Opening faceoff tonight between No. 12 Omaha and No. 2 Minnesota is set for 9 p.m. CT in the Loveland Regional. Ben Holden and Fred Pletsch will have the call on ESPNU. You can also listen to the Omaha radio broadcast on 1180 Zone 2 with Donny Baarns and Terry Leahy.
From the other side
It’s the first time Omaha and Minnesota have met since December of 2012, but that unfamiliarity has also been a common theme around college hockey this season.
“It’s a different year because none of us have had out of conference play,” said Minnesota head coach Bob Motzko. “We’re all going to be very unfamiliar with each other and you just watch the film. They’re a big heavy team, well-coached, good depth at their forwards, good goaltending, they’re going to be physical and it’s just going to be a dogfight.”
The top seed in this regional, the focus for the Gophers is to get off to a strong start and focus on their game. As for their opponent, they know it won’t be easy against the Mavericks.
“They play heavy, they’re not easy to play against and they have some big bodies,” said Sampo Ranta. “They’re going to be battling hard at us, but tonight is all about us. We have to be ready to go, we have to show up and be a team that sets the pace right away.”
Ranta said they’ve spent this week watching film and trying to prepare for Omaha the best they can. The Gophers leading scorer is excited about the matchup.
“At this time of the year of the year you have to be playing your best hockey and our coaches do a great job getting us ready for the games,” he said. “For me, it’s fun to see new teams and new players, so I’m excited for it.”
Nine of the 29 members of the Omaha roster are from the state of Minnesota, while 20 of the 28 Gophers hail from the state of hockey. Whether it was playing together as kids, junior hockey or training together in the summer, tonight’s game will feature several Minnesota connections.
“I’m pumped,” said Omaha sophomore Nolan Sullivan. “I got a lot of text right away after we saw the bracket come out from different friends and family. I didn’t know if I’d get a chance to play these guys or not in my career, you never know what the schedule is going to be out of conference-wise, but I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
One of those connections is Omaha defenseman Nate Knoepke, who played two games for Minnesota during the 2017-18 season before transferring to Omaha. Knoepke grew up a huge Minnesota fan and was set on being a Gopher as a kid, but coming to Omaha has been “one of the best things that’s happened” to him.
Tonight he’ll go head to head with several former teammates, including Sammy Walker.
“Right when we found out that we were playing Minnesota I sent him a text just saying see you soon,” Knoepke said. “I got to see some of those guys in the hallway, so it was nice to catch up with some of those guys.”
After departing Omaha early Wednesday afternoon, the Mavericks had the day off Thursday and returned to the ice for practice Friday afternoon. So far everyone has cleared the COVID testing protocols, which has been a topic around the country with Michigan and Notre Dame being removed from the tournament.
“It’s been pretty regimented here,” said head coach Mike Gabinet. “We’re definitely in our own little bubble and just doing everything we can to stay healthy.
“We hadn’t practiced since Wednesday morning, so it feels like a long time. Definitely nice to get moving out there, get used to the ice, used to the altitude and get a sweat going.”
Following the NCHC playoff loss to Denver on March 13, the Mavericks continued to practice at Baxter Arena. They held a team scrimmage last Saturday, but it’s tough to replicate that game action. However, they’re ready to go.
“I think we’ll be well-rested and everybody is pumped up to be here, so I think we’ll be ready to go from the start,” Knoepke said. “It’s the win or go home situation, but it just comes down to us and how we want to play. If we go out and play our game the way we can, we’ve shown throughout the year that we’ll be just fine.”
It’s something both coaches talked about during their media sessions Friday afternoon, but it comes with playing in the state of Colorado.
“We’re used to getting tired out here, so I guess that will help us a little bit,” Gabinet joked. “You’ve got to watch your shifts and try to manage the players ice early in the game. I find that’s one of the best ways to be proactive about it if you can early in the game, but at the end of the day, it’s the same for both teams.”
This will be the fifth game Omaha has played at the higher elevation this season. As for Minnesota, the Gophers played at Colorado College last year, but Motzko says you get used to it after a couple days. Once again, it’s something all four teams in Loveland have to deal with.
It’s been talked about all week, but it’s hard to ignore. If the Mavericks, the second-most penalized team in the country, want a chance to win, they’ll have to stay out of the box.
“That’s a big focus for us,” Gabinet said. “Especially keeping our sticks on the ice and keeping our free hand disengaged on the opposition, and just playing a smart, hard game. That’s something we’ve definitely been preaching for the last couple weeks here. Any time you give another team a power play it’s to their advantage.”
Friday’s game between Wisconsin and Bemidji State saw nine penalties called, which is something Gabinet will be cognizant of.
“Usually at this time of the year the penalties decrease a little bit, but you never know depending on who you have officiating and what their standards are,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s up to us to be disciplined and manage our awareness of the situation and make sure we stay out of the penalty box.”
It’s something the guys on the ice have been focusing on this week as well.
“I think we just need to find that happy medium where we can play aggressive and play to our strengths, but make sure we stay away from their hands,” Knoepke said. “We know they’re going to call it tight.”
Across the ice, discipline has been a huge strength for the maroon and gold this season. Minnesota averages just 6.1 penalty minutes per game, compared to Omaha’s 15.7, and the Gophers are 51st in the country.
“You can’t take penalties,” Motzko said. “You can’t take unnecessary penalties, I don’t care what league you’re in, you have to be disciplined. In college hockey I think discipline is one of the key components to winning hockey games and winning the special teams battle, and the best way you can do that is being a disciplined team. Our guys have always bought into that and we’re fortunate.”
They said it:
Ranta on playing in the tournament: “It’s definitely exciting being in the tournament, but ultimately it’s just another game. We’ve got to go out there and play our game right from the start.”
Motzko on his 14th NCAA Tournament appearance as an assistant or head coach: “It’s all about the next game and whoever you’re playing. The great wins, you don’t remember those, but the scars, you remember them.”
Sullivan on playing on this stage: “I think we just have to stick to our identity. We’re a physical team and we play at our best when all four lines are going and everybody is competing their hardest. I think we lack a little bit of that (NCAA Tournament) experience, but that’s no excuse. We’ve just to come out and get settled in right away in the first.”
Gabinet on the regional: “I know guys are excited to be here, but also have a business-like attitude that they want to accomplish something while we’re here.”