Mavericks ready to return to ice as No. 10 Omaha opens second half in Colorado Springs

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Senior Martin Sundberg scored one of the Mavericks goals in a 3-0 win over Colorado College to close out the Pod. Monday night’s game in Colorado Springs will be the Mavericks first since that Dec. 21 contest. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

As if 25 days of waiting wasn’t long enough, the Mavericks will have to wait three more days to open up their second half portion of the schedule. Omaha will finally return to the ice and play their first game since Dec. 21. Up first, a trip to Colorado Springs for an early week showdown with the Colorado College Tigers.

Omaha comes into the series at 6-3-1. The Mavericks defeated Colorado College 6-1 on Dec. 9 and 3-0 on Dec. 21 to close out the Pod. They’re 20-10-5 all-time against Tigers, including a 9-6-1 mark all-time in Colorado Springs. The Mavericks have taken five of the last six at Broadmoor World Arena, including a sweep on Jan. 24 and 25 of last season.

Taming the Tigers

Colorado College enters Monday night at 3-7-2 overall, which puts them seventh in the conference. However, the numbers can be misleading. After arriving over a week late in Omaha, the Tigers finished the Pod 2-4-2, including a 4-1 win over Minnesota Duluth. The Tigers opened up the second half with a split against Denver, but followed it up by getting swept by No. 2 North Dakota. They dropped game one 3-0 last Sunday and fell 2-1 in the series finale on Monday night.

“I watched both of their games against North Dakota closely and thought they probably deserved a better fate in one of those, but we know CC is a very good hockey team,” said Omaha Head Coach Mike Gabinet. “You can look at the record all you want, but I don’t think that shows a true reflection of a lot of these teams in this conference and how good they are.”

Danger at the top

Although they’ll be without the services of Grant Cruikshank, who missed the Tigers series against UND, the Mavericks will still need to pay close attention to the Tigers top-line with Josiah Slavin and Patrick Cozzi. Slavin leads the team in scoring with nine points, three of them being goals. Ben Copeland, who is third on the team with 3-4-7 has slotted into Cruikshank’s spot on that line for the time being. Cruikshank leads the team in goals with six.

Fresh Faces

Freshman Hunter McKown was the NCHC Rookie of the Week to open the second half and has two goals on the season. Defenseman Jack Millar is right ahead of him and has six points this season, good for fourth-most on the CC roster.

Defenseman Chase Foley, who was unavailable during the Pod, has entered the lineup and the Tigers also added Matthew Gleason earlier this week. Gleason had three goals in 13 games with Chicago (USHL) this season. All four are in their first season of college hockey.

Finding the guy

After Matt Vernon struggled between the pipes out of the gate (he was pulled in the Dec. 9 game against Omaha), Mike Haviland has started freshman goaltender Dominic Basse in eight of the Tigers last 10 games. A 2019 sixth-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, Basse is 3-4-1 this season and has stopped 204 of the 227 pucks fired his way.

Mavericks ready to return

Monday night will be the Mavericks first game in exactly four weeks, this coming after playing 10 games in 21 days. It’ll be interesting to see how they come out from the start.

Monday will also mark Omaha’s first true road game of the season. They may have been considered the road team in that Dec. 9 victory against CC and five of their 10 games overall, but this will be their first true test away from Baxter Arena.

Similar to the Pod, there will be no fans in the arena for the series. This will be Omaha’s final trip to Broadmoor World Arena as College College will open Ed Robson Arena next season.

“We’ll need to be ready right from the start,” said senior forward Kevin Conley. “They’ve been playing games already so I’m sure they’ll have their game legs, and we’ll be kind of getting back into it. We’ll definitely need to be focused and make the right plays early to have success.”

The Mavericks couldn’t have asked for a better start to the season in the Pod and will look to build on that. Their offense has been explosive and they’re averaging 3.7 goals per game, which is the most in the NCHC and tenth-most in the country. Defensively, they’ve played a structured game at both ends and have gotten strong goaltending play to back it up.

Waiting game

The Mavericks will leave Omaha on Sunday and were able to practice together as a group during this past week. After having the Christmas break following the Pod, they experienced another week-long hiatus and players were restricted from using the ice and Baxter Arena facilities due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Obviously we were already coming off of a break with Christmas, so I think anytime you can’t skate or practice as a coach it’s challenging,” Gabinet said. “You love to prepare and make sure your guys are improving, so I think that’s been the most difficult thing.”

It’s also been quite the mental test for the guys on the ice. They’re ready to get back going.

