Mavs head to St. Cloud for opening road test against No. 1 Huskies

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Joey Abate (middle) and the Mavericks hit the road for the first time this season against the St. Cloud State Huskies, who play on an Olympic-sized rink. “There’s more time and space when you have the puck and there’s more room behind the net, so I think it’s going to work to our lines’ advantage,” Abate said. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

The matchup

It’s No. 1 vs No. 11 in the country this weekend as the Mavericks will take on top-ranked St. Cloud State. Omaha (8-2-0) comes into this weekend fresh off a 4-1 win and a split against Miami. The Huskies swept Colorado College last weekend in Colorado Springs. SCSU took game one of that series with a 3-2 overtime win and finished their road sweep with a 4-1 win in the finale.

When it comes to the all-time history between these two programs, the Huskies have controlled the series and are 26-12-2 all-time against Omaha. That includes a 16-5-1 record in games that have been played in St. Cloud. The Huskies have also won 10 of the last 13 games against the Mavericks in their home barn.

SCSU also comes into this weekend 8-2-0 overall and the Huskies have won four straight. They’ve swept Wisconsin and split with Minnesota and Minnesota State, both of which are currently ranked inside the top six nationally.

“Playing the No. 1 team in the country is always an exciting time for the group,” Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet said during his Tuesday press conference. “Great week of practice so far and really looking forward to getting on the road too. And no better way to start on the road than against the No. 1 team in the country.”

Top Dogs

The Huskies enter this series as the top-ranked team in the country, a title they’ve now held for three straight weeks. They finished in the No. 2 spot at the end of last season as SCSU reached the national championship game last April, but ultimately lost to UMass.

However, the Huskies brought back nearly everyone from that roster and added a talented freshmen class, which includes Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey Jack Peart.

“All of our players and myself are competitors,” Gabinet said. “Any time you get a chance to face the No. 1 team in the country is an exciting feeling, so our guys are motivated to prepare properly and start the road trip with some success.”

The Huskies come into this series outsourcing their opponents 38-14 and they’re yet to allow a first-period goal. They’ve also netted four short-handed goals, which ranks near the top of the country.

David Hrenak has been lights out, a healthy Easton Brodzinski is back, Jami Krannila and Kevin Fitzgerald continue to find the back of the net and the Huskies seem to be firing on all cylinders early on.

“They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason,” Gabinet said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for St. Cloud’s program. I’m a fan of their coaching staff, I like how they play the game and  like their players. Very, very high-tempo, very structured, very predictable in a good way for them and just effort all over the ice.”

That staff is led by Brett Larson, who is in his fourth season leading the program. He’s 71-34-9 at SCSU. It’s a team that’s as skilled and talented as anybody in the country, but their secret to success actually goes beyond that.

Even though talent was a big part of the Huskies reaching the national championship game, Larson has credited the play of his fourth line, role players and the ‘grit’ and ‘grease pan’ his team played with numerous times. It’s no different this season. They’re a team that can beat you in several ways.

“I think it will be a good test for us,” said Omaha sophomore forward Kaden Bohlsen. “I don’t think we’re scared and we’ll match up good against them. Hopefully go into St. Cloud and get six points this weekend.”

Hrenak’s hot start

It feels like Hrenak has been occupying the Huskies’ crease for a decade, but the fifth-year goaltender is arguably playing some of the best he ever has. Larson made no secret at Media Day that he was looking for more consistency from Hrenak this season and so far he’s provided that.

Hrenak is 7-2-0 so far with a 1.39 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. This weekend bodes well for the SCSU netminder too as the Mavericks are a team he’s dominated. Hrenak is 7-0-0 with a 1.23 goals-against average, a .951 save percentage and three shutouts in his career against Omaha.

The Slovakia native has stopped 176 of the 185 shots he’s seen in eight career starts against the Mavericks. Three of those nine goals came in one game too.

In the eight previous games Hrenak has been between the pipes against Omaha, the Huskies have been the top-ranked team in the country in four of them. This weekend will add to that trend.

Injury-plagued

As if facing the No. 1 team in the country for your first road trip of the season wasn’t enough of a challenge, try doing it short-handed. The Mavericks will be behind the 8-ball before the puck even drops.

Gabinet said Matt Miller, Chayse Primeau, Jason Smallidge, Martin Sundberg and Jonny Tychonick would all be doubtful for this weekend during his Tuesday press conference. All five were regulars in the lineup last season. If that ends up being the case, the Mavericks will be playing every healthy body they have available on the roster.

“We miss having some of those guys in our lineup, but I don’t think we’ve missed a beat just because of the way our other guys have been preparing and performing,” Gabinet said. “We’re just focused on the guys we have.”

That not missing a beat refers to the play from underclassmen such as Bohlsen, Ty Mueller and Davis Pennington as of late. This weekend especially will test the depth that has been talked about as one of the biggest strengths on this Omaha roster.

