Prior to heading to Colorado College, Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet said his group was “optimistic and positive” going into the series. One week and six points later, the Mavericks now find themselves in fifth place in the NCHC, thanks to a sweep of the Tigers. Once again, it’s another big weekend of conference play, and this week’s opponent happens to be the team above them in the standings – the Western Michigan Broncos.
“To go out there in a tough place to play and come away with two big wins – especially the way we did it – to come from behind on both nights and to come away with wins was just an excellent testimony to our team’s character and work ethic,” said Gabinet. “Now, a very big series against Western Michigan at home to continue NCHC play.”
Last weekend Omaha rallied back from an early 3-0 deficit just 8:33 into game one, as the Tigers scored three goals on their first eight shots. The Mavericks were able to tie it up 3-3 but trailed once again due to a late second period CC goal. Omaha went on to score three third-period goals and come away with a 6-4 win on Friday night.
Colorado College once again scored the first goal in game two, but the Mavericks responded with four unanswered goals from Tristan Keck, Kevin Conley, Nolan Sullivan and John Schuldt, grabbing a 4-1 win. Saturday night also marked their first sweep since the opening series of the season, a pair of wins over Alabama-Huntsville.
“We think we’ve been playing good hockey, and we thought we could’ve gotten a couple sweeps since then [Alabama-Huntsville series],” said sophomore defenseman John Schuldt. “But it feels really good to actually get one. Morale is pretty high right now.”
With that hurdle finally cleared and the weekend finished off with points to show for it, the team will need to build off this energy and keep going forward.
“As nice as it is, it doesn’t change our approach to things,” said Gabinet. “It’s really important when we play the strength of schedule, that we play to be focused on one day at a time and ‘what are we doing better today than we did yesterday.’ I know the guys are proud of themselves and anytime you sweep on the road, especially in this conference, it’s a thing to be proud about.”
One of the biggest positives in Colorado Springs was the ability to rally back, as the Mavericks came back from being down three separate times in the series. It’s something this group has been able to do all season long, but it all starts with mental toughness.
“Credit to the team,” said Gabinet. “We’ve had a lot of adversity through the year, and I think we’ve always responded really well, and that’s something that becomes the normal. You can read about mental toughness, you can talk about it, but until you actually get to practice it, it’s a different situation. When we get to face that adversity, respond to it and come out with a big-time win – just the way we did it as a team, too.”
Around the room, they know how important it will be to remain mentally strong. It’s especially important now because of how much each game matters at this point in this season.
“Being mentally tough is one of the most important things in this conference,” said Schuldt. “Because you have no weeks off in between competition. For us right now it’s playoffs, and that’s the way we’ve been looking at these games.”
At the same time, the Mavericks have been playing well during this recent stretch and have definitely been trending in the right direction over the last month. After a skid in late November and early December, they’ve started off the second half strong, going (3-2-3) against some tough competition. According to sophomore forward Chayse Primeau, confidence has only grown, but they’re still taking things one day at a time.
“We beat No. 1, so it’s huge knowing we can do that, and then getting two ties with No. 4,” Primeau said. “So, it’s been a huge confidence boost. Then going into CC and getting six points was big. We just kind of take it day-by-day now.”
Omaha currently sits in fifth place in the conference with 18 points, three above sixth place St. Cloud State and seven back of fourth place Western Michigan. The Broncos, who own 25 points, only trail third place Minnesota-Duluth by one point and second place Denver by three, setting up two essentially 6-point games this weekend.
“They’re always a team that can get hot and score a lot of goals,” said Gabinet. “So, they’re going to be a challenging opponent. They’re a big, physical team that can really skate. They’ve got a lot of team speed and transition very quickly.
Western Michigan is actually the school the Mavericks have played the most over their 23-year history, and Omaha leads the all-time series (27-20-6). UNO is also (15-7-2) at home and (6-2-0) at Baxter Arena. They know it’ll be another tight series this weekend.
“We always have good, competitive games with them,” said Primeau. “We’re very similar in our style we play, so it’s going to come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes.”
The Broncos come to Omaha riding a 4-game win streak and are fresh off a sweep of their own, as they earned a pair of 6-2 wins over St. Cloud State. Just one week earlier, they also swept Colorado College. Western Michigan is (11-9-4) overall this season and (7-5-2) in NCHC play, highlighted by a 2-1 win at No. 4 Denver in November.
This will be the second time these two teams square off this season, as they split the series in Kalamazoo back in mid-November. Western Michigan took game one 3-2 in that series, but the Mavericks rallied back for a 6-3 win in game two to earn a split.
In that 6-3 win, Omaha forward Kevin Conley recorded a hat trick and added an assist, but he is one of several Mavs who have had success against WMU. Zach Jordan, Tristan Keck and Taylor Ward all have three goals and seven career points against the Broncos, while Dean Stewart and Ryan Jones are right behind them with six.
Paul Washe and Omaha native Ethen Frank each scored two goals in the series, while Dawson DiPietro finished with a goal and an assist on the weekend. On the season, Washe ranks second on the team in scoring (9-9-18). However, he will be out this weekend after receiving a 2-game suspension from the NCHC for abuse of officials.
Michael Joyaux (2-13-15) and DiPietro (8-6-14) round out their point leaders, while Hugh McGing leads the Broncos with 21 points, (5-16-21).
Freshman Brandon Bussi saw all the action in net during the former Omaha series, stopping 48 of the 55 shots fired his way. This season Bussi has posted an (11-9-3) record, owns a 2.73 GAA and a 0.909 save percentage, which is the second best in the NCHC. Bussi also ranks fourth in the conference in wins, one ahead of Omaha’s Isaiah Saville.
It’s another big opportunity this weekend with playoff implications on the line, and this group is ready to go.
“Our goal right now is to try to get one of the top four spots and get home ice,” said Schuldt.
“They’re the team standing in our way right now, and we know that, they know that, so it’s going to be a big weekend.”
Friday night’s game will be televised nationally on CBS Sports Network and will get underway at 7:36 p.m., while Saturday is slated for a 7:07 p.m. opening faceoff. Omaha will travel to Amsoil Arena one week later to take on the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
Make sure to follow @jordan_mcalpine on twitter for live game updates and check out http://unothegateway.com/category/sports/ice-hockey/ for postgame recaps and Maverick Hockey coverage all season long.