Heading north to take on No. 1 – that’s the story this week as the Mavericks will travel to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to take on the North Dakota Fighting Hawks.
“It’s always exciting to play the top team in the country,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “They’ve got one loss on the year, so we’re definitely looking forward to the challenge of facing a good opponent.”
In a series that included a hectic travel schedule and an approximate 15-hour turnaround between games, the Mavericks came out of the state of Maine empty-handed. Omaha skated to a 2-2 tie Friday night in Orono and fell 3-2 Saturday afternoon in Portland, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort.
The Mavericks peppered Maine goaltender Jeremy Swayman over the two games, firing 77 shots his way, but the junior was up for the challenge. Omaha was only able to put four passed him on the weekend, two of which came in the form of their first collegiate goal – freshman forward Ryan Brushett and sophomore defenseman John Schuldt.
One of the biggest takeaways was the play of UNO netminder Austin Roden. Although the 0-1-1 record might not show it, Roden stopped 70 of the 75 shots he saw and posted a career high 46 saves on Friday night. With fellow freshman Isaiah Saville returning from the World Juniors, the internal competition should serve the Mavericks well, and Gabinet said both will have to earn the nod between the pipes going forward.
“With Austin having such a great two games up in Maine, he should take a lot of confidence in that,” Gabinet said. “Isaiah being back is great, but it’s nice to have that competition. Just like any position on the team, it’s always a healthy thing to have when guys are pushing each other in a positive way and making sure guys are earning their ice time.”
Omaha is now 8-9-3 on the season and they remain 2-5-1 in NCHC play. However, this is not unfamiliar territory, as North Dakota will be the sixth ranked opponent of the season. That is something Gabinet said his group doesn’t get caught up in.
“The one thing I like, especially about our young guys on this team, is they just play. We’ve had some big-time opponents already this season and it’s easy to get a bit intimidated, or to look at their record and who they have on their roster, but I think our guys just stay in the moment and just play the game,” Gabinet said. “That’s gonna serve us well with that mindset going up to a hostile environment.”
That hostile environment has proven to be a tough place to play over the years, and this season has been no different, as UND is a flawless 11-0-0 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. As if that isn’t enough, the Fighting Hawks ride an impressive 13 game home-win streak which dates back to last February. North Dakota is 18-2-0 in their last 20 home games.
With seemingly everything working against the Mavericks, heading into this series the message stays the same, and sophomore defenseman John Schuldt said his team is not going to back down.
“I think being the underdog is something that our team has kind of embraced this year,” said Schuldt. “With having 12 freshmen, it’s something that has been our identity. Even though we’ve been losing games lately, I think we’ve been playing some good hockey and we’re really excited to go up there and show what we can do against a really good team.”
At the same time, they know what they need to do in order to keep up with the potent North Dakota offense.
“We’re gonna have to play really solid defensively,” said junior defenseman Nate Knoepke. “They’re the number one team in the country, so they’re going to be opportunistic. Our systems work fine, it’s just when we make those little mistakes – teams can capitalize on those.”
Another key will be staying out of the box, which has been an Achilles’ heel all season. Once again, penalties hurt Omaha in Maine and they can’t afford to give teams any opportunities.
“That first period on Friday night, the shots were 19-5 and we had control of the game,” said Knoepke. “Even though it was 1-0. Those penalties in the second period let them crawl right back into it, and I think that’s been our problem for a while now. We take too many penalties and I think it’s something we’ve been working on, but it can change a game.”
Schuldt weighed in, as well.
“Something we’re focusing on this week is playing very hard hockey, but also disciplined,” said Schuldt. “We’ve been getting caught up in penalties and it’s something we’ve gotta do – stay out of the box.”
Flipping the page to Brad Berry’s bunch, North Dakota comes in firing on all cylinders fresh off a pair of 5-2 wins against Alabama Huntsville last weekend (a team the Mavericks also swept in October). The Fighting Hawks average 4.3 goals per game – the most in the country – while just giving up 1.6, the third fewest in NCAA hockey.
Going back to the two schools’ first meeting as WCHA counterparts in 2010, the Fighting Hawks hold a 22-11-1 advantage in the series and are 11-6-1 in Grand Forks. On the season, UND is 16-1-2 and 7-0-1 in conference play, putting them high atop the NCHC standings with 23 points.
Ranked as the top team in the country, a lot has been working, but it all starts in the net with the stellar play of Adam Scheel. The reigning December NCHC goaltender of the month and four-time conference goalie of the week, Scheel has seen all of the action this season. In those 19 games, he’s posted 16 wins with a 1.61 GAA (third best in the country), 0.922 save percentage and two shutouts.
Offensively, much of the attention will be on junior Jordan Kawaguchi, who has the fourth most points in college hockey, 10-18-28, and has also been a responsible +5 on the season. Behind him sits Collin Adams with 6-12-18, Westin Michaud 8-8-16 and Shane Pinto, a teammate of Saville at the World Juniors, who has 9-6-15.
On the blue line Omaha will need to watch a talented sophomore, Jacob Bernard-Docker, who has put up 3-11-14. The Ottawa Senators 2018 first round pick missed two games while winning a gold medal with Canada at the World Juniors.
These two schools are no strangers to one another, and 15 of the 34 all-time meetings have been decided by one goal. Last season, four of those 15 took place, with three of them going North Dakota’s way. John Schuldt said the Mavericks have been looking forward to this one for quite some time.
“Lot of pressure on them, not a lot on us – we’re all excited for it,” Schuldt said. “It’s definitely been circled on our calendar for a while now.”
That weekend circled on the calendar is here, and it gets underway Friday night at 7:37 p.m. at the RAE, followed by a 7:07 p.m. faceoff Saturday. Both games will be available here in Omaha on Cox YurView TV, or you can tune into the radio broadcast on 1180 Zone 2. The slate doesn’t get any easier for the Mavericks, as they will host No. 5 Denver just one week later at Baxter Arena.
Make sure to follow @jordan_mcalpine on twitter for live game updates and check out the Gateway for postgame recaps and Maverick Hockey coverage all season long.