Gabinet said Tuesday that swelling has been an issue for Primeau and has prevented further evaluation from being done. Although the injury doesn’t sound like it’ll be too long-term of an issue, the Mavericks will be without their top-scoring center for the foreseeable future. Primeau was reportedly seen leaving the arena on crutches last weekend. Miller was also missing from practice earlier this week.

However, there were some positive signs on the injury front. Sundberg and Tychonick, both of which have been making their way back from upper-body injuries, were on the ice before practice Tuesday morning and doing skating drills on their own while wearing yellow no-contact jerseys. This week marked the first time Tychnonick has been back on the ice since he sustained his injury. Tychonick hasn’t played since the Oct. 3 game against Lake Superior State.

Smallidge, who has been hampered by an upper-body injury since training camp, was a full participant in practice for a second straight week and looks to be getting closer to a return, but he’s still not quite 100 percent. The senior defenseman is yet to make his season debut.

Hitting the road and the Olympic ice

For just the second time since January of 2020, the Mavericks will venture away from the 200-by-85 foot rink they’re accustomed to and play on an Olympic-sized sheet.

“I think we have a fast team, especially our line, so I think it will be good for us,” said junior forward Joey Abate. “I think it’s always interesting though. They understand it probably a little bit better than us, but I’m excited. There’s more time and space when you have the puck and there’s more room behind the net, so I think it’s going to work to our lines’ advantage.”

There’s no denying the Huskies’ games on the bigger sheet against Minnesota and Wisconsin had a different look and feel to them than their series last weekend at Colorado College. Gabinet said it’ll be an adjustment, but he also thinks it could suit his team well.

“I like the makeup of our team and I think some of our players are really going to enjoy the Olympic-sized ice as well,” Gabinet said. “It’s always different, you’ve got to make adjustments, but we followed these games up with games in Alaska on the Olympic sheet too.”

The Mavericks have traditionally opted to practice on the Olympic-sized sheet locally at Moylan IcePlex. However, they did not this week. Omaha practiced in St. Cloud late Thursday afternoon. This week overall has had a different feel to it, as it’s the Mavericks’ first time away from home this season.

“Honestly I’ve never had an experience like this playing 10 straight at home to start the season,” Abate said. “Loved seeing the fans back in Baxter, but it is exciting to get on the road, see some news crowds and be in a new environment.”

Going back to the start of last season, the Mavericks have played 27 of their last 36 games at Baxter Arena.

Around the NCHC

It’s the second weekend of conference play and another busy slate. Besides Omaha and SCSU, North Dakota will travel to Miami, Western Michigan heads to Denver and Minnesota Duluth hosts Colorado College.

Last weekend, North Dakota swept Denver and SCSU swept Colorado Colorado as previously mentioned. Omaha and Miami split their series along with UMD and WMU. The Broncos took game one at home in Kalamazoo, but the Bulldogs responded with a 3-0 shutout in game two. Here are the updated NCHC standings:

No. 4 North Dakota  6 PTS / 2 GP / 2-0-0

No. 1 St. Cloud State 5 PTS / 2 GP / 2-0-0

No. 9 Western Michigan 3 PTS / 2 GP / 1-1-0

No. 7 Minnesota Duluth 3 PTS / 2 GP / 1-1-0

No. 11 Omaha 3 PTS / 2 GP / 1-1-0

Miami 3 PTS / 2 GP / 1-1-0

Colorado College 1 PTS / 2 GP / 0-2-0

No. 14 Denver 0 PTS / 2 GP / 0-2-0

*All rankings according to the most recent Nov. 8 post from USCHO.com.

News and notes

  • This weekend will be the Mavericks’ first trip to St. Cloud since December of 2019.
  • Taylor Ward enters the series riding a 13-game point streak. He currently leads the country in goals (11), power-play goals (nine) and points (19).
  • SCSU will likely be without both Sam Hentges and possibly Jack Peart this weekend due to injury. Neither traveled to Colorado College last weekend.
  • Isaiah Saville has seven wins, which is tied for the third-most wins in the country. SCSU’s David Hrenak also has seven.
  • Omaha’s 8-2-0 start matched the second-best start through 10 games in program history.
  • The Mavericks have also scored first in eight of those 10 games. They’re 17-3 in games where they’ve scored first dating back to the start of last season. They’re also outsourcing opponents 16-4 in the third period.
  • Omaha has outshot their opponent in all 10 games. The Mavericks outshot Lake Superior State and Miami by a combined 75-32 in their two losses this season.
  • Possession will be a huge factor this weekend. Omaha enters this weekend with a .565 faceoff win percentage while the Huskies are right behind at .530.
  • Bohlsen, who is from nearby Wilmar, Minn, attended St. Cloud State games as a kid. This weekend will be a little bit of a homecoming: “It’ll be fun. Lots of family and friends are going to be there but our main focus is to get the six points.”

Ways to follow

Friday night’s game is set for a 7:30 p.m. opening faceoff at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center and game two will follow at 6 p.m. 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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