Bring on the Bulldogs. Another week, another top 20 clash at Baxter Arena, as the Mavericks welcome the No. 14 ranked and back-to-back national champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs to town for another key NCHC series.
Well rested following a bye week, Omaha will look to get back into the win column this weekend with yet another tough opponent looming. Just one week before, the Mavericks capped off a disappointing (0-1-1) weekend against the Miami RedHawks, and after a fast start to the season, Coach Mike Gabinet feels his group got away from their game.
“Reflecting back, when you look at the analytics from that game, I thought we deserved a better fate. But again, I think it comes down to some small details in our game, where you want to make sure you’re doing things the right way and staying consistent in our approach,” Gabinet said. “We’re looking to get back on track this weekend.”
The same can be said across the rink, as the Bulldogs come to Omaha looking to rebound after being swept at home by Minnesota State-Mankato this past weekend, the top ranked team in the country.
“I thought they got what they deserved on Friday,” said 15-year play-by-play voice of the Bulldogs Bruce Ciskie. “I didn’t think they played very well outside of the first period, and I think once Mankato got that first goal it was almost a panic that ensued with UMD, which was unlike them. You can’t play like that, and they know that. Saturday I think they were the better team, but they’ve got to find a way to finish around the net, and that’s been an issue here for the first half of the season. Hopefully that starts here this weekend.”
For Omaha, it’ll be pivotal to get back to that hard-working identity that has been huge for this team so far. According to freshman center Nolan Sullivan, it’s all about everybody chipping in.
“I think it’s just bringing the lunch pail attitude,” Sullivan said. “It’s going to take everybody, and I think that’s been the biggest theme to our team. When we find ourselves winning some of these big games, it’s usually because all four lines are going, all seven defensemen are ready to play, and we have our goalies kicking in as well.”
Senior defenseman Dean Stewart agrees, and the captain also says the Miami series can be used as a good learning experience going forward.
“When they were coming into town, obviously we had had some good success already this year, and I think some of the guys maybe thought that it might be an easier weekend than it was perhaps,” Stewart said. “But I think that was good, and it kind of also went to show that it takes a full 60 minutes to get a win in college hockey.”
Kevin Conley still leads the way for this group offensively with 12 points, six of which being goals, which is tied for the team lead with Taylor Ward. Ward has also added three assists on the year.
However, one of the biggest highlights from that Miami series was the chance to get another look at fellow freshman goaltender, Austin Roden. Through the first 12 games, Isaiah Saville has carried most of the work load, posting a (5-3-2) record, with a 0.905 save percentage and 2.48 goals against. In game two of the Miami series though, it was Roden’s turn to man the crease, and Gabinet was happy with what he saw.
“I thought he was fine, and I thought he was really good that week in practice, and that’s why he played,” Gabinet said. “I’ve said it from day one: We have a culture where you’re going to earn what you get, and he earned a start. We’re looking for him to keep practicing well and competing hard, and wanting to be in the net. That’s what we want out of both our goalies.”
It’ll be key for the Mavericks to get strong play in net this weekend, and Ciskie says it himself, that’s the biggest difference he sees with this Omaha group compared to previous years.
“They appear to be playing with more confidence in what’s behind them in goal than what I’ve seen the last couple years, and that’s a step in the right direction,” Ciskie said. “They’re not going to blow you away defensively, but they’re good enough that if they get reasonable play in net, they’re going to have a chance to win every game they play in, and so far they’ve gotten that.”
Shifting gears to this week’s opponent, the Bulldogs sit near the top of the conference for the time being with 13 points (4-1-1), good for second place. On the season, Minnesota-Duluth holds a (7-6-1) record, and this weekend will already be the fifth ranked opponent that they’ll face. In Ciskie’s eyes, that experience is a big factor, as Scott Sandelin’s group has been in this spot before, playing in the last three national championship games.
“This team’s been there before and knows what it takes to get there, which I think is huge,” Ciskie said. “They’re not there yet, but it’s also not even Christmas, so you don’t want to panic about it. At the same time, you know they can get there because they’ve done it before.”
A big part of the good start for UMD has been much in part to the play of two guys, Junior defenseman Scott Perunovich (St. Louis draft pick), and senior goaltender Hunter Shepard.
Coming into this series, Perunovich has put up 20 points (two goals, 18 assists), which is an average of 1.43 points per game. In addition, both guys have taken home NCHC player of the week honors three times through the first eight weeks, at defenseman and goaltender respectively. The Mavericks will have their hands full with Perunovich this weekend, and he’s a special talent, according to Ciskie.
“He’s special,” said Ciskie. “Guys like that don’t grow on trees, and they don’t come around that often. He brings elite skill, elite passing ability, he’s got an underrated shot, he can skate, not afraid to go into the corners, I could keep going. It’s the vision, his passing skills and the way that he can drive offensive plays, it’s just so special to watch.”
Between the pipes, the same can be said as Shepard has started every game this season. The Cohasset, MN native owns a (7-6-1) record, 0.903 save percentage and a 2.37 goals against. More importantly, the three-year starter and two-time national champion brings some valuable experience to the Bulldogs crease.
“He bring calmness and an experience level like no other,” said Ciskie. “This guy is going to hit 100 career games here in a couple weeks, and you don’t see a lot of guys at this level that play at the level he’s at get to 100 games.”
Along with Perunovich, the Mavs will need to keep an eye on a pair of sophomores in Jackson and Noah Cates, who Omaha hockey fans may be familiar with, as Cates skated in 71 games with the Lancers over parts of two seasons.
Cates ranks second on the team in scoring with 12 points, seven goals and five assists, while his older brother Jackson sits one behind him with five goals and six helpers. Junior Nick Swaney has also potted eight points, but he’s skated in three less games, and the Minnesota Wild draft pick is questionable for this series.
The slate doesn’t get any easier in this conference, and it’s another key weekend for both sides in their pursuit for the Penrose Cup. There are six early December points on the line, and if you ask Stewart, the Mavericks are ready to go.
“It’s going to be a big weekend obviously,” Stewart said. “Any time you have the defending champs coming into your home building, it’s gonna get the boys pretty fired up and excited to play. It’ll be a good test for us.”
The series gets underway Friday night at Baxter Arena, and these teams will square off again on Saturday, which is also the annual Toys For Tots drive. Puck drop is set for 7:07 p.m. both nights. 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.