It’s the first weekend of NCHC play as No. 9 Omaha (7-1-0) welcomes Miami (1-4-1) to Baxter Arena. The Mavericks enter the series riding a seven-game win streak, which is one shy of tying the school record set during the 2001-02 season.
Last weekend, Omaha swept Long Island with a 6-0 victory in game one and a 7-1 win to complete the sweep. A big part of that Saturday win was thanks to a Taylor Ward hat trick.
As for this week’s opponent, the RedHawks have struggled out of the gate. After winning their opener at Ferris State, Miami suffered a 4-3 overtime loss and was swept at Michigan State two weeks later. They skated to a 2-2 tie and a 6-4 loss in a home-and-home against Bowling Green last weekend.
“They’re a good team,” said Omaha goaltender Isaiah Saville. “I don’t think there’s a bad team in this conference, that’s for sure. We prepare for every team the same way, we know how we want to play, and we don’t change that depending on who we play.”
Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet echoed that message and said he knows the competition will be intense this weekend. Even though it hasn’t been the start those in Oxford hoped for, the RedHawks are a team that always seem to play hard and make it difficult. They’ve actually had Omaha’s number a little bit in recent years too.
Miami leads the all-time series 26-20-7. In the last seven meetings, the RedHawks are 5-1-1 and have shut out Omaha in three of the last four matchups. The two teams split their two games last season during the NCHC Pod.
Chris Bergeron isn’t afraid to tell it how it is, and the third-year Miami head coach knows it’s going to be a process to get his program where they eventually want to be.
“In my experiences at the college level, it is a slow process,” Bergeron said at NCHC Media Day. “You’re not really trading anybody and has the transfer portal allowed us to maybe speed it up a little? I don’t know that. To me that’s not how we’re going to make our living in the transfer portal. We want to recruit more of the traditional way.
“We did bring in 10 new faces this year, six of those faces are going to be people we expect to make an impact and improve the internal competition. I think the team is going to look a little bit more like what we want it to look like in terms of competition.”
Miami lost two of their top scorers from last season’s roster (Casey Gilling and Phil Knies), but they have added those 10 new faces to the fold. A pair of Merrimack transfers, Joe Cassetti, who played 11 games at Miami last season, and Chase Gresock, who joined this fall, are two of the three RedHawks tied with Ryan Savage with a team-high three goals. Cassetti is also tied with senior defenseman Derek Daschke with a team-leading five points.
The RedHawks come into Omaha looking to snap a five-game winless skid and grab their first conference win of the season, which took them six NCHC games to do so last season. However, that first win did come against Omaha last December.
Through six games this season they’ve been outscored 21-18, allowing just under 30 shots a game, and both of their special teams have struggled. Miami was tabbed seventh in the NCHC Preseason Poll, one spot ahead of Colorado College.
Battle between the pipes
One of the most intriguing storylines this weekend comes between the pipes as Saville will go head-to-head with Ludvig Perrson, an NCHC Preseason All-Conference selection. Persson was a Second-Team All-NCHC pick and a member of the NCHC All-Rookie team last season.
Although Persson’s numbers have dipped through six games this season to a .892 save percentage and a 2.98 goals-against average, the sophomore has the ability to steal a game. He showed that against Omaha last season as Persson backstopped his team to a 1-0 win on Dec. 12, 2020, and stopped 57 of the 59 shots he saw in the two games against the Mavericks.
“Last year they played us really hard and those were two hard-fought games,” Gabinet said. “Obviously their goalie had a very good season last season and is a good goaltender, so he’ll be tough to play, but we’ve got a good goaltender too.”
Saville, who was the runner-up to Persson in this year’s preseason All-Conference voting, will get the nod Friday night for the Mavericks. The three-time NCHC Goaltender of the Week to start this season is 6-1-0 with a 1.55 goals-against and a .931 save percentage. He picked up his second shutout of the season and the fourth of his career last Friday.
Taking care of business
The message inside the Omaha locker room this week has been to make sure everyone is ready to go once the puck drops Friday. It’s been a strong start to the season as the Mavericks sit at 7-1-0, but they want to keep the momentum rolling.
“Our first eight games, we’ve done what we thought we wanted to do going into this season,” Ward said. “We’ve executed and also gotten better over the last eight games, and I think we feel confident going into this weekend.”
Ever since their opening night loss to Lake Superior State, this Omaha group has responded and the confidence has grown by the game.
