Mavs finally return home and look to ‘move forward’ against No. 8 SCSU

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

The Mavericks celebrate Kevin Conley’s goal at North Dakota. After that big win in Grand Forks, Omaha was swept at Miami last weekend. “We’re looking forward to being back home and playing good hockey,” Conley said. Photo courtesy of UND Athletics.

The matchup

It’s been a rough second half for Mike Gabinet’s team. The Omaha Mavericks (17-13, 7-11) have dropped their last seven series openers, 10 of their past 15 games overall and will enter a series unranked for the first time this season.

After playing 12 of their past 14 games away from Baxter Arena, the Mavericks will finally return to Omaha this weekend to face No. 8 St. Cloud State (15-9-3, 7-7-3). It’s the first of three straight home series to close out the regular season.

“Disappointing weekend coming off of two losses, but the make-up of our group is good,” Gabinet said. “Guys are working hard and getting after it. We know we’ve got three top-10 teams coming in here in the next three weeks so there’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves. We have to move forward and prepare accordingly.”

Those two losses were arguably the most disappointing of the season as the Mavericks fell to last-place Miami on the road, 5-4 and 4-2. The Mavericks have now shifted their attention to the Huskies, who they split with back in November. Omaha dropped the first game in St. Cloud, 5-1, and responded with a 3-2 overtime win on Saturday.

“I’m excited for it,” Omaha defenseman Nate Knoepke said of playing SCSU. “They’re a quick team — I think they kind of took it to us a little bit in shots at their barn, but I know on a normal-sized ice it’s a little different game. Hopefully we can use that to our advantage.”

The Huskies come into Omaha fresh off a 5-1 win over Western Michigan last Saturday. They tied with the Broncos on Friday and tied Minnesota Duluth the Tuesday night before. Both teams are ranked inside the top 10 and the Huskies took the extra point in the shootout in both games. But overall, it hasn’t been the season many in St. Cloud hoped for.

SCSU was the NCHC preseason favorite and returned nearly all of their 2020-21 team, which reached the national championship game. They’ve struggled at times in NCHC play, but they’re still the No. 8 team in the country for a reason. They’ve also been historically dominant against Omaha and lead the all-time series, 27-13-2.

“There’s nothing you can do really except move forward and I think we’re doing that as a group together,” said Omaha captain Kevin Conley. “We’re looking forward to being back home and playing good hockey.”

Miscues at Miami

It seems as if the same story just keeps repeating itself the last few weeks. The losses have been frustrating, especially last weekend, but the Mavericks don’t feel like they’re that far off.

“When we were watching the video back, nothing really stood out as a major thing that we needed to address,” Knoepke said. “The puck luck definitely wasn’t there and they were getting a lot of bounces. Obviously penalties hurt too, so we’ve got to clean that up. But I don’t think necessarily anything went wrong. Just a couple things we’ve got to tweak.”

Gabinet described it as an ‘interesting’ series and mentioned once again that posts, fluke goals and penalties proved costly.

“I think we had four posts (on Friday) and just couldn’t get that one to put them away or not let them back in the game,” Gabinet said. “On Saturday it was a team mistake on the first goal against. That was on us. Then kind of a fluky goal from the corner and their third one I don’t think it’d ever happen again. Our guy turns and it goes right off his skate and right to the guy that’s coming off the bench for an empty-netter.”

Whether it’s through one more save or one more goal, Gabinet said those are the games you have to find a way to win. But two games aren’t going to define the season.

“It is what it is,” Gabinet said. “That’s what happened and we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We have to look forward here and prepare for a tough opponent this weekend.”

Conley, who scored in both games last weekend, said the group believes and is confident that things will turn around down the stretch. The Omaha captain mentioned the bounces haven’t been good to them either, but they can’t use that as an excuse.

“Obviously it’s frustrating, but just have to stick with it and keep going to work every day,” Conley said. “I know with the group that we have everyone is doing that.”

Finally back at Baxter

After spending six of the last seven series away from Baxter Arena, the Mavericks will be able to settle into a routine down the stretch. They’ve played at home just once since early December. It’s not quite the 10-game homestand that they opened the season with, but it’s six straight and a chance to build some positive momentum heading into the postseason.

“It’ll be nice to finally be at home for a while now and not just one weekend,” Knoepke said.

The Mavericks are 10-4 at Baxter Arena this season, but more importantly, this stretch comes at a good time. Especially after last weekend’s series at Miami and a 2-4 road trip overall, which began with splits at Colorado College and North Dakota, there’s been a clear sense of frustration amongst some of the Omaha fan base.

Gabinet said during his Tuesday afternoon press conference that his focus remains on growth and his players need the support down the stretch. Playing on home ice should help that.

“I think we’ve got a lot of people that love us as a team and support us and are excited to come watch us play,” Gabinet said. “We appreciate that support and I think what these young guys need at this time is support. I don’t think anybody’s going to put more pressure on themselves than them.

