This weekend’s series will feature two programs that used to clash every year back in the CCHA, but Omaha and Alaska haven’t faced one another since October of 2016. Omaha (3-1-0) comes into this weekend ranked as the No. 13 team in the country. The Mavericks swept Maine last weekend with a 4-1 win in game one and a 5-3 win to complete the sweep.
Across the rink, the Nanooks (1-1-0) are fresh off a season-opening home split against Clarkson, who came into this season ranked No. 20/RV. Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet said this is an Alaska team that looks skilled and organized on film and he also has a lot of respect for the program. He’s excited for the matchup this weekend.
Solid through four
Through four games, the Mavericks sit at 3-1-0 and have shown signs of growth on a nightly basis, especially from the first weekend to last weekend’s series against Maine. By no means has it been a perfect start, but there’s also a lot to like about this Omaha group so far. One of the biggest positives is how they’ve responded.
“I think we’ve had a lot of adversity just early on in the season with some tough opponents,” Gabinet said. “Games haven’t come easy and we’ve had to earn what we get, so I like that about our group. We’re learning how to work, we’re learning how to play the right way and do it consistently, and I think you’re seeing some growth both individually and collectively as a group.”
The guys on the ice can sense that growth too, and they like where they’re at through four games.
“I think looking back two weeks ago, our first game didn’t end up how we wanted and since then we’ve just kept growing,” said senior forward Taylor Ward. “Learning something new every game and luckily we’ve been getting the wins while we’re also getting better.”
Ward, who is in a four-way tie for the team lead with four points, said this weekend is another opportunity to keep building before they get into conference play next month. One of the three people he’s tied with is defenseman Kirby Proctor, who picked up a goal and two assists against Maine. Similar to what Ward said, these first few games are a great chance to assess where they’re at.
“Improvement is the big thing at the start of the year,” Proctor said. “You want to get ahead as many steps of the competition as you can and that’s what the coaches have been harping on. We’re not worried about the result, we’re worried about what we’re doing to improve.”
Strong to the finish
Seven of Omaha’s 15 goals have come in the final 20 minutes through the first four games. They also entered the third period tied in both games against Maine, and both games against Lake Superior State were separated by just one goal heading into the third the weekend before.
Beyond the box score, they’ve withstood a couple late opposing comeback bids and have been tested defensively. It’s cliche, but it boils back to playing the full 60 minutes. So far, the Mavericks are committing to that and the results are showing late in games.
“A big thing for our team is going longer and harder than other teams are willing to go,” Proctor said. “We talk about that a lot and that’s something we made sure that we’re ready to do in our summer training camp.”
Berg and Mancini continue to progress
The Mavericks brought in a relatively small freshmen class this season with only four kids, but Victor Mancini and Cameron Berg have been hard to miss on the ice. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Mancini would be hard to miss size-wise alone.
“You see a guy that physically is really impressive out there,” Gabinet said. “The way he moves for a big man and moves the puck, and you’re just seeing him continue to grow with his decision making and taking steps in the right direction.”
With Jonny Tychonick out of the lineup this past weekend, Mancini was elevated to the Mavericks’ top defensive pair alongside Brandon Scanlin. The mobile defenseman made a beautiful move in the first period on Friday and has also proved he’s not afraid to join the rush or fire shots from the point. As someone who likes to play an aggressive style, Mancini racked up the penalty minutes last weekend and may need to reel it in at times, but there’s a lot to like about his play so far.
As for Berg, the freshman center scored his first two collegiate goals against Maine.
“You can just see that development coming both physically and mentally,” Gabinet said. “He’s understanding where to be and he’s a hockey player. He can make plays and he can play the game at a high level, and you’re seeing that early on.”
Berg is showing this so far, and was slotted on one of the top two lines between Kevin Conley and Brannon McManus as a result. He’s also flashed his potential on both ends of the ice. Gabinet said the most impressive aspect of his game the past month might be his growth defensively.
“I’ve been watching Cam for a lot of years now from when he first committed,” Gabinet said. “I’ve just always liked his ability to play the game and think the game at a high level in pressure situations. I think he’s going to be a real good two-way player for us where he has that ability offensively, but he also has some grit to his game.”
Welcome back, old friend
As previously mentioned, this weekend will be the first meeting since October of 2016. Alaska leads the all-time series 23-17-11, but the games played in Omaha during the series are split evenly at 10-10-5. The Nanooks’ last trip to Omaha was over a decade ago in January of 2010. Gabinet is excited to add some familiar teams from his playing days to the schedule.
“Lake State and Alaska were always two tough opponents that we faced on a normal basis that we would’ve played four times back in the CCHA when I played,” Gabinet said. “Looking forward to kind of renewing that battle with these guys and again they’re a team that we played a lot early when we were trying to establish ourselves into the league.
“I know they don’t have a conference right now, so it was nice that we can help them out a little bit too. Get them some games not only here, but some home games as well.”
In addition to the two games at Baxter Arena this weekend, Omaha will travel to Fairbanks on Nov. 19 and 20. Gabinet said he’s a big fan of Alaska head coach Erik Largen and has a lot of respect for him and his program, so scheduling these four games was an easy decision.
However, the back-end of this series was initially thought to have a different look. Omaha wanted to stay in Alaska to play Anchorage the following weekend and extend their Alaska trip over back-to-back weekends. The plan fell through due to the situation with the Anchorage program.
“It’s a neat trip for some guys to take who have never been there before. You don’t want to do it all the time, but once in a while it’s okay,” Gabinet said with a laugh. “More than anything we want to see college hockey teams have success and I think you’ve got to remember who helped us when we were just getting into a league and conference.
“Just try to remember who your friends were early on and make sure we’re giving back to those guys now that we can help them out.”
News and notes
- Omaha defenseman Jonny Tychonick is likely out for this weekend’s series. Besides that injury, Gabinet said his group is a little beat up after back-to-back physical series but they should be good otherwise health-wise. The Mavericks had Tuesday off from practice this week with games on Friday and Sunday this weekend.
- Isaiah Saville is the only Alaska native on the Omaha roster. The Nanooks have one player on their roster from Alaska and only six total Americans.
- Omaha has scored first and outshot their opponents in all four games this season.
- With one more win, Saville will set a career-high with four consecutive wins.
- The Omaha penalty kill unit allowed their first goal of the season in Saturday’s win. They’re now 19-for-20 on the season. The Mavericks are also 3-0-0 when they’ve scored a power play goal.
They said it
- Gabinet on returning to non-conference play this season: “It’s nice to get a chance to play somebody different than what you normally face. You get to see a different style of play sometimes, different types of personnel and I think it’s a great experience for our guys, especially early in the season, to play some different opponents early.
- Ward on adding Brannon McManus to the power play unit this season: “He’s good at moving the puck, he’s smart and I think the way he thinks the game is in-line with the other guys on the ice. We all think the same way and I think it’s clicking so far.”
- Proctor on Omaha coming into this weekend ranked No. 13 in the country: “It kind of lights a fire. Thirteen is good, but we want to be a little bit higher than that, so it’s just a good thing to keep you motivated.”
Ways to follow
Friday night’s game is set for a 7:07 p.m. opening faceoff and Sunday will follow at 4:07 p.m. 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.