Omaha at Denver series preview

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Isaiah Saville has recorded four shutouts this season, which is tied with UMD’s Ryan Fanti for the most in the NCHC. He was named one of Omaha’s two Hobey Baker Award nominees earlier this week. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

The matchup

The Mavericks were planning on spending Friday morning on the ice at Ralph Engelstad Arena, and Friday afternoon getting ready for game one of a series at North Dakota. Instead, they were on a flight to Denver, where they’ll play a two-game series against the Pioneers this Saturday and Sunday.

No. 15 Omaha (14-6, 4-4) enters the weekend having played just two games in the past 35 days. It’s been two weeks since their last game, a 5-0 win at St. Lawrence, and over a month since their last NCHC action, a 1-0 win at Western Michigan on Dec. 11. After returning home from Upstate New York, the Mavericks dealt with a COVID outbreak, forcing an originally scheduled home series against Denver to be postponed.

Earlier this week, the Mavericks had yet another series postponed because of COVID-19 protocols at North Dakota. Following a series of postponements around the NCHC and several schedule changes for the remainder of the second half, the Mavericks had to call an audible and head west to face No. 6 Denver (12-5-1, 5-3-0).

Although there will end up being less than 72 hours between the time the NCHC made this series official and puck drop Saturday night, it’s not as if both teams had to start at square one for their prep work. As mentioned, the two teams were set to play at Baxter Arena just one week prior.

The Pioneers, who also haven’t played since Jan. 1, enter this weekend on a roll as they’re 8-1-1 in their last 10. They’re also 8-0-1 on home ice this season, including a sweep of Western Michigan in November. With six key NCHC points on the line, it’s shaping up to be an exciting series at Magness Arena.

Dynamic Denver

A big part of that 8-1-1 stretch has been Denver’s dynamic offense. The Pioneers come into this weekend as the country’s highest-scoring team, averaging 4.67 goals per game. They’ve combined for 84 goals in 18 games as a team, including five games with seven or more goals. Freshmen Carter Mazur and Massimo Rizzo are two of the top three scoring freshmen in the country, as both have found the back of the net nine times.

Rizzo’s nine goals represent less than half of his 21 points, which are the fourth-most amongst NCAA freshmen. His 1.31 points per game leads the country too. In addition to those potent freshmen, the Pioneers deep lineup also boasts the top defensive corps in the conference, highlighted by Sean Behrens, Shai Buium, Mike Benning and Antti Tuomisto.

Omaha will also have to keep close tabs on forwards Carter Savoie (12-10-22) and Bobby Brink (7-19-26), along with Cameron Wright (10-6-16), Brett Stapley (8-14-22) and captain Cole Guttman (5-15-20). As a team, the Denver power-play ranks third in the country at 26.5 percent (22-for-83) too.

Tack on the fact the Mavericks have struggled against the Pioneers in recent years, the altitude, plus the short notice of these games, and it’s going to be a good measuring stick for this Omaha team.

‘Learn from it’

It feels much longer than two weeks, but just 14 days ago Omaha held a 2-0 lead with just over 10 minutes left in the third period in Canton, N.Y. Then St. Lawrence struck for three third-period goals en route to a 3-2 win. It’s eerily similar to the Mavericks’ Nov. 5 loss against Miami. Omaha held a 3-2 lead midway through the third period only to see the RedHawks score two late goals in 19 seconds. It’s still Miami’s lone conference win of the season.

The Mavericks are 9-0-0 when leading after the first period this season and 9-2-0 when leading after 40 minutes, one of those coming on New Year’s Eve against the Saints. The other came on opening night against Lake Superior State. Moral of the story, there’s not enough margin for error for that to happen again.

“Obviously that first game against St. Lawrence was very similar to that Miami game,” said Omaha senior forward Taylor Ward. “We had the lead there in the third and we let it slip away. That’s something we can’t afford to do and we need to learn how to close out games.”

The latter part of that statement is especially important. If the Mavericks want to be an NCAA Tournament team come March, those are the types of losses that could potentially be the difference between a trip to a regional or a trip home for the summer. Right now, the Mavericks sit 18th in the pairwise, and many around the sport currently consider Omaha a bubble team.

Granted with 16 regular-season games remaining in NCHC play, the Mavericks can essentially control their own pairwise fate — especially with wins over the likes of Denver, Minnesota Duluth, North Dakota and St. Cloud State — but it still goes back to taking the wins whenever possible.

On the flip side, the series did show the resiliency this year’s group has and their ability to respond. Similar to the series at St. Cloud and Western Michigan, the Mavericks responded. Omaha is 9-1-0 in game two this season.

“I think we know we’re capable of bouncing back the next night and getting a win,” Ward said. “So it was good to see us respond, but we always want to pick up the wins when we can. Especially when we feel like we should have them. Like I said, just need to do a better job of closing games out and learn from it.”

His goaltender agrees.

“We’ve done it a few times, which is both a positive and a negative,” said Isaiah Saville. “We need to do a better job of closing out and learn how to win on a Friday night, but it shows the character we have in the locker room and the effort we put in throughout the week to at least get one win on the road. Obviously we wanted to come away with a sweep there, but we’re happy to get out of there with at least a win.”

