As if the grueling schedule of the NCHC isn’t enough, the Mavericks will take on their third ranked non-conference opponent of the year this weekend – the Arizona State Sun Devils.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “For the pairwise, you get to play a top-ranked opponent. We’ve got to do everything in our power this week to get prepared for them and have two good games.”
Arizona State comes into town at 9-5-2, including a sweep of No. 9 Quinnipiac, a win and a tie against fourth ranked Denver and a win and 1-0 overtime loss at Michigan State just one week ago. The Devils sit at No. 16 in the top 20 and ninth in the pairwise, (UNO is currently 32 in the pairwise ranking.)
The Sun Devils are led up front by a pair of juniors in James Sanchez and Johnny Walker. Sanchez leads the way with 19 points (6g, 13a), while Walker sits one behind him at 18, including a team leading 10 goals. Sanchez has been one ASU’s main weapons on the power play as well, registering seven points on the man advantage.
Along with Sanchez, defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk has also been a threat on the power play, adding seven points of his own. Pasichnuk is tied for third on the team in total scoring, along with fellow blue liner Joshua Maniscalco at 14. The defensemen have scored two goals and 12 assists, with five goals and nine assists respectively. Between the pipes, sophomore Evan DeBrouwer carries the baton, holding a 7-4-2 record, 0.932 save percentage and 0.208 GAA.
Arizona State has started strong out of the gate, posting a 5-2-1 record at home, however the Sun Devils sit right at 0.500 (4-4-0) on the road. The Mavericks hold a 3-4-1 record at Baxter Arena so far this season.
In the battle of special teams, Omaha still sits at 17 nationally and third in the NCHC, converting on 15-71 opportunities (21.1%). Across the rink, Arizona State is clicking at 16.2%, 11-67.
Speaking of Omaha, the Mavericks saw a huge weight lifted off their shoulders thanks to a 4-3 overtime win Saturday night. The win over St. Cloud State broke a five game winless skid for Omaha. In addition to getting back into the win column, the win was their first overtime win since March 10, 2017, a 2-1 playoff win at Western Michigan. Their last regular season overtime win came on Jan.15, 2016, a 4-3 win at North Dakota.
In addition to breaking those streaks, another area where the Mavericks have seen improvement this season comes in games decided by one goal or less. UNO finished 1-8-3 in that department in 2018-2019, but through the first half of this season, this group is 3-3-2. Saturday was a step in the right direction and might have just been the breakthrough this team needed.
“I think it’s the will of the team,” said Gabinet. “I think probably part of it’s a little bit of luck. Just thinking back to last year, we had so many of those close games against Denver and a couple of those teams where I thought we deserved a better fate, but sometimes you just need that bounce or that break.”
It may sound like a broken record at this point in the season, but for the Mavericks it’s all about playing a full 60 minutes and getting back to their game. With another top 20 team coming into Baxter Arena, senior forward Zach Jordan is looking forward to the challenge.
“We know they have some good puck moving defensemen,” said Jordan. “They’re pretty opportunistic, and they score when they get the chance. It’s just about playing our game again.”
For a team that seemed to be pressing and only a mistake or two away the last few weeks, getting back into the win column was huge, and it’s a big lift going forward.
“It’s just a relief,” said Gabinet. “Especially as much as you’re process focused and worried about what you can control, when you’re doing all that work and it’s not working for you, it’s tough. So anytime you get the result, it’s always nice to be rewarded for that. I thought we played extremely hard on Saturday. Again, still things to clean up, but really proud of the guys effort and their resilience.”
Ask Jordan, who scored the overtime winner in St. Cloud, and he’ll tell you the same thing.
“It was huge. Honestly, it just felt amazing to get it. We hadn’t beat them in so long and we were in a little bit of a skid, so it just felt really good to get that win,” Jordan said. “Especially since we were able to battle back, giving up a couple goal lead there. It kind of shows what we’re made of, too. I think finishing that one off on a positive note definitely helped us going into this weekend.”
However, he knows the challenge at hand this weekend against the Sun Devils. These two teams will be the only ones active in the country, and he knows with the Christmas break right around the corner, this team has to stay mentally strong.
“The biggest challenge is staying focused,” said Jordan. “It’s mainly just coming in with the right mindset of ‘we still have a job to get done here.’”
After a strong past few weeks offensively, Jordan now sits tied with Taylor Ward for the team lead in goals at seven. Ward and Tyler Weiss are tied for second on the Omaha roster in points with 11, behind Kevin Conley who still leads the way at 14, six goals and eight assists. The Mavericks have gotten a point from 20 of the 23 skaters who have appeared in a game this season.
Another challenge will be the absence of starting netminder Isaiah Saville, who is currently with team USA at the World Juniors. However, Gabinet has liked what he’s seen so far from Austin Roden. The Sidney, British Columbia, native is 1-2-0 with a 1.98 GAA, 0.914 save percentage, and he’ll look to get most of the action these next few weeks.
“I think Austin’s done a great job when he’s had to go in there,” said Gabinet. “He’s done really well, competed hard and given us a chance to win games. We’ll miss Isaiah, but we’ll also be okay without him.”
The Mavericks have the edge in this all-time series at 5-2-1, including a 5-0-2 record at Baxter Arena. Omaha took both games there last November, winning 6-4 and 4-0.
The series gets underway Saturday night with a regular 7:07 p.m. faceoff, followed by a 4:07 p.m. start time on Sunday. Make sure to follow @jordan_mcalpine on twitter for live game updates and check out the Gateway for postgame recaps and Maverick Hockey coverage all season long.