“Obviously the first weekend we definitely wanted to get two wins there and we didn’t, and we knew we’ve needed to get two wins every weekend,” Saville said. “Our preparation has gotten even more dialed every week. We’re making sure we’re going through all the video we need, we’re making sure we’re going through all the reps and also maintaining our health.”
That strong start goes back beyond these first eight games, however. After finishing in the top half of the conference last season and reaching the NCAA tournament, this Omaha roster came in season with something to prove. They’re taking care of business so far.
“I think we’ve prepared all summer and the past few years I’ve been here at least to build the culture that we have here,” Saville said. “I think it’s not a fluke of what our start is and I think we showed that last year especially too. When we play our game and prepare the right way we’re a top team in the nation.”
The going gets tougher
Although Omaha has gotten off to that 7-1-0 start, the brakes may need to be pumped a little bit as the Mavericks head into NCHC play. Take Lake Superior State out of the picture and the other three teams Omaha has faced this season (Maine, Alaska and Long Island) are a combined 3-17-2.
“I think that the score this weekend painted a little bit of a bad picture,” Ward said about the LIU series, which Omaha outscored the Sharks 13-1 in. “They’re a heck of a team over there. They played hard, they played physical, they were tough to play against and it was much closer than the score indicated.
“I think we took advantage of some mistakes and we executed well, but every team in this country is a good team. I don’t care if you’re playing No. 1 or No. 60, at the end of the day it’s still Division I hockey.”
That’s a fair point, and you still have to win the games that are presented to you too, but that level of competition is still nowhere near what the Mavericks will face once they get into NCHC play. The first real test will come next week as the Mavericks travel to No. 1 St. Cloud State.
No matter who the opponent has been though, the focus in the Omaha locker room hasn’t changed. So far, the Mavericks have been able to control what they can and win these games.
Ward named NCHC and National Player of the Month
The senior continued his torrid start to the season last weekend with back-to-back four-point performances and a hat trick in the Saturday win over Long Island. Ward leads the NCAA in goals (10), power play goals (eight) and is second in points (16).
Ward is also riding an 11-game point streak that dates back to last season. He was named the NCHC Forward of the Week on Monday, the October NCHC Player of the Month on Tuesday and the Hockey Commissioners Association Men’s National Player of the Month for October on Wednesday.
“I thought it started this summer,” Gabinet said of Ward’s hot start. “Just seeing him move on the ice and how well he was skating, I thought this could potentially be one of his best years with the program. He’s definitely proving to be doing that and nice to see him get rewarded with such a great start.”
Around the NCHC
All eight NCHC teams will be in action for the first weekend of conference play to open the eighth season in the league’s history. No. 1 St. Cloud State travels to Colorado College, No. 4 Minnesota Duluth travels to No. 10 Western Michigan, No. 8 North Dakota hosts No. 11 Denver, and No. 9 Omaha hosts Miami.
All rankings according to the most recent Nov. 1 poll from USCHO.com.
News and notes
- With a sweep this weekend, the Mavericks will have gotten off to their best start in program history through 10 games. Only two teams in program history have won eight of their first 10, but no team has ever won nine.
- Omaha is 79-97-16 all-time and 39-44-8 all-time at home in NCHC play.
- Martin Sundberg, Jonny Tychonick and Matt Miller were the only three Mavericks missing during practice this week as all three are dealing with injuries. All three are expected to be out this weekend.
- Isaiah Saville set a new career-high last Friday with his sixth consecutive win. Saville is currently tied for the NCAA lead with six wins.
- The Mavericks have allowed two goals on less in six of their eight games this season and have a 1.48 team goals-against average. For comparison, the RedHawks come into this weekend giving up 3.5 goals per game.
- Omaha is 16-2 in games that they’ve scored first since the start of last season. The Mavericks are 5-1 in those contests this season.
- Omaha’s penalty kill was a perfect 12-for-12 last weekend and is 39-for-41 (95.2 percent) to start this season. That is the seventh-best percentage in the country.
They said it
- Saville on the play of Austin Roden last Saturday, who made 16 saves in his first start of the season: “He was dialed once he got settled in. I know it’s tough, especially given the situation that we’re kind of in, but you can tell that he’s a great goaltender too. I’m always happy to see him succeed and I know he feels the same way for me. After the first goal went in you could just see he was lights out.”
- Gabinet on the Mavericks’ power play units, which are a combined 13-for-43 through eight games: “I thought our power play and special teams have been excellent all season long. Especially some of those tight games early on, to be able to get a power play goal at key moments really propels your group to get that momentum going in the right direction.”
Ways to follow
Friday night’s game is set for a 7:07 p.m. opening faceoff and 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.