity. Mavericks Head Coach Mike Gabinet is excited for the challenge.
“They’ve been an elite team in college hockey for a long time and it’s a great opportunity for us to show up, play to our identity, and do what we do,” Gabinet said. “I think our guys have just been growing all season and they’re really taking responsibility for themselves and the program to play how we want to play.
“I told our guys, as cliche as it sounds, but I’m not worried about results. I’m worried about our guys getting better and our program getting better, and we’re looking to continue our growth here this weekend.”
After starting the season as the No. 4 team in the country, the Pioneers had a disappointing showing in the Pod at 3-6-1. Denver has started the second half with back-to-back splits, moving their record to 5-8-1. They still remain in the top-20 in both polls, No. 19 (USCHO) and No. 15 (USA Today). This weekend will be the first of four games between Denver and Omaha this season.
When you look at the Pioneers stats, freshman Carter Savoie leads them in just about every offensive category. The 2020 Edmonton Oilers fourth-round pick has scored eight goals and 13 points through 14 games. At one point in the Pod, Savoie had over half of Denver’s goals as a team. Savoie will need to be a focus for the Omaha penalty kill unit as five of his eight goals have been on the power play.
Fellow freshman Mike Benning has also gotten off to a strong start, as the defenseman leads the Pioneers with seven assists and has also added a goal. Freshman McKade Webster is tied with Benning for third on the team in scoring with eight points, three of those being goals.
Between the pipes
Magnus Chrona has been the workhorse for the Pioneers most of this season. The sophomore is 3-8-0 to start the 2020-21 season with a 2.82 GAA and .898 save percentage. Chrona was named to the NCHC’s Preseason All-Conference Team.
However, Chrona was hit by North Dakota forward Grant Mismash Monday night, forcing him to leave in the third period. Mismash was suspended one game earlier this week. Senior Corbin Kaczperski has appeared in six games this season, including three starts. The Yale grad transfer is 2-0-1 with a .879 save percentage and 1.97 GAA this season.
Last time out
After splitting a home-and-home with Colorado College to open the second half, the Pioneers followed it up with another one at home against No. 3 North Dakota. Four different Pioneers found the back of the net and Chrona stopped 28 of the 29 shots fired his way, as Denver skated to a 4-1 win on Sunday. However, the Fighting Hawks did respond in game two, beating Denver by a 5-1 final.
The Pioneers also saw Bobby Brink return to the lineup in that series. The sophomore has only played in 5 of their 14 games after winning a gold medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championship.
As for No. 11 Omaha (8-3-1), after seeing back-to-back series postponed to start the second half, the Mavericks finally returned to the ice earlier this week at Colorado College. After holding on for a gritty 3-2 win in game one, Tyler Weiss scored with .2 seconds left in overtime Tuesday night for another 3-2 win. The Mavericks hope to keep the momentum going this weekend.
“Nice to get home and catch our breath a little bit in the three days this week,” Gabinet said. “They’re a team that was ranked fourth to start the season and when you look at their roster, it’s not a surprise. You saw it against North Dakota Sunday night, they’re a very deep team, so we have to be ready to go on Saturday night.”
Score early and often
The Mavericks head into this weekend averaging 3.58 goals per game. That’s the most in the NCHC and 10th-most in the NCAA. They’re 7-1-0 when scoring first and 1-2-1 when allowing the first goal, that one win being Dec. 18 against Western Michigan. Across the ice, Denver is 4-3-0 when scoring first this season. However, the Pioneers are 1-5-1 when allowing the first goal and 1-7-1 when trailing after the first or second period. It’s always important, but the first goal will be especially pivotal this weekend.
Defense is key
Omaha has allowed two or fewer goals in nine of the 12 games played this season and the Mavericks are 7-1-1 in those games. As a team, Omaha has let in the eighth-fewest goals per game in the country, 2.17. Jason Smallidge and Weiss own a +9 rating, while Nate Knoepke, Martin Sundberg and Jack Randl are all at +6.
Only six of the 24 Maverick skaters to appear in a game this season have a minus in front of their name. Between Isaiah Saville and Austin Roden, the Omaha goalies have put up a .928 save percentage, stopping 335 of the 360 shots fired their way.
