It’s no secret the Omaha hockey program has had its struggles in the NCHC postseason. Saturday afternoon, they added another chapter to that story with a 5-4 loss to the Denver Pioneers.
“Tough one obviously,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “Lots of back-and-forth, lots of special teams, and to not get that one at the end to tie is disappointing.”
It’s been 20 years since the Mavericks last appeared in a conference semifinal, a loss against Michigan in 2001. They’ve never made it out of the first round of the NCHC playoffs and their last conference playoff series win overall came in the 2009-10 season, a 2-0 sweep against Bowling Green. That was also Omaha’s final season in the CCHA.
“We had our chances,” said sophomore center Nolan Sullivan. “We fought back into it at times and I didn’t think it was a bad game, it just wasn’t a smart game. We have to be a lot better moving forward.”
The Mavericks were outshot 15-5 in the opening period and 30-10 through the opening 40 minutes. However, Omaha scored three unanswered goals in the first and second. They even held a two-goal lead for some of the second period.
Jason Smallidge tied the game 1-1 with 5:09 left in the first, as his shot from the point got through Magnus Chrona. Originally thought to be Martin Sundberg’s goal, who set a screen in front, Smallidge’s goal was his second of the season.
Just 58 seconds later, Matt Miller gave Omaha the 2-1 lead with his eighth of the year.
“I thought we were a little tentative to start the game,” Gabinet said. “We didn’t manage the puck there early on and they’re kind of a transition team. When you don’t do that you can be on your heels a little bit early, but I thought as the game went on we started to play more effectively.”
Tyler Weiss stretched the lead to two with 5:13 left in the second. Set up by a stretch pass from goaltender Isaiah Saville, Weiss buried a beautiful saucer pass feed from Taylor Ward to make it 3-1.
However, four of the next five goals were fired into the Omaha net. A power play goal from Bobby Brink with 3:03 left in the second started to give Denver some momentum, and Mike Benning tied the game 3-3 just 42 seconds into the third.
Benning scored two goals in the contest, his second of which came on the power play and put the Pioneers up 4-3. As they’ve done all year long, the Mavericks responded just 1:18 later. Following a review for goalie interference, Nate Knoepke’s goal stood for his fourth of the season and tied it up, 4-4.
“That’s a real credit to this group,” Gabinet said. “They always seem to respond well and face adversity head-on, and it was no different tonight.”
That tie lasted less than a minute though. With 5:03 left, Bo Hanson gave the Pioneers the 5-4 lead for good. The Mavericks put up a strong fight in the final minutes and had several grade-A looks, including two crossbars, but they couldn’t find a way to beat Denver netminder Magnus Chrona.
With the loss, Omaha is now 14-10-1 and has been eliminated from the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. They’ll await the NCAA selection committee’s decisions on the NCAA tournament. As for Denver, the Pioneers will advance to the semifinals on Monday.
They’ll play either North Dakota or St. Cloud State, depending on the result of Saturday night’s game between Minnesota Duluth and Western Michigan.
Similar to Colorado College on Friday, the Pioneers came into Saturday’s matchup with just three full lines, as eight skaters were in COVID-19 protocol and Brett Stapley had season-ending surgery last month. Denver had just 16 skaters available, forcing them to use a 10-forward look.
Denver also lost defenseman Antti Tuomisto in the second period, as the freshman was assessed a 5-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head. Already down to 15 skaters, the Pioneers were even down to three defensemen at points in the third period with guys in the box. However, they overcame it for what their captain described as a ‘character win.’
“When you play with a short bench like that in a playoff game, you need everyone going,” said Denver captain Kohen Olischefski. “I think we had that tonight, which was unbelievable to see. I’m super proud of how this group responded and showed up tonight. It was one of the better experiences of my career here too, probably the best one so far. Hopefully there’s more to come.”
There’s no denying penalties have been an issue at times for the Mavericks this season. Omaha leads the NCAA with 392 penalty minutes. They were called for nine penalties in the game, three of which wiped out their own power plays.
“Just wasn’t good enough,” said sophomore Nolan Sullivan. “Penalties were unacceptable, we talked about it going into this game. We knew they were going to be short-handed on guys and at the end of the day it’s on us to keep our sticks down. It’s up to us to play the right way and I don’t think we did that.”
The biggest blow came in the second period, as Martin Sundberg was handed a 5-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head.
“You can’t take those penalties in these situations,” Gabinet said. “We saw what happened with CC last night. They got the major and then they evened it up right away on the power play.”
Joey Abate was called for one of the nine penalties on a hooking call early in the third period. Abate has 61 penalty minutes this season. Omaha is 2-7-1 this season when Abate takes a penalty. They’re 9-2-0 when he does not.
It’s no secret Omaha has been considered on the bubble by many around the world of college hockey lately, as the Mavericks look to earn one of the final spots in the NCAA tournament. It’ll be interesting to see what happens the next three days with the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and around the rest of the country, but the Mavericks still feel confident about their chances.
“We say it all the time with the NCHC strength, the positive is our only losses in the second half are North Dakota and Denver,” Gabinet said. “In my opinion, those are two pretty good hockey teams, so with the strength of our conference hopefully we get an at-large bid with the season we’ve had so far.”
For the guys on the ice, they like their chances. They’ll continue forward and keep preparing over the next few weeks.
“I think we did a lot throughout the Pod and the second half of the year to put us in a great spot,” Sullivan said. “At the end of the day I feel like we’ve been top-15 throughout the whole year and that speaks volumes to our team with the schedule we play. It’s a little unfortunate obviously, we wanted to do better throughout the NCHC Tournament and really just kind of dominate and put ourselves in for sure.”
Sullivan said they’ll scout everybody that’s potentially in the mix. At the same time, the loss to Denver will be something he feels will motivate them leading into a hopeful tournament run.
“It’s going to take a little gut-check,” he said. “I think we’re going to have great intensity at practice, we’re going to be doing the right things and taking care of our bodies. This one hurts, no doubt, so I think we’re going to come back with some hunger for the real tournament.”
Although there are no guarantees, many believe the NCHC will get four of the 16 spots. But will the Mavericks be one of them?
There’s a strong case to be made against them, especially if the Pioneers continue to have success in the Frozen Faceoff. Denver now owns the same record in regulation as Omaha at 10-10-0. They also played two fewer games as their final series against Colorado College was canceled.
On top of that, they’re 3-1-1 this season against Omaha. Will that head-to-head success be the difference?
“I think the biggest thing is we came here to advocate for our league that we deserve four teams in the national tournament,” said Denver head coach David Carle. “We knew that Omaha was the team directly in front of us that we were competing with, so in the big picture when the committee’s looking at it I think we made our case to be that fourth team in over Omaha.
“With the depleted lineup that we had, with our record against them going 3-1-1, we made a real strong case to the committee. I don’t see how Omaha gets in ahead of us now.”
NEWS AND NOTES
- Denver’s Hank Crone has scored four of his five goals this season in five games against Omaha. Crone has only played in seven other games.
- Isaiah Saville finished the contest with 33 saves. He also picked up an assist.
- Tyler Weiss scored his seventh goal of the season, which is a new career-high.
- The Pioneers outshot Omaha 38-28. They led 30-10 after two periods.
- Omaha went 0-for-4 on the power play. The Pioneers finished 2-for-6.