Omaha Hockey versus North Dakota Series Preview

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Jordan McAlpine
CONTRIBUTOR 

Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet looks on during a recent practice at Baxter Arena. The Mavericks close out the regular season this weekend against No. 2 North Dakota. Photo by Jordan McAlpine.

Forty-eight shots on net, zero goals, missed opportunities and heading home with two losses–that summarizes last weekend for the Mavericks. Omaha was shutout for the first time this season and swept on the road by the Miami RedHawks.

“We have to be better,” said the Mavericks’ head coach Mike Gabinet. “There’s no excuses. We weren’t good and we have to get better, so we have to work on that this week and do the things necessary to make sure that we’re growing our game and learning from our mistakes.”

As tough as last weekend was, the hill doesn’t get any easier to climb. Omaha will now host the No. 2 team in the country, North Dakota.

Although the Mavs can only focus on what they can control and how they rebound from a disappointing weekend at Miami, they know what they’re going up against. There’s no denying taking down the Fighting Hawks will be no small task.

North Dakota comes into Baxter Arena (25-4-4, 16-3-3) on the season with at least a share of the Penrose Cup already clinched as the NCHC’s regular season champions. The Fighting Hawks rank third in the nation in scoring, averaging 3.91 goals per game, and they’re also the fifth best defensive team in the country, only giving up 1.94 goals a night.

Hobey Baker contender Jordan Kawaguchi leads the team and ranks second in the country in scoring with 45 points, 15 of those being goals. Shane Pinto sits ahead of him in the goal department with 16, including one against Omaha earlier this season. As many Maverick fans will remember, Pinto was given a 5-minute major and a game ejection for his cross-check on Joey Abate in game two in Grand Forks.

Between the pipes, Adam Scheel leads the Fighting Hawks with 19 wins on the season, a 0.907 save percentage and 1.99 goals against. However, junior Peter Thome has seen most of the workload in the second half and has started eight of the last 12 games since these two teams met. Scheel was pulled in game one against Omaha after giving up four goals on eight shots, however he was in net for both of UND’s home wins over Western Michigan last weekend.

That Friday night for Scheel was one of Omaha’s biggest highlights of the season, a 6-3 road win over the then No. 1 team in the country. However, a lot has changed since that weekend in early January, and this Omaha team has struggled the past few games, dropping three straight.

To make matters worse, they’ll be without their leading scorer, Taylor Ward, who finished the previously mentioned series in January with a team-leading two goals and an assist.

With another highly ranked team and a rival looming on the schedule, it shouldn’t be hard for the home squad to get up for this series. This weekend will mark the fifth ranked opponent Omaha has played since the start of the new year, which some of the group feels may have played a role in the letdown last weekend.

“I think when we come in and play the teams that are a little bit below us, or right around the same spot, I think we take them a little bit lighter than when we’re playing the North Dakotas, the Denvers and the Duluths,” said senior Zach Jordan. “You could tell this weekend we came in and underestimated what they’re going to bring. It showed both nights.”

His head coach echoed that message, and it’ll be pivotal the Mavericks come to play this weekend if they want to knock off the team at the top of the standings.

“If you get over confident a little bit, you forget what it takes to be successful in this league, and I think that was a little bit of the case last week,” Gabinet said. “You think you can show up and win hockey games, and it’s the exact opposite. You have to compete, play as a team and you need everybody going … have to hit the reset button this week and prepare for obviously a very good opponent in North Dakota.”

With Miami now quickly in the past and the focus all on UND, this weekend will be a special one, as Saturday night will be the final time five Mavericks walk out of the tunnel for a game at Baxter Arena.

“It’ll be kind of surreal just knowing that it’s coming to an end,” said senior Dean Stewart. “But I think once the puck drops Friday night we’re just going to be focused on playing the game and doing what we know how to do.”

For Stewart, who has skated in 128 games over his four years in Omaha, it’s bittersweet knowing these will be his final two home games, but he’s just grateful he’s gotten a chance to be a Maverick.

“Kind of crazy to think that it’s coming to an end,” Stewart said. “I’m gonna try not to be too sad that it’s over and more just happy that I got to spend a great four years here.”

Along with Stewart and Jordan, Ryan Jones, Tristan Keck and Teemu Pulkkinen round out the rest of a senior class which is very close to their head coach. From an assistant during their freshmen year to this weekend, Gabinet has seen them grow from the start–and he says they’ve come a long way.

“They’re great young men,”Gabinet said. “They’re going to be successful not only on the ice, but off the ice in their future, and I know they’ve done a great job representing themselves in the community, representing our program, and they’re going to leave a real good impression on the people around the city of Omaha. Just very proud of those guys.”

As special of a weekend as it will be for these five, they’ll have to put the emotions aside, as there’s still unfinished business this weekend and beyond. This senior class isn’t finished wearing the Omaha jersey quite yet.

“I just want to take advantage of this last weekend and enjoy every minute of it,” Jordan said. “We’ve been lucky to be able to come here for four years, and it’s coming to an end, but we can still enjoy it and make this season last as long as we can.”

Game one gets underway at 7:07 p.m. Friday night at Baxter Arena, followed up at the same time and same place Saturday night. If the season were to end today, the Mavericks would finish as the sixth seed and travel to Kalamazoo, Michigan to ake on the Western Michigan Broncos.

Round one of the NCHC playoffs will run next Friday, Saturday and Sunday, if necessary. If the Mavericks win that, they’ll move on to the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Make sure to follow @jordan_mcalpine on twitter for live game updates and check out https://unothegateway.com/category/sports/ice-hockey/ for postgame recaps and Maverick Hockey coverage all season long.

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