Mavericks look to get back on track with third straight against top-ranked North Dakota

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

After getting swept in Grand Forks last weekend, the Mavericks will look to rebound against North Dakota Friday night at Baxter Arena. The message in the Omaha locker room this week was simple. Get back to work. “The North Dakota games are definitely games you look forward to playing and I’m really excited for the next two games coming up here,” said senior Martin Sundberg. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

There’s no other way to put it. Last weekend was a letdown to say the least for everyone on the Omaha roster. After a tough 4-1 loss in game one, the Mavericks dropped game two of a series for the first time in the second half, 7-1. The Fighting Hawks found the back of the net five times in the final 40 minutes of a penalty-filled contest and hoisted the Penrose Cup at the end of the night.

They’ll meet two more times in the regular season, the first of those being Friday night at Baxter Arena. It’s a building that has treated the Mavericks well this season, but they’ll look to close out the home portion of their schedule and get back on track against those same Fighting Hawks.

Last time out

The Mavericks, 13-8-1, went into the first intermission down by one both nights last weekend. However, that was as close as they would get. The message in the Omaha locker room this week has been simple. Get back to work.

“Nobody is happy about the results from the weekend and we came back ready to work,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “We want to get better and probably had our hardest practice on Monday since Christmas. When you face a good opponent and the results don’t go your way, you have two ways you can handle it.

“You can blame, complain and defend yourself, or you can get to work. We chose to get to work and that’s what we’ve been doing all week.”

Kevin Conley and Tyler Weiss scored the Mavericks two goals in the series. Weiss cut the lead to 3-1 late in the second period in game one, while Conley’s goal tied the game, 1-1, late in the opening period. For the Omaha captain, the group has made it a point to flush last weekend and leave it in the past.

“It wasn’t the weekend anyone wanted, so I think guys were looking forward to getting on the ice,” Conley said. “We know these last two games are very important and we want to get back to playing how we’re capable of playing.”

Heading into last Saturday, the Mavericks were a perfect 5-0 in game two. However, they suffered their worst defeat of the season. It was just the second time in 10 regular season series that the Mavericks have been swept.

Eight different Fighting Hawks found the back of the net in the series, as Collin Adams, Tyler Kleven and Jasper Weatherby all found the back of the net twice. Adams added two assists, while defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker had a goal and three assists.

UND netminder Adam Scheel stopped 41 of the 43 shots he saw against. Austin Roden played the final 26:17 for Omaha in game two as Isaiah Saville was pulled after the fifth goal.

Once again, the Mavericks want to leave the series in the past.

“I honestly think practice has been unbelievable this week,” said senior Martin Sundberg. “We came back Monday ready to get better and prepare for Friday, and that was our focus. We know what we can improve from last weekend, but we’ve been trying to focus on Friday and not look backwards.”

Fighting Hawks No. 1 for a reason

They’re 17-4-1, Penrose Cup champions, winners of four straight, and 8-2-0 in their last 10.

The Fighting Hawks are also 8-1 and have outscored opponents 43-13 since a loss in the nine games since their first series of the second half at Denver. They’re the top-ranked team in the country for a reason.

Last Saturday was the eighth time the Fighting Hawks have scored five or more goals in a game. They’re a perfect 8-0 in those games. They’re also 16-0-0 when they’ve scored first, which they did both nights.

“They’re a talented team, but we just need to focus on how good we can be,” Gabinet said. “Obviously they haven’t lost at home and have 12 NHL draft picks and all of those things, but at the end of the day, we’re just focused on us. What can we do to play our highest level of hockey and get back to our standards.”

There was a combination of factors that led to the results, but at the end of the day it comes down to execution. The Mavericks want to put together a better collective effort on Friday.

“I thought we played parts of the game Friday, but you’ve got to give it to North Dakota,” Conley said. “They capitalized on almost all of our mistakes. They’re a talented team, but we know we can be better and more focused so we don’t make those mistakes.”

Penalty fest

Especially when two rivals go head-to-head, it’s natural that emotions are going to run high. However, last Saturday night took that to the extreme. The two teams combined for 33 penalties, two of them being majors, and 104 penalty minutes.

The Mavericks finished with 63 of them, which was the fourth-highest single-game penalty minute total in school history. It’s also the most an Omaha team has racked up in the NCHC era. Omaha and UND now sit Nos. 1 and 2 in the country for total penalty minutes with 331 and 330 respectively.

For the guys on the ice, these games have rivalry written all over them.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Sundberg said. “The North Dakota games are definitely games you look forward to playing and I’m really excited for the next two games coming up here. They’re our rival so it’s intense and it’s two good teams. We want to beat them really badly and they want to beat us, so the battle level is always high, and we’re always looking forward to playing North Dakota.”

