Playing the Pioneers; Mavericks set to take on Denver in NCHC Quarterfinal showdown

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Jordan McAlpine
SPORTS EDITOR

Taylor Ward celebrates a goal during the Pod with his teammates. Ward scored the overtime winner last Friday at North Dakota. He’s the leading scorer on the Omaha roster against Denver with five goals and three assists in 10 games. Photo courtesy of Omaha Athletics.

It’s been a season unlike any other, but with 24 games in the books, it’s the most exciting time of the year. Playoff hockey.

It’s a different look with the entire postseason being played in one building and a single-elimination format in place, but the Mavericks have a date and an opponent to get ready for: a Saturday matchup with the Denver Pioneers.

Last time out

After dropping the previous three games to North Dakota, the Mavericks responded with an overtime win last Friday in Grand Forks to close out the regular season. Kevin Conley and Chayse Primeau scored goals 14 seconds apart in the second period to give Omaha a 2-0 lead, but 60 minutes was not enough.

After seeing UND tie it up early in the third, the Mavericks started to grab the momentum back. Just 1:17 into overtime, Taylor Ward tipped home his first collegiate overtime goal for the 3-2 road win.

It’s just the second win by an opposing team in Grand Forks the last two seasons. Both of those UND losses came to Omaha.

“I really liked our game on the previous Friday at home,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “I