Mavericks ready for top-10 showdown as No. 2 North Dakota comes to town

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Nolan Sullivan ranks second in the NCHC in faceoff win percentage. He trails only North Dakota’s Shane Pinto, who comes into this weekend with the most faceoff wins in the country. Puck possession will be one of several keys for the Mavericks this weekend. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

It’s a top-10 matchup at Baxter Arena this weekend as No. 9 Omaha takes on No. 2 North Dakota for the first time this season. Friday night will mark the first of six scheduled meetings between the two programs.

“Obviously they’re the most talented team in the country and we knew that coming into this season,” said Omaha Head Coach Mike Gabinet. “They brought back most of their roster and have lots of talent, so you’ve got to prepare accordingly.”

Last time out

The Fighting Hawks (12-3-1) come to town winners of three straight and nine out of their last 10. UND picked up a sweep with 4-1 and 5-0 wins over Colorado College last weekend. They’re 3-1-0 on the road this season, the one loss coming on Jan. 17 at Denver, but Brad Berry’s group are no strangers to Baxter Arena. UND finished the Pod atop the NCHC standings and posted a 7-2-1 record over their three weeks in Omaha.

Speaking of Omaha (9-4-1), the Mavericks come into this series riding the momentum of a 5-2 win Sunday over Denver. The series finished as a split, as the Pioneers took game one 4-1, but the Mavericks came out with an excellent response in game two. The win snapped a 19-game winless streak against the Pioneers and was Omaha’s first win against DU since Jan. 10, 2015. It marked their first-ever win against DU at Baxter Arena.

Hawks soaring

Look up and down the North Dakota roster and it’s no surprise they’re averaging 3.7 goals per game. The Mavericks will definitely have their work cut out this weekend, but they’re excited about the matchup.

“You have to play a certain way against teams that have that amount of talent, and our guys know it,” Gabinet said. “I think that’s one thing I’ve loved about this group since day one, these guys want to compete and go harder than the opposition, and everyone is really taking responsibility for that. They want to go up against the best and I’m very proud of our group for that.”

Shane Pinto scored three goals last weekend and he leads the NCHC in scoring with 19 points, eight of those being goals. Jordan Kawaguchi is right behind him with 18, as the Hobey Baker finalist from last season has found the back of the net five times. Center Collin Adams has also been a big part of the UND attack. He sits third on the team with 16 points, six being goals.

Freshman Riese Gaber has continued his strong start to his collegiate career and he’s tied for the team lead in goals, eight, along with Pinto and Grant Mismash. Gaber is fifth in the country and third in the conference for goals scored by a freshman.

Talent on the blue line

That talent doesn’t stop with their forwards though as North Dakota has a special group at the point. A trio of Ottawa Senators draft picks in Jake Sanderson, Jacob Bernard-Docker and Tyler Kleven all have shown the ability to chip in offensively and have been effective at both ends. Sanderson and Kleven have only played in nine of UND’s 16 games after leaving to join Team USA at the World Junior Championships.

Three of Kleven’s four points have been goals, while Sanderson has five points of his own. Kleven and Sanderson have been a +6 and +5 respectively. Bernard-Docker is a team-best +12 on the season.

The one without an NHL logo beside his name might be the best North Dakota has to offer though in Matt Kiersted. In addition to the amount of ice time and what he brings on a nightly basis, the senior finds himself tied for third on the team in points with 16, 13 of those being assists. Kiersted has also been dangerous on the power play. Through 16 games, he’s a +6.

Which Adam Scheel will Omaha see?

He sits near the top of nearly every NCHC goaltending statistic right now, but he’s had his struggles against Omaha in the past. Scheel lost two of his three starts against the Mavericks last season and was even pulled after giving up four goals on eight shots in Omaha’s Jan. 10, 6-3 win. In 15 games in 2020-21, Scheel is 11-2-1 with a .928 save percentage, which is the second-best in the NCHC, and 1.77 goals against average. He was named the NCHC’s goaltender of the week twice in the past three weeks, going 5-1-0 in that stretch.

Puck possession

After a dominant 42-18 game two performance against a Denver team that ranks third from the bottom of the NCAA, this weekend the Mavericks will go up against the team with the highest faceoff win percentage in the country at 56.2 percent. In addition to their team success, Pinto ranks first in the NCHC in individual faceoff win percentage at 62.7 percent. He also leads the country in total faceoff wins with 227.

However, this series will feature the Nos. 1 and 2 centermen in the NCHC. Omaha’s Nolan Sullivan is right behind Pinto at 60.8 percent and is 152-98 on the draws through 14 games.

“I think that’s something you need to be strategic about,” Gabinet said. “Obviously he (Pinto) takes a lot of faceoffs for those guys and we really have to make sure that we’re putting the right guys out there to have success and have certain guys match up. There’s definitely some strategy that will go into it, but I’m confident in all of our guys’ ability to play.”

Special teams showdown

The streak is up to 44 for Omaha. The Mavericks penalty kill is 47-for-50 on the season and hasn’t allowed a power play goal since the second period of their second game of the season against Western Michigan. However, they’ll get their biggest test to date this season as the Fighting Hawks boast the top power play in the NCHC and eighth-best in the nation at 24.6 percent.