“It’s easy to be critical at tough times, and I think the most important thing is to go to work and get better. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do. We’re tough people in here and we’re going to outlast it.”

Work to be done

The Mavericks are 10 points back of fourth-place Minnesota Duluth in the NCHC standings. The Bulldogs have a game in hand too, but the difference is simple: the Mavericks are a combined 3-5 against Miami and Colorado College this season.

Even if Omaha runs the table and goes 6-0 during this stretch, they’d still need UMD to get fewer than eight points over their final seven games. SCSU, also with seven games left, is just four points behind UMD and six up on Omaha. An SCSU sweep this weekend would mathematically eliminate Omaha from hosting a playoff series. UMD could also guarantee the Mavericks will hit the road in the playoffs. The Bulldogs and Huskies still have to play each other three times as well, so the fourth seed is very much up for grabs.

Omaha fell out of the top 20 for the first time since Nov. 30, 2020, this week, another sign of the recent struggles the Mavericks have endured. At the same time, there is a chance to make up some ground. Omaha’s next three series are against three teams that are currently ranked inside the top 10.

“Is it a good opportunity for us? Sure,” Gabinet said of the next three weeks. “But the most important thing is to make sure that our group continues to get better. I’ve just got a funny feeling. It’s going to go our way if we stick with it. We’ve played a lot of good hockey and for whatever reason it hasn’t gone our way.”

At the end of the day though, the reality is that it’s likely too late for the Mavericks to make a push in the NCHC standings. Their NCAA Tournament hopes aren’t promising either and the path will likely require winning the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. Either way, the Mavericks want to get back on track this weekend.

“You don’t want to think too far ahead, but everyone knows last weekend hurt us a little bit,” Knoepke said. “I think now we’ve really just got to take it one weekend at a time and just try to see if we can string something together here.”

Added Conley: “There have been ups and downs, as there is with any season, and I think that’s just how hockey is. You’ve got to ride the waves. I know we’re working hard to get back on top of that roller coaster and have success through the rest of the season.

“This weekend is huge for us and we’re looking to bounce back in a big way.” 

Around the NCHC

It’s the first of three straight jam-packed weekends to close out the regular season. SCSU travels to Omaha, North Dakota heads to Minnesota Duluth, Western Michigan hosts Denver and Miami will visit Colorado College.

Last weekend the theme in Grand Forks and Oxford was a sweep, as the Fighting Hawks swept CC and Miami played spoiler and swept the Mavericks. UMD and Denver split their series in the Mile High City and the Huskies and Broncos tied game one of their series in St. Cloud, but SCSU took the finale on Saturday.

Here are the updated NCHC standings:

No. 3 Denver 41 PTS / 18 GP / 14-4-0

No. 9 North Dakota  39 PTS / 18 GP / 12-5-1

No. 6 Western Michigan 34 PTS / 18 GP / 11-6-1

No. 7 Minnesota Duluth 29 PTS / 17 GP / 8-6-3

No. 8 St. Cloud State 25 PTS / 17 GP / 7-7-3

Omaha 19 PTS / 18 GP / 7-11-0

Colorado College 14 PTS / 18 GP / 4-13-1

Miami 12 PTS / 18 GP / 3-14-1

*All rankings according to the most recent Feb. 14 poll from USCHO.com.

News and notes

  • SCSU will likely be without head coach Brett Larson, forward Sam Hentges and defenseman this weekend, who were all with Team USA in Beijing. SCSU acting head coach Dave Shyiak said “it’s a long shot” that the three will be in Omaha this weekend.
  • The Mavericks have won just five of their last 20 games against SCSU. Two of those five wins have been in overtime.
  • SCSU is 9-6-1 against the Mavericks in Omaha. The two teams split a pair of games in the NCHC Pod last season, which do not count towards that 9-6-1 record.
  • Taylor Ward has just three goals in the Mavericks’ last 18 games and hasn’t scored since Jan. 22 (six games). Ward is still Omaha’s leading scorer and is still tied for the NCAA lead with 11 power-play goals, but he’s scored just two power-play goals since Nov. 6.
  • Ty Mueller returned from an injury last Saturday in Oxford. Nolan Krenzen was still missing from the Omaha lineup, but the sophomore defenseman could return this weekend.
  • Omaha finished 4-8 on the road in NCHC games this season. They’re also 5-10-0 in the first game of series and 12-3-0 in game two.
  • Omaha is a perfect 10-0-0 when leading at the end of the first period and 12-2-0 when leading after two periods. The Mavericks are also 2-9-0 when trailing after 40 minutes.
  • With one more win, the Mavericks will hit 18. That would be the most in a season under Mike Gabinet.
  • With Team USA being eliminated from the Olympics, former Maverick Brian Cooper also saw his time with Team USA come to an end.

Ways to follow

Friday’s game is set for a 7:07 p.m. opening faceoff at Baxter Arena. 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.

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