Mavs look to carry momentum into postseason at No. 7 Western Michigan

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Kirby Proctor said the Mavericks will embrace the challenge of being the road team this weekend. “You just put on that mindset of ‘you’re the bad guy’ and you get to come in and you get to steal something away from the other guy.” Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics / Mark Kuhlmann.

The matchup

This weekend is simple for the Omaha Mavericks — win or go home. With 36 regular season games now in the rearview mirror, No. 19 Omaha (21-15, 11-13) heads to No. 7 Western Michigan (22-10-1, 14-9-1) for a best-of-three series in the NCHC quarterfinals.

The Mavericks also enter this weekend playing arguably their best hockey of the season. Omaha went 4-2 over the final six regular-season games, all against top 10 teams, and took 13 of 18 possible points.

Omaha swept then-No. 8 St. Cloud State, split with No. 3 Denver and took four of six points from No. 4 North Dakota last weekend to close out the regular season.

“These past few weeks have been really good for us,” said freshman defenseman Victor Mancini. “I think we’re in a really good place, really good mindset right now as a team, and just really excited for what’s to come.”

This weekend will be the second time the Mavericks and Broncos have met in the NCHC playoffs, as the Broncos eliminated Omaha in March of 2017. Omaha won the first game of that series in Kalamazoo, 2-1 in overtime. However, the Broncos responded with a pair of wins to take the series.

Western Michigan enters this weekend with an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament all but locked up. The Broncos are currently fifth in the Pairwise rankings. After a 1-4-1 stretch against SCSU, Denver and UND, the Broncos rebounded to sweep Miami last weekend to finish the regular season.

As for the Mavericks, they’re riding a lot of momentum too. Omaha earned a 4-1 win over UND Saturday night and will look to build off it.

“We really wanted to have some good momentum going into the playoffs and to play a complete game, and to play strong and have a good showing,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “So I think that was more the focus in our locker room to come out and have a real solid game.”

Belief factor

An Omaha team hasn’t advanced past the opening round of the playoffs since the 2009-10 season. The Mavericks are the lone NCHC school yet to play in St. Paul and an Omaha team hasn’t appeared in a conference semifinal since the 2000-01 season (3-2 loss to Michigan in the CCHA Final Four). Six members of the current Omaha roster weren’t even born yet when that game took place.

If you base this weekend solely on history, it’d be hard for the Mavericks to have much belief in their locker room. But that isn’t the case.

“A big thing we’ve been talking about in our group is just believe, and I think (the last three weeks) shows that we’ve got that,” said junior defenseman Kirby Proctor. “We have belief in this locker room. Every guy in there knows just how capable we are and we’re a special group, and we’re too special to let something like this pass by.

“I think things are clicking pretty good for our group right now. We’re kind of getting the bounces that we’d been working for and maybe we didn’t get earlier in the year, so it’s been good to have that happen. And just catching fire at a good time is always good in playoffs. I don’t think anyone really wants to play UNO right now.”

Gabinet said he’s noticed that belief factor as well, and the recent success is a big part of that.

“Just lots of quality opponents here,” Gabinet said. “I think Western is fifth in the Pairwise right now and St. Cloud, Denver, North Dakota and Western, obviously four very good opponents here. So, nice to have that success against those teams and to build some momentum, some belief here in the second half. And again, our guys are just putting a lot of work in and showing up every day finding ways to get better.”

Depth is key

It feels like forever ago, but back in September, Gabinet spoke at NCHC Media Day about how important his team’s depth will be this season. Those comments have ended up being more than true and the Mavericks will need everyone at their best again this weekend.

“You need that depth,” Gabinet said Tuesday afternoon. “There were quite a few games this year where we were dressing everybody that was healthy — I think even back to Alaska and a couple of our conference games, there were guys that were beat up and everybody who was healthy was playing. That’s what you need to be a team.

“It’s tough at times when everybody’s healthy because you’ve got to make tough decisions with the lineup. But you can’t have team success without having that depth and that internal competition and have guys ready to step up when needed.”

Even throughout the last three weeks, the Mavericks have been short-handed, whether it was due to injury or illness. Multiple guys played through sickness during the Denver series as well, including their starting goaltender, Isaiah Saville.

Now that everyone is back healthy, they’ll need that depth to come through once again.

The ‘bad guys’

Proctor put it best during Tuesday’s media availability session. Being the road team this weekend is something the Mavericks will embrace.

“I think playing in a loud barn when you’re the away team, you just put on that mindset of ‘you’re the bad guy’ and you get to come in and you get to steal something away from the other guy,” Proctor said. “So, I think that’s something that lights a fire under a lot of guys. And I think for our group, that’s a very fitting kind of personality that we can possess in an away playoff series.”

The Mavericks silenced the Lawson Lunatics once already this season with a 1-0 win back in December. For Mancini, who is from Michigan, there’s even more motivation to do it again this weekend.

“I think everyone wants to go out there and silence the crowd, and I think it’s really fun,” Mancini said. “Especially being from Michigan, I think that’s pretty fun to play there and kinda give it to them a little bit.”

Moose strength

Speaking of Mancini, the person known as “Moose’ around the Omaha program has only continued to evolve throughout his rookie season.

“I feel really good,” Mancini said. “I basically have almost a whole season under my belt and things are coming pretty naturally. Nothing’s really changed in my game and the way I play, I think. Just kind of going out there, letting the game come to me. I’m not getting too stressed and I think a big thing is just having fun.”