“It’s been a little frustrating, but you can’t really do much about it,” Conley said. “We’ve followed the protocols and it’s nice that we’re getting back to it. I know everybody is ready to play Monday.

“It was a little tough at first getting back into. Especially with a couple weeks away from the rink between Christmas break and last week, so we had to knock the rust off a little bit. I think we’ve put in a lot of work so far this past week and we’ll be ready with the guys that we do have come Monday.”

PK a game-changer

It’s been one of the biggest strengths for the Mavericks this season. The Omaha penalty kill is 29-for-32 (90.9%) which is good for the best in the NCHC and No. 5 penalty kill unit in the country. They’ve killed off 26 in a row and even scored two short-handed goals against Colorado College the first time these two met this season.

For a story on that penalty kill unit, click here: https://unothegateway.com/power-outage-mavericks-penalty-kill-making-a-difference-early-on/

Dash to the finish

With the postponements and schedule changes, the Mavericks are now scheduled to play 14 games in the final 46 days of the regular season. They’ll have at least one game the next seven consecutive weekends. Since the end of the Pod, Omaha has already seen back-to-back series against North Dakota postponed and both this series and next weekend pushed back in some form.

This comes on top of the league already trimming back the schedule from 26 games to 24, eliminating two of the Mavericks six scheduled against Denver. Each team needs 13 games in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The Mavericks currently sit at 10.

“It’s important to know that it’s not going to be the easiest schedule and a lot can change, and that’s fine,” Conley said. “We just need to take it one game at a time.”

Climbing the polls

The Mavericks come into this weekend’s series at No. 10 in the most recent USCHO.com poll and No. 9 in the USA Today / USA Hockey Magazine poll. Omaha has been ranked since Dec. 7 in the USCHO poll, as they slotted in at No. 18 that week. The Mavericks had spent the previous three weeks at No. 11. This is the first time Omaha has been inside the top-10 since Jan. 18, 2016.

“We’re definitely proud of where we’re at in the standings, but we want to build on it and keep playing and keep winning games,” Conley said. “We know how well we can play and the group we have here is a pretty focused group, but we don’t want to get too far ahead.”

His head coach echoed that sentiment.

“I just don’t even think about it to be honest,” Gabinet said. “Otherwise I think you’re going to become an emotional roller coaster. I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned over the last couple years with coaching. You can’t look too far ahead and you’ve got to stay in the present moment and take it one day at a time.”

Around the NCHC

Similar to what Omaha has gone through the past three weekends now, Minnesota Duluth has run into COVID-19 problems of their own and their series at Miami has been postponed until Jan. 29 and 30. St. Cloud State will travel to Kalamazoo to take on Western Michigan for games on Friday and Saturday, while Denver will host North Dakota on Sunday and Monday.

Here are the updated NCHC standings heading into this weekend:

 No. 4 ST. CLOUD STATE 27 PTS / 13 GP / 9-4-0

No. 2 NORTH DAKOTA 26 PTS / 12 GP / 9-2-1

No. 7 MINNESOTA DULUTH 21 PTS / 13 GP / 6-5-2

No. 10 OMAHA 19 PTS / 10 GP / 6-3-1

No. 18 DENVER 15 PTS / 12 GP / 4-7-1

MIAMI 15 PTS / 14 GP / 4-8-2

COLORADO COLLEGE 14 PTS / 12 GP / 3-7-2

WESTERN MICHIGAN 13 PTS / 14 GP / 3-8-3 

*All rankings according to the most recent Jan. 11 poll from USCHO.com.

News and notes

  • Isaiah Saville has two shutouts in his collegiate career, both coming against Colorado College.
  • Taylor Ward is the Mavericks’ active leading scorer against Colorado College. Ward has found the back of the net twice and has seven points in eight career games against the Tigers.
  • Kevin Conley registered his 50th career point in the Pod. He currently has 53.
  • Martin Sundberg tied his goal total from last season (5) with a goal in the Pod finale against the Tigers.
  • Chayse Primeau leads Omaha with 12 points.
  • Gabinet says injured forward Noah Prokop and defenseman Nolan Krenzen, both upper-body, have been working their way back and should be close to a return. Gabinet said “we’re not going to have our full lineup for the series, and we know that going in.”
  • Omaha’s series against Denver next weekend at Baxter Arena has also been pushed back one day. Those games are now set for Jan. 23 and 24 with a 6:07 p.m. start both nights.

Ways to follow

Both games are set for 8:07 p.m. CT starts. You can 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.

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