Most of those 104 came from a melee in the final minute, which sent all 10 skaters on the ice back to the locker room. Omaha’s Noah Prokop and UND’s Gabe Bast were both assessed five-minute fighting majors and game disqualifications out of the scrum. They will be ineligible for Friday’s contest.

It’s been just six days since. Gabinet knows emotions will be once again, but he doesn’t expect the ending to carry over into Friday’s game too much.

“I don’t think so,” Gabinet said. “We want to play with discipline and have emotional control, so that’ll be important heading into these last two games.”

Senior sendoff?

It’s the final home game on the 2020-21 schedule, but Friday night could also potentially mark the final game at Baxter Arena for Kevin Conley, Nate Knoepke and Martin Sundberg. It will be the end for Jordan Klehr, who will not be eligible to return next season.

As for the other three, there could be a potential return with the NCAA allowing an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, but that will be figured out in the coming months.

“Those guys are still up in the air and we haven’t talked too much about it,” Gabinet said. “Obviously you’re talking about three tremendous individuals that have brought a lot to this program. They’re all great men too and they do things the right way both on and off the ice, and we’re grateful that they’re in our program.”

After transferring from Denver following his freshman season, Conley has played 92 games in an Omaha sweater. He’s not yet sure if he’ll be back next season, but if not, he knows how he wants to finish out at home.

“I definitely have thought about, but who knows what the future holds- I don’t even know,” Conley said. “It’s crazy it’s been three years already but if this is it I wouldn’t want it to end any other way than a win at Baxter Arena.”

Conley and Knoepke are both transfers after spending time at DU and Minnesota respectively. For Sundberg though, he’s spent four years in Omaha. It’s a place that feels like home.

“I feel like Omaha is my second home now,” Sundberg said. “It’s such a good community and there are so many great people, and I feel like the people here have really embraced me and my teammates really well. Especially coming from Sweden and learning a new culture and language, and being away from my family and friends, it’s been an unbelievable experience here.”

Neither of them has ruled out a return next season.

Around the NCHC

With UND having clinched the Penrose Cup last weekend, the attention now shifts to how the final standings will look come NCHC Tournament time. It’s a busy weekend as all eight NCHC teams will be in action, but it’ll have a little bit of a different look.

After having their game in St. Cloud pushed back to next Saturday, March 6, St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth will now join Omaha and UND and as teams playing one single game. That game is set for 7:07 Saturday night in Duluth. SCSU blanked Colorado College, 4-0, last Saturday, while UMD fell to those same Tigers at home just two nights prior, 2-1.

Denver and Colorado College, along with Miami and Western Michigan will both play home-and-home series against each other. This weekend will close out the regular season for both the RedHawks and Broncos.

Here are the updated NCHC standings heading into this weekend:

 No. 2 NORTH DAKOTA 50 PTS / 22 GP / 17-4-1

No. 6 ST. CLOUD STATE 43 PTS / 22 GP / 14-8-0

No. 10 MINNESOTA DULUTH 39 PTS / 22 GP / 12-8-2

No. 11 OMAHA 38 PTS / 22 GP / 13-8-1

RV WESTERN MICHIGAN 27 PTS / 22 GP / 8-11-3

RV DENVER 25 PTS / 20 GP / 7-12-1

COLORADO COLLEGE 18 PTS / 20 GP / 4-14-2

MIAMI 18 PTS / 22 GP / 5-15-2

*All rankings according to the most recent Feb. 22 poll from USCHO.com.

News and notes

  • UND leads the all-time series 27-14-1 and has won 11 of the last 15. The Fighting Hawks have won three of the four games this season.
  • Of the 42 all-time games between Omaha and UND, 16 of them have been decided by one goal or less.
  • Tyler Weiss scored his sixth goal of the season in game one last weekend, which is a career-high.
  • Joey Abate leads the nation with 59 penalty minutes this season.
  • The Mavericks still lead the NCHC in blocked shots with 318. That’s also good for fifth in the country. Jason Smallidge is second in the conference with 45. Nate Knoepke is third with 44.
  • Omaha has allowed just 10 power play goals this season. Five of them have come against, three of them in game two last Saturday.
  • UND is averaging the most goals in the country per game, 4.00. The Mavericks are tied for 16th at 3.36.
  • Jasper Weatherby comes into Friday on a six-game goal streak. He has 7-2-9 in that stretch.
  • Jordan Kawaguchi has 16 points, three of them being goals, in 12 games at Baxter Arena this season. It is unknown if he will be on the trip for Friday’s game, however.

Ways to follow

Friday night is set for a 7:07 p.m. CT start at Baxter Arena and will be available on NCHC.tv. 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.

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