The freshman defenseman, who has skated on Omaha’s top pair alongside Brandon Scanlin, said he really feels comfortable and has settled into his role. His head coach has noticed that too.

“Just came in here and he’s just one of those kids that I think is kind of our identity as a program,” Gabinet said. “Just a hard-working young man that does things the right way and puts the work in. When you get guys like that in this environment where we’re a development environment, and we’re passionate about trying to help guys get better, and they’re receptive and coachable, special things happen. He’s a prime example of that.”

Still just a 19-year-old (turns 20 on May 26), Mancini will be draft-eligible this summer. A scout said via text earlier this week he will be “shocked” if Mancini doesn’t hear his name called at this summer’s NHL Draft. The physical tools alone make the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Mancini appealing.

Although he’s far from a finished product, he’s only continued to evolve during his freshman season, especially on the defensive side of his game.

Ward climbs Omaha record books; Receives award recognition and free agent interest

Taylor Ward likely skated in his final game at Baxter Arena Saturday night. The right-shot winger is drawing interest from multiple NHL organizations and will likely be one of the top undrafted college free agents once Omaha’s season comes to a close.

Ward netted his 18th goal of the season in the final minute of Friday’s game, which is tied for 12th nationally, and the 56th goal of his career, which ranks sixth all-time in Omaha program history. Ward also added his 114th career point with an assist on Saturday, which is tied for ninth in program history.

“I think he’s playing his best hockey right now,” Gabinet said. “In the playoffs, your big dogs have to be your big dogs, and he’s a big dog for us. I thought him, (Chayse Primeau), (Brannon McManus) — we all know what they can do offensively.

“But to be a championship team, they’re gonna have to be just as good defensively as they are offensively, and they’re really coming along. You can just see their responsibility.”

The senior was one of 10 players in the country nominated for the Senior CLASS Award Monday afternoon. The CLASS Award, which stands for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School, recognizes excellence in the community, classroom, character and competition.

Around the NCHC

It’s the most wonderful time of the year and four teams will punch their ticket to St. Paul. With regular-season conference games now in the rearview mirror, the focus shifts solely to this weekend for all eight NCHC schools. Four different best-of-three series will determine the four teams that advance to next weekend’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff in Minnesota’s capital city.

Denver and North Dakota each claimed a share of the Penrose Cup last weekend. However, Denver finished the season with more regulation wins and claimed the No. 1 seed. The Pioneers will host Miami, UND will host Colorado College, Western Michigan will host Omaha, and St. Cloud State will host Minnesota Duluth in the four quarterfinal series.

Last weekend the Fighting Hawks took game one in Omaha, 5-4 in overtime. However, the Mavericks responded with a 4-1 win in game two. Denver swept CC, 5-0 and 5-2 in the series finale, and WMU also swept Miami, 5-3 and 3-0.

In the most intriguing series of last weekend, UMD hosted SCSU and opened the series with a 3-2 overtime win. However, the Huskies responded with a 2-0 win on Saturday. That win catapulted the Huskies over UMD in the standings, giving SCSU home ice this weekend.

Here are the final NCHC standings:

No. 3 Denver 53 PTS / 24 GP / 18-6-0

No. 5 North Dakota 53 PTS / 24 GP / 17-6-1

No. 7 Western Michigan 43 PTS / 24 GP / 14-9-1

No. 9 St. Cloud State 36 PTS / 24 GP / 10-10-4

No. 10 Minnesota Duluth 36 PTS / 24 GP / 10-10-4

No. 19 Omaha 32 PTS / 24 GP / 11-13-0

Colorado College 18 PTS / 24 GP / 6-17-1

Miami 17 PTS / 24 GP / 4-19-1

*All rankings according to the most recent March 7 poll from USCHO.com.

The NCHC also announced their All-Conference teams and individual award nominees this week.

News and notes

  • Omaha is currently No. 19 in the Pairwise.
  • Omaha leads the all-time series against Western Michigan, 31-22-6. However, the Broncos are 14-13-4 all-time in Kalamazoo.
  • Omaha’s 21 wins this season are tied for the second-most in program history (24 wins in 2000-01). It’s the third time an Omaha team has recorded 21 wins (2001-02 and 2011-12) and the seventh time in program history an Omaha team has won 20 games.
  • The Mavericks are 7-9 away from Baxter Arena this season and 4-8 on the road in NCHC play. Omaha finished the regular season 14-6 on home ice.
  • Brandon Scanlin was named to the Honorable Mention All-NCHC Team for the second straight season. Scanlin has a career-high six goals and 25 assists this season. The junior defenseman is one of five players on the Omaha roster who has skated in all 36 games.
  • Omaha has scored first in 21 of its 36 games this season and the Mavericks are 16-5 in those contests. The Mavericks have gone 27-6 in games that they’ve scored first since the start of last season.
  • Omaha is 13-1-0 when leading after one period and 16-3-0 when leading after two periods this season.
  • The Mavericks have scored 45 power-play goals as a team, which is tied with Denver for the most in the country. The Mavericks are 17-11-0 when scoring a power-play goal this season.
  • Taylor Ward is still tied for the NCAA lead with 12 power-play goals.
  • The Mavericks finished the regular season 14-4-0 in game two. One of those 14 wins was Dec. 11 against Western Michigan.

Ways to follow

Friday’s game is set for a 6:05 p.m. CDT opening faceoff at Lawson Ice Arena. Game two will follow at the same time on Saturday and if necessary, game three will also start at 6:05 on Sunday. All three 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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