The night started with sparks and a police escort as the Mavericks hit the ice, but it was the Fighting Hawks power play unit that sparked North Dakota in a 4-2 win Friday night at Baxter Arena.
After going 3-for-5 and scoring three goals over the final two periods last Saturday in Grand Forks, the Fighting Hawks followed it up with an impressive 3-for-4 showing Friday, including Jasper Weatherby’s game-winner with just 1:18 left.
“You’ve got to give their power play credit,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “They’ve got one of the top power plays in the country and lots of skill in their lineup, and they’re capitalizing.”
The UND power play now ranks fifth in the country at 26.2 percent and is 6-for-9 in the last two games against the Mavericks. Omaha has given up just 13 power play goals as a team this season, however, eight of them have been scored by UND.
Six of the eight have been scored in the last five periods the two teams have played. Friday night it was what would normally be the so-called second unit that did the damage, as Shane Pinto and Jordan Kawaguchi were both out of the lineup.
Mark Senden gave the Fighting Hawks a 1-0 lead 7:30 into the first period, as Senden stuffed a loose puck past Isaiah Saville for the first of the three power play goals. There was a delayed reaction and some confusion on the ice with the scramble out front. Weatherby fired an initial shot from the top of the far circle, but Senden crashed the net and the call stood after a review. UND never trailed in the game.
However, the Mavericks tied the game up. It’s no secret Kevin Conley’s speed can be a difference-maker, and the senior showed that was the case yet again. Conley grabbed the puck in the Omaha zone and flew down the ice, around UND defenseman Matt Kiersted, and tried to tuck one past Adam Scheel.
The UND netminder made the initial save, but Brock Bremer finished the play, knocking home the loose puck. The goal was the sixth of the season for Bremer and tied the game, 1-1, 26 seconds into the second period.
Once again though, it was that Fighting Hawks power play that ignited the offense. Jake Sanderson found the back of the net just over the midway point of the second for his second career collegiate goal, as the freshman defenseman showed the skill that made him the fifth overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft.
Sanderson made a beautiful toe drag at the top of the Omaha zone around Matt Miller, who lost his stick on the play, and fired one top corner over Saville. His goal gave UND the 2-1 lead.
Even with the three goals allowed tonight, the Mavericks penalty kill is still 78-for-91 (85.7%) which ranks third in the NCHC and eleventh in the country. It’s not too much of a concern in the Omaha locker room, but it’s something the Mavericks know they’ll need to clean up heading into the stretch run.
“I don’t think it’s a concern at all,” said sophomore Jack Randl. “We’ve been good on the pk all year. They’ve gotten a couple goals on us the last couple games, so we’ll definitely take a look at the film and it’ll be something we’ll work on in practice.”
Another obstacle that stood in the Mavericks way was the UND netminder. Scheel was lights out Friday night and dialed in from the start, stopping 30 of the 32 pucks fired his way. The junior denied numerous grade-A chances throughout the contest, as the Mavericks had sustained pressure in the UND several times.
However, It was Randl who put one of the two pucks past Scheel. Martin Sundberg fired the initial shot and Randl made no mistake, burying a rebound at the top of the crease and tying it with just 2:43 left.
“Sundberg made a nice play going up and getting the puck and throwing it at the net,” Randl said. “It was just bouncing around a little bit and it came to my stick and just shoveled it towards the net.”
Tied up late in the third period, things would get interesting. With 1:53 left, Omaha defenseman Jason Smallidge was called for interference on a hit inside the Omaha zone. Tyler Weiss was also assessed a 10-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty following the play.
“It’s disappointing,” Gabinet said. “I think that close in the game you’d always like to see the players dictate the outcome of the game.”
That Smallidge penalty set up the eventual game-winner, as 35 seconds in, Weatherby wired one past Saville. The junior continues his torrid pace as of late for UND and has scored in seven straight games. He has eight goals and four assists in that stretch.
“With that little time left and it being a tie game, you’d like to let the players play it out and see how it ends,” Randl said. “It’s something you can’t control and they called it on the ice, so you just have to live with it and we’ve got to find a way to get a kill there.”
The Mavericks would get one last chance as Senden went off for a hook with 41.7 seconds left. However, they were unable to convert on the man advantage. Omaha finished 0-for-5.
“They’ve got some of the top special teams in the country,” Gabinet said. “We had a little bit of trouble getting set up in the zone and whenever you do that it makes it difficult to get that o-zone time to produce on the power play.”
Judd Caulfield added an empty-netter with 11 seconds left, making it 4-2. UND is now 18-4-1.
With this one in the books, the Mavericks have concluded the home portion of the 2020-21 schedule. In 17 games at Baxter Arena this season between the Pod and the second half, Omaha put together a 10-6-1 record.
Now the focus shifts to Ralph Engelstad Arena. The Mavericks will head to Grand Forks for one final regular season contest, followed up by the NCHC Tournament less than a week later.
“They’re always fun games to compete in,” Randl said. “They’re tight-checking games and I think it will be a good preparation for the playoffs that we have coming up.”
With a Minnesota Duluth win tomorrow against St. Cloud State, Friday’s loss cements the Mavericks in fourth place in the NCHC standings. With a SCSU win, third place is still in play for seeding. No matter the outcome, the goal this week is simple.
“Keep getting better,” Gabinet said. “At the end of the day, I thought we were better tonight than we were last weekend. I feel for our guys, that’s a tough way to lose the hockey game, but at the end of the day nobody cares about it and we can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”
Omaha and North Dakota will meet for the sixth and final time in the regular season next Friday, March 5, in Grand Forks at 7:37 p.m.