Omaha Continues to Pursue an NCAA Tourney Return

The Mavericks took on Providence in the 2015 Frozen Four semifinal round. Photo courtesy university communications.

Kenneth Pancake

For three years now, Omaha hockey has tried to replicate what is widely seen as the program’s biggest accomplishment – competing in the Frozen Four.

Now that quest reaches a defining point. All of the players from the 2014-15 squad have since left the program, concluding in the departure of the 2018 senior class last spring.

Some coaches might see that as a downside, but Omaha’s second-year head coach, Mike Gabinet, doesn’t.

“I think it’s a good mindset to have, that the guys here haven’t really accomplished something that special as a group,” Gabinet said at hockey media day on Oct. 3. “If I’m those guys, I’m really motivated to leave a special legacy for my time here.”

That performance three and a half years ago has become the standard for every Omaha team to follow.

“The last six years, UNO hockey has had a tournament team every year,” said Ryan Galt. “I think everybody can agree to that… we’ve always been one or two spots out of the tournament.”

Galt is one of five team captains, and one of ten team seniors. “We all have a different personality, a different way to lead,” said co-captain Jalen Schulz. “It’s a good asset to have this season.”

Schulz mentioned that the team’s chemistry is the most impressive since any team in the school’s recent history – and that’s a good asset to have too, according to Schulz. He compared this year’s team to Loyola of Chicago’s basketball team, which made an underdog run to the Final Four in the 2018 NCAA tournament.

“Shouldn’t have been there, but they were a close team,” Schulz said.

The underdog status is certainly relevant. Omaha was picked to finish 7th of the eight teams in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. “I think we just gloss over it… we worry about ourselves,” said Gabinet.

The NCHC is arguably the toughest conference in collegiate hockey–the previous three national champions all hail from the league.

Gabinet said that defense has been their biggest focus in the off-season. “Defense is always an area of growth for us,” Gabinet said.

In addition, the team has been focusing on building Gabinet’s culture and integrating changes brought by new assistant coach (and former NHL assistant coach) Paul Jerrard.

“(Jerrard) has introduced a few different things that we’ve changed from last year,” said team co-captain Mason Morelli.

Morelli had less time to learn the new habits as his teammates did– he missed much of his junior season to injury.

“I feel like I’m back to where I was, if maybe not even a little better, I’m happy about that,” Morelli said in an interview with the Omaha World Herald’s Tony Boone.

While an NCAA tournament has been the goal of every Omaha hockey squad since the conclusion of the 2014-15 season, this team is focusing on a sub-goal: get to the Frozen Faceoff, the NCHC’s final four in their conference tournament.

According to Galt, that’s the best way to ensure that Omaha finds itself back into the NCAA’s.

“Even last year, I think (we were) a half a point out of home ice (for the NCHC tournament), and we were 11-1 in home ice in the second half,” Galt said. “We need to figure out a way to get that half point back.”