On the flip slide, UND’s penalty kill has also been a roll as of late. They sit right behind Omaha in the NCHC at 88.2 percent. The Fighting Hawks penalty kill unit has only been scored on once in their last 42 chances.

“We just don’t overthink about it,” Gabinet said. “A lot of times it’s going to go one way or the other with the results on special teams, but the most important thing is controlling what you can. We’ve done a lot of good things on the penalty kill and it’s very important for our team success, so we’re trying to use what we’ve accomplished so far as confidence.”

The North Dakota power play has only finished two games scoreless this season. UND lost both of those games, Dec. 12 against SCSU and Jan. 17 at Denver.

Wardo heating up

Taylor Ward has the most all-time points against North Dakota on the active Omaha roster with five. Through 14 games this season, he leads the teams in goals and ranks second in points with seven and 11 respectively. Ward led the way for the Mavericks Sunday night with two goals in the 5-2 win over Denver.

His line along with Chayse Primeau and Tyler Weiss has combined for 15 of the Mavericks 49 goals and 35 of their 128 total points this season. They were extremely effective against DU.

“That line is really going to be important for us this weekend and going forward,” Gabinet said. “When they’re skating and competing like they did on Sunday night, whether they score or not, they’re very effective. Obviously, when some of your best players are your hardest workers, your team is usually successful.

“I thought that was Taylor Ward’s best game maybe even of his career here and sure he got the two goals, but if he keeps playing hockey like that along with Primeau and Weiss good things are going to happen for our program.”

Ward’s father, Dixon, is a member of the UND Hall of Fame and put up 219 points over his four seasons at North Dakota. For a recent story on the two, click here.

Lineup back in-tact

Last weekend’s series saw the return of Jack Randl and Brandon Scanlin in game one, along with fellow defenseman Jonny Tychonick on Sunday. The trio missed the series in Colorado Springs earlier in the week.

“Any time you get your full lineup and have players available to play, you start to get that competitiveness back, and that’s a positive,” Gabinet said. “Now it’s about getting everybody back into game shape. We still have some guys that are battling fatigue, so we’re just trying to get them back into the shape they were in during the Pod.”

Tychonick saw a limited role at first on Sunday, playing in his first game in over a month, but the North Dakota transfer had arguably one of his best games in an Omaha sweater. Randl picked up a helper in game one, while Scanlin added two assists in the game two win. Gabinet said they were able to hold a complete practice together as a team earlier this week. It was one of the first times since the Pod. It’s a huge positive as the Mavericks move closer to being back fully healthy.

Around the NCHC

Last weekend the conference saw all eight schools play on the same day for the first time this season, however, that won’t be the case. With another round of positive COVID-19 cases within the Colorado College program, their series against Denver has been postponed. St. Cloud State and Western Michigan will also each have the weekend off. As for the other four schools, it’s business as usual. Minnesota Duluth will travel to Miami and they’ll join Omaha and North Dakota on the NCHC slate this weekend.

Along with North Dakota’s sweep of CC and a split between Omaha and Denver, both series in the East finished as sweeps last weekend. The Bulldogs picked up 5-1 and 4-1 wins over Western Michigan, while St. Cloud State came back for a 3-2 win in game one and exploded for an 8-2 victory on Saturday.

Here are the updated NCHC standings heading into this weekend: 

No. 2 NORTH DAKOTA 35 PTS / 16 GP / 12-3-1

No. 5 ST. CLOUD STATE 33 PTS / 17 GP / 11-6-0

No. 9 OMAHA 27 PTS / 14 GP / 9-4-1

No. 6 MINNESOTA DULUTH 27 PTS / 15 GP / 8-5-2

No. 20 DENVER 21 PTS / 16 GP / 6-9-1

WESTERN MICHIGAN 19 PTS / 18 GP / 5-10-3

COLORADO COLLEGE 15 PTS / 16 GP / 3-11-2

MIAMI 15 PTS / 16 GP / 4-10-2

*All rankings according to the most recent Jan. 25 poll from USCHO.com.

News and notes

  • Omaha and UND split the season series last year. The Mavericks were the only team to win at Ralph Englestad Arena last season and the only team to beat UND twice overall.
  • This will be the first time the two programs have met while both are ranked in the top-10 since January of 2016. That series ended up being a split in Grand Forks.
  • Friday night will be Tychonick’s first game against North Dakota since he transferred from UND to Omaha in April.
  • Defenseman Ethan Frisch will return to the North Dakota lineup this weekend after missing UND’s last three games, according to Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald.
  • Eight of Omaha’s nine wins this season have come when scoring the first goal of the game. North Dakota is 11-0-0 when scoring first and 1-3-1 when they’ve been scored on.
  • The Mavericks have also allowed just two goals or less in 10 of their 14 games this season. Omaha is 8-1-1 in those games.
  • Omaha defenseman Nate Knoepke ranks second in the NCHC in blocked shots and seventh in the country with 35. “He’s really doing a good job being a leader on the back end and practicing and playing hard,” Gabinet said of Knoepke. “That’s not a surprising stat with how intensely he plays the game and he’s not afraid to sacrifice his body out there.” Jason Smallidge also ranks fifth and 16th respectively with 29.

Ways to follow

Friday night is set for a 7:07 p.m. start and will be televised on CBS Sports Network. Saturday’s contest will get underway one hour earlier with a 6:07 p.m. opening faceoff. 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 all season long.

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