The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s hockey team opened their season last Saturday in an exhibition matchup against the University of Alberta at Baxter Arena, losing a tight one late, 3-2. The match was the first for the Mavericks before they kick-off their regular season this weekend in Fairbanks, Alaska at the Brice Alaska Goal Rush tournament.
This season marks the third-straight year the Golden Bears from Edmonton, Alberta have included NCAA teams in their exhibition schedule. Alberta earned a pair of wins on the road in 2014-15 at Yale and Dartmouth, and dropped one on the road at St. Cloud State, beating Minnesota State in Mankato and tying Arizona State twice in Tempe last season. The Mavs, picked to finish 5th this season in the preseason National Collegiate Hockey Conference poll, are the first NCHC team Alberta has defeated.
Baxter Arena was surprisingly filled for an exhibition game; nearly 6,600 fans strong, and newly-named
team captain senior right-winger Justin Parizek heard all the praise ring out through the arena when the starting lineups were being announced. As did alternate captains junior center Tyler Vesel, junior defensemen Luc Snuggerud, sophomore starting goalie Evan Weninger and of course, fan-favorite, senior right-winger Austin “California Hot Sauce” Ortega. Ortega was recently named one of the “Top 10 Forwards to Watch” this season by U.S. College Hockey Online (USCHO). Weninger was also named to the Mike Richter Award watch list last week, the award is given to the NCAA’s best Division I goalie at the end of the season.
Freshmen forward Tristan Keck tried getting things started off early for the Mavs bouncing a shot off the crossbar on an open shot just over a minute into the game. Sophomore center Fredrik Olofsson converted less than five minutes later after stealing a pass right after an Alberta power play came to an end. Olofsson used a swift deke to get by Alberta goalie Brendan Burke for the unassisted goal and the Mavs first goal of 2016-◡̈.
Jake Randolph found Mason Morelli alone where the sophomore left-winger fired a shot off a breakaway to bring the Omaha lead to 2-0 just three minutes later. In the hole down two, Alberta stepped up the pressure as well as their physical play on the much smaller-sized Mavericks.
Weninger deflected an open shot by Alberta, but with 7:02 left in the period, the Golden Bears cut the deficit in half off a Rhett Rachinski power play goal assisted by Stephane Legault. The smacking of Weninger’s timber on the ice echoed through the calmed-down arena to signal the end of an Alberta power play. The Golden Bears must of taken it as a signal, knotting the game up just seconds later after racing to the opposite side of the ice and scoring on a Luke Phip wrist shot assisted by Taylor Cooper and Graeme Craig.
The second period was more of a defensive battle than the first 20 minutes showed. Alex Blankenburg entered the game between the pipes for the Mavericks to start the second period and had arguably the toughest two saves all night. Alberta escaped into the Omaha zone on a two-on-one breakaway, but Blankenburg blocked the one-timer with his leg pads, and then an ensuing rebounded shot taken by an Alberta forward. The crowd, pleased with the effort of the Washington, Michigan native, let out a roar that woke the team up heading into the third period.
The third, and final goalie on the Mavericks roster got the start in net for the game’s final period. The freshmen and former Omaha Lancer, along with defensemen Snuggerud, were named in The Hockey News’ “Top 75 to watch in the NCAA” for the 2016-17 season.
Alberta’s Legault found Tyson Baillie ahead of all Maverick defenders on the transition and he pushed a wrist shot just past Oldham to break the tie with 5:52 left in the game. Omaha had a pair of power plays in the final five minutes of play, but failed to convert either one. Omaha outshot Alberta 26-24, but the deciding factor was the Golden Bears converting on one of the team’s five power play opportunities. Omaha was 0 for 5 in that stat category. Head coach Dean Blais knows this is something the team will have to work on moving forward.
“We got a chance to look at everyone, there’s certain things we know we got to work every day on…the power play is just that important,” Blais said.
Many young players got the chance to show the Maverick coaching staff their stuff Saturday night, but coach Blais would like to see more.
“I kind of like Teemu Pulkinnen, Morelli and Spinner,” Blais said. “You got a playmaker in Teemu and Morelli can go up and down and so will Spinner, but they missed too many opportunities coming down the ice.”
There were some highlight moments for the young Mavericks on the roster, shedding some light on what’s to come later this season. Omaha plays the University of Alaska, and Alaska-Anchorage this weekend. The puck drop for Friday’s game against Alaska-Anchorage is at 7:05 p.m., and Saturday’s against Alaska at 10:05 p.m.