Six games left in the season and seven points back of the fourth and final spot for home ice in the NCHC playoffs–it’s crunch time for the Mavericks as they head into a pivotal series with Colorado College.
“It’s a big weekend for sure,” said junior Kevin Conley. “We’re going into it as a must-have six points, and I think we used the bye week to our advantage to get better. We’re fighting for the home ice in playoffs and we only have three weekends left. Every game counts.”
After being swept by the No. 6 (now No. 4) Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, the bye week last weekend couldn’t have come at a much better time for a banged up team that hasn’t seen time off since the Christmas break.
In a stretch that saw UMD and two other top-5 teams, along with a very talented Western Michigan team, there’s been a lot of tough competition the past six weeks. Coming out of it (4-5-3), this group has played well, but they’re not far from taking that next step. They hope the off week helps.
“I feel like we’re in a really good spot with these last few weeks coming up,” said sophomore Tyler Weiss. “We just had an off week too, so I feel like we’re all going to be really well rested and refocused now. We’ve played really well the last few series, but the bounces just haven’t always gone our way, so hopefully we get a different outcome this weekend.”
As if those bad bounces aren’t enough, injuries and illness have hampered this Omaha team. The Mavericks were without four key players (Isaiah Saville, Dean Stewart, Tristan Keck and Joey Abate) two Saturdays ago in Duluth, Minnesota.
With a chance to hit the reset button and get healthy for these final three weeks, it’ll be critical to put the past behind them and focus on the opponent at hand. Colorado College is a team they’ve had success against, but that doesn’t change the approach.
“They’re a good hockey team,” said the Maverick’s head coach Mike Gabinet. “They’ve got guys that can skate, make plays and they can be a dangerous team on the transition. They do a lot of things really well, so no different than any other opponent we’re used to facing in this conference.”
The Mavericks earned their second sweep of the season and their first since the opening weekend of the season in Colorado Springs late last month. A 6-4 win Friday, followed by a 4-1 showing in game two, it was key to walk away with the six points, but there was definitely room for improvement.
Omaha fell behind 3-0 just 8:33 into game one and fell behind 1-0 again in game two. Although the Mavericks were able to rally back three separate times in that series, they know they’ll have to get off to a fast start this time around, especially coming out of the bye. CC comes to town on short rest, having just played on Monday night.
“You’ve got to be ready to go from the drop of the puck,” said Gabinet. “You can’t spot teams goals and expect to get it back–you’ve got to be prepared mentally and physically from the opening faceoff.”
Sophomore defenseman Jason Smallidge also stressed the importance of starting strong out of the gate, but he knows the Tigers will come into town hungry.
“I think these guys are going to come back with a vengeance after the sweep in Colorado a couple weeks ago,” said Smallidge. “It’s going to be important to start off on the right foot and get after it.”
With those injuries and sickness piling up, Smallidge was one of the multiple guys who saw an elevated role in Duluth, as Dean Stewart was out of the lineup. That marked the first time since Jan. 6, 2018 Stewart had missed a game, snapping a streak of 80 consecutive.
“With Stew being out, I stepped up and tried to fill his shoes, so I got a lot more ice time than I normally have,” said Smallidge. “It’s a challenge playing against the toughest lines, just trying to shut them down and do the best I can. Hopefully we have Stew back this weekend.”
Stewart was a full participant in practice early this week and looks to be heading toward a return this weekend. However, nothing is a guarantee, and losing a captain and a mainstain on the blueline is never an easy task to replace.
“He’s a real big loss for us,” said Gabinet. “Obviously him being a 4-year player, a captain–just the physical compete that he plays with every night, you miss him out there. We’re looking forward to possibly getting him back this weekend if he’s healthy enough to play.”
Along with Stewart, practice this week produced some more positive signs on the injury front, as both Joey Abate and Tristan Keck were on the ice and full participants in line rushes and drills. Abate has missed the last four games with a lower body injury, while Keck missed the UMD series with an upper body injury.
On top of those three, one of the most noticeable losses comes between the pipes, as starting goaltender Isaiah Saville was scratched from his start with an injury just over 10 minutes before the opening faceoff. Although Austin Roden once again filled in admirably, as he has all season long, it will be worth paying attention to leading into the weekend.
Gabinet left it up in air during his weekly press conference, stating “Isaiah has been battling injury, so we’ll see how he’s looking going into the weekend.” Saville was a full-go in practice and did see most of the shots on Tuesday.
Even with a shorthanded lineup, the head coach was still very pleased with the effort against a very good opponent, he said:
“I know the score wasn’t really indicative of the outcome, but we played really well on Saturday. I thought that might have been one of our hardest fought games of the year. The effort level of the guys on Saturday was very, very positive, so I think they should be proud of the way they played. Now we’ve got to get hungry to find a way to take that next step here and compete with those top guys. We’ll get an opportunity to get better here this weekend.”
The Tigers, (10-16-2, 3-13-2) on the season, come into Omaha sitting at the bottom of the NCHC standings. However, they have started to find some rhythm lately, as they are unbeaten in their last three games.
The Tigers are only a few days removed from a sweep of Air Force, as they grabbed a 6-2 win Friday at home, and a 4-2 win Monday night in an outdoor game at the Air Force Academy. Just one week before, CC skated to a 3-2 OT loss and a 2-2 tie with St. Cloud State in game two grabbing the extra point in a shootout.
Not much has changed since these two teams last met, as Chris Wilkie still leads CC with 28 points, including an NCHC best 20 goals. Nick Halloran has 9-16-25, Bryan Yoon 1-15-16 and Grant Cruikshank 11-4-15. In goals, Matt Vernon has emerged as the starter, and he’s started the last 11 games. He’s (7-12-2) with a 3.31 GAA and 0.904 save percentage this season.
If there was ever a time to label games as must-win, it’s now. With playoff hockey right around the corner, time is ticking for a team that wants to make a playoff push. There are 18 potential points on the line over these next three weeks, and getting those starts with a “whatever it takes” mentality.
“You’re at the point in the season where you have to dive to block shots and sacrifice your body to do anything you can to win,” Smallidge said. “I think a lot of guys are really good at that, and we’ve got a lot of hard working guys that will put their body on the line.”
The series gets underway Friday night with a 7:07 p.m. faceoff at Baxter Arena. It’ll be the same time, same place on Saturday. Omaha will travel to Miami next weekend for a series with the RedHawks, followed up by their final games of the regular season at home against North Dakota.
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