PK continues to shine
After going a perfect 11-for-11 in Colorado Springs, the Omaha penalty kill unit has successfully killed 37 straight. They’re 40-for-43 overall this season, which ranks second in the country at 93%. The Mavericks are averaging 11.8 penalty minutes a game. It’s a number they surely want to cut down on, but in the meantime, they’ve been able to overcome it.
Testing the depth
It’s something that’s been talked about all season long, but it hasn’t been put to the test more so than earlier this week in Colorado Springs. On top of playing for the first time in 28 days, the Mavericks were without three out key players, including their top defensive pairing.
“It was some great experience for some guys that normally don’t get a lot of minutes against Colorado College,” Gabinet said. “Some guys found themselves in situations that normally wouldn’t be in them, and they got big-time minutes out there. It’s going to serve the team and them well in the future.”
With Jonny Tychonick and Brandon Scanlin out, Smallidge, Knoepke and Kirby Proctor all saw elevated minutes. Jordan Klehr got another start, before missing game two due to injury, while Alex Roy and Nolan Krenzen both saw their name called.
Up front, most of the lines stayed in-tact, but the Mavericks were without Randl. Through 10 games, the sophomore was tied for second on the team in scoring, 4-4-8. The series also featured the NCAA debut of Kaden Bohlsen. As cliche as it sounds, it truly is one day at a time for everyone in college hockey. Gabinet was not sure if they will be back for this weekend.
“Hopefully we can get some of those guys back,” Gabinet said. “It’s tough in this conference if you don’t have adequate rest and healthy bodies, but in the same breath we have to treat COVID with respect. It’s been hard on a few guys’ lungs, so we need to make sure our health is the most important thing. The healthy guys will play and we’ll take it one day at a time on the guys that can’t.”
Around the NCHC
For the first time since the end of the Pod, all eight NCHC schools will be in action this weekend. Miami opens up the weekend Friday night at St. Cloud State with game two coming Saturday at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. Along with Omaha and Denver, the other two match-ups will feature Saturday-Sunday series, including Western Michigan at Minnesota Duluth in the East, and North Dakota hosting Colorado College in the West.
The Broncos were the surprise team of last week, earning a home sweep of St. Cloud State with 6-2 and 3-1 wins in the two respective games. UMD and Miami were both idle last weekend after having their series postponed due to COVID-19 protocols.
Here are the updated NCHC standings heading into this weekend:
No. 3 NORTH DAKOTA 29 PTS / 14 GP / 10-3-1
No. 6 ST. CLOUD STATE 27 PTS / 15 GP / 9-6-0
No. 11 OMAHA 24 PTS / 12 GP / 8-3-1
No. 7 MINNESOTA DULUTH 21 PTS / 13 GP / 6-5-2
WESTERN MICHIGAN 19 PTS / 16 GP / 5-8-3
No. 19 DENVER 18 PTS / 14 GP / 5-8-1
COLORADO COLLEGE 15 PTS / 14 GP / 3-9-2
MIAMI 15 PTS / 14 GP / 4-8-2
*All rankings according to the most recent Jan. 18 poll from USCHO.com.
News and notes
- Omaha defenseman Nolan Krenzen’s brother, Lane, is a sophomore defenseman for Denver. It will be only the second time they’ve ever played against each other.
- Denver is allowing the fourth-lowest shots per game in the country, 24.79. The Mavericks are averaging 29.08 shots per game.
- All three of Kirby Proctor’s career goals have been game-winners, including game one in Colorado Springs Monday night.
- Saturday night’s game against Denver will be the first of six consecutive home games. Omaha welcomes No. 3 North Dakota to Baxter Arena next weekend (Jan. 29 and 30). Friday night is set for 7:07 p.m. CT, while Saturday will follow at 6:07 p.m. CT.
Ways to follow
Both games this Saturday and Sunday are set for 6:07 p.m. CT starts. Socially-distance seats are still available for both nights, but there will be no walkup ticket sales. You can also watch through NCHC.tv or 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.