Consistency is key

Let’s set one thing straight though, there’s no need to hit the panic button. It’s mid-January and there’s still a lot of hockey left in the big picture. At the same time though, games such as the two this weekend could prove to be pivotal down the stretch. Especially against a team (Denver) that the Mavericks could potentially be battling for home ice in the playoffs.

On top of that, who knows what the second half is going to even look like with COVID-19 once again on the rise, as evident over the past two weeks. As has been the case with this Omaha team all season long though, the focus doesn’t change.

“We know how important every game is, especially in this conference, and we just want to be consistent with our approach to every game,” said Omaha captain Kevin Conley. “I think just having consistency leads to success, so we just need to be focused and ready to go at the start and not change too much.”

It’d be easy to add extra importance or pressure to this weekend and think about the pairwise impact, especially against the No. 6 team in the country. But those in the Omaha locker room try not to read into that. Whether it would’ve been North Dakota this weekend or now Denver, it’s two hockey games at the end of the day. Consistency is key with the approach.

“You try not to, but everyone looks at the rankings and everyone takes note of where we are and where other teams are,” Saville said. “But we’re focused on ourselves though. We don’t prepare any differently for whatever team we’re playing and we know this is one hell of a conference, so you have to be prepared every single night. This weekend is no different.”

Omaha’s leading scorer echoed that message. 

“We know where we stand right now, but we don’t keep too close of an eye on it,” Ward said. “We only have two games this weekend. We can’t play the rest of this season this weekend so we’re only worried about the first one and once (Saturday) is over we’ll focus on (Sunday). And that’s all you can really do. I think if you get ahead of yourself and start looking into the future your focus shifts and that’s when things go sideways.” 

Around the NCHC

With COVID-19 once again forcing changes to the NCHC schedule, only two series remain on the calendar this weekend. Along with Omaha heading to Denver, Minnesota Duluth also hosts Miami for their originally scheduled series.

The Bulldogs got the weekend started Friday night with a 4-1 win at Amsoil Arena, powered by three third-period goals. Game two of that series is Saturday at 7:07 p.m. CT. As for the Mavericks and Pioneers, both games are set for 7 p.m. CT in the Mile High City. The NCHC announced a series of changes to the second half schedule after this weekend’s postponements, all of which can be found here.

Here are the updated NCHC standings:

No. 10 North Dakota  24 PTS / 10 GP / 8-2-0

No. 3 Western Michigan 18 PTS / 10 GP / 6-4-0

No. 7 Minnesota Duluth 17 PTS / 9 GP / 5-3-1

No. 6 Denver 15 PTS / 8 GP / 5-3-0

No. 5 St. Cloud State 12 PTS / 8 GP / 4-4-0

No. 15 Omaha 11 PTS / 8 GP / 4-4-0

Colorado College 11 PTS / 10 GP / 3-6-1

Miami 3 PTS / 11 GP / 1-10-0

*All rankings according to the most recent Jan. 10 poll from USCHO.com.

News and notes

  • Omaha is 11-3-0 when scoring first this season. Omaha is also 9-0-0 when leading at the end of the first period.
  • Denver’s starting goaltender Magnus Chrona has never lost to Omaha in his career (1-0-1). Chrona 11-4-1 this season with a 2.40 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.
  • Omaha’s last game at Denver (Feb. 6, 2021) was the Mavericks’ first win (5-4, overtime) at Magness Arena since 2013. Omaha also snapped a 19-game winless skid against DU last season.
  • Taylor Ward enters this weekend’s series with 99 career points.
  • Isaiah Saville has recorded four shutouts this season, which is tied with Ryan Fanti for the most in the NCHC.
  • Ward and Saville were named Omaha’s Hobey Baker Award nominees Wednesday afternoon.
  • Omaha’s power-play unit currently ranks eighth in the country 24.8 percent (26-for-105). Those 105 power-play chances are also tied for the most in the country.
  • Omaha’s nonconference slate next season will include return trips to Lake Superior State and Long Island. Alaska is slated to visit Baxter Arena for another home series, along with St. Lawrence. It’s believed Niagara will be the other team on the 2022-23 schedule.
  • Former Omaha defenseman Brian Cooper was named to the 2022 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team Thursday afternoon. Four current NCHC players will join Cooper on Team USA; Noah Cates (UMD), Sam Hentges (SCSU), Nick Perbix (SCSU) and Jake Sanderson (UND). Brett Larson (SCSU) will also be an assistant coach for the red, white and blue.
  • Former Omaha goaltender Ryan Massa is in his first season as Denver’s goalie coach. Massa and Cooper were both on the 2014-15 Omaha team that advanced to the Frozen Four in Boston.
  • Omaha is scheduled to return home next weekend to face Minnesota Duluth. The Mavericks last played at Baxter Arena on Dec. 4.

Ways to follow

Saturday night’s game is set for a 7 p.m. CT opening faceoff at Magness Arena. Game two will follow at the same time on Sunday. 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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