After back-to-back weeks of Top-5 opponents, it’s a different challenge this weekend as the Mavericks travel to Colorado Springs to take on the Colorado College Tigers.
“I don’t think we prepare any differently for any team, whether they’re first, fourth, or 20th in the country,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “You see the importance of these games on the schedule with the standings being so tight, and a lot of these games can be almost six point games when you’re neck-and-neck with teams in the standings.”
That’s right, six very important points are on the line this weekend. Although the Mavericks were able to pick up a point each night in the Denver series, Omaha still sits tied for sixth place in the NCHC with 12 points. In a conference where only 13 points separate second from eighth place, there’s still a lot up for grabs with the top four teams getting home ice.
Especially with series against fourth-place Western Michigan, and second-place Minnesota-Duluth coming up in the next few weeks, this weekend is a great opportunity to gain some ground.
This series will also present the Mavericks with another challenge. Broadmoor World Arena is home to an Olympic-sized sheet of ice. Omaha actually moved their practice on Tuesday to Moylan IcePlex to get prepared for the Tigers speed and the bigger playing surface.
“These guys get a little taste of what I used to do when I played here instead of just walking out and being at the rink and at the workout facility,” joked Gabinet.
“We want to get a couple days on the Olympic sheet, and it’d be easy for us to stay here and practice on our beautiful rink here, but one of the things we talk about with our group is doing the work. It’s tough to get in those cold cars and drive over, but we have to do everything we can and prepare as much as we can for Colorado College.”
Omaha has already gotten a taste of the wider rink this season, as the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in Saint Cloud, MN is also home to a 200 x 100 sheet of ice. The Mavericks earned a split in that series, capped off by a 4-3 overtime win in game two. However, they know it’ll be an adjustment this weekend.
“They’re a different team on their rink, just like St. Cloud,” said Gabinet. “It’s a tough place to play. They’ve got a big sheet of ice that they practice on every single day, so those teams are tough to beat in their home environments.”
On the bright side, this group will be going in with a positive mindset and a lot of confidence. The Mavericks are coming off a (1-1-2) stretch against No. 1 North Dakota and No. 4 Denver, where they’ve been in every game. After a pair of ties with Denver this past weekend, the mood around the locker room has been a good one early this week.
“I think it’s optimistic and positive,” said Gabinet. “The one nice thing where you have good results against very good opponents, it helps with that belief in yourself, and all the hard work you’re putting in is getting some results. They’ve been working hard and focused on the process, and doing the right things consistently, so it’s nice to have that good energy around the group.”
However, that confidence doesn’t come overnight, and it’s been earned over this recent grueling stretch of the schedule.
“One of the things we talk about as a group is that you have to earn your confidence,” said Gabinet. “I’m a big believer in that. You can’t just show up and give somebody confidence, or you can’t just grab it, you’ve got to earn it. The more you learn that, the better off you’re going to be when you’re put in a situation where you need it. It’s something I think our group has earned by the way they prepare in practice and their daily approach to things, and I think it’s going to serve us well as we move forward.”
The crimson and black will also be playing in front of a confident goalie, as Isaiah Saville was recently named the NCHC Rookie of the Week thanks to his performance against Denver. The Anchorage, AK native made 27 saves Friday night, followed up by a career high 45-save effort in the 2-2 tie Saturday.
“I thought last weekend was one of his best performances so far this season,” said Gabinet. “The ability to make some timely saves at key points of the game- that’s what you want your goaltender to do.”
As Saville stated after the game Saturday night, it’s not a one man effort, and his head coach echoed that on Tuesday morning.
“I thought our guys deserve credit to,” said Gabinet. “Keeping the shots to the outside and making sure he’s seeing pucks- but anytime your goalie is making saves like that, you’ve got a chance to win.”
On the home side, the Tigers come into this series sitting in the basement of the NCHC standings, however they’ll be no easy task. CC sits at (8-11-1) on the season and (3-8-1) in conference play, but that does include wins over Minnesota and Michigan State, along with a sweep at St. Cloud State. At the same time, the Tigers have been in several tight games this season, and it’ll be critical the Mavericks have the right focus and mindset heading in.
Omaha native Chris Wilkie leads the charge for the Tigers with 25 points, including a team leading and conference best 17 goals. Omaha’s Taylor Ward currently ranks second in the conference with 13 goals. Nick Halloran, who leads CC in assists (13), sits right behind Wilkie with 20 points. Junior Bailey Conger sits third on the team with 11, four goals and seven assists.
Matt Vernon has started 13 and appeared in 15 total games in net for CC this season. The freshman is (5-7-1), owns a .906 save percentage and a 3.41 GAA. Senior Ryan Ruck has posted a (3-4-0) record with a .900 save percentage and 3.52 GAA in his eight appearances.
This weekend will be Omaha’s first trip to Broadmoor World Arena since November of 2017, and potentially their last as Colorado College is set to break ground on a new arena in the coming weeks. The Mavericks lead the all-time series (15-9-5) and are (7-6-1) all-time in Colorado Springs. Last season these two teams skated to a 3-3 tie in game one, and the Tigers took game two 6-3 in at Baxter Arena.
Once again, injuries will be a factor in the series, especially on the blue line. Sophomore defenseman Jason Smallidge and freshman Alex Roy, both of which were injured in that North Dakota series, are out for this weekend.
“Injuries are tricky,” said Gabinet. “They can be really tough as a team to deal with when you’re losing guys that are impact guys.
“What we preach all the time is that’s why you prepare, and why you have a team of guys that can step in and play. We need those guys that are getting increased minutes to take that responsibility to make sure they’re playing the right way.”
The series gets started Friday night in Colorado Springs with a 8:37 CDT faceoff, followed up by a 5:07 CDT on Saturday. Omaha returns to Baxter Arena the following Friday to take on the Western Michigan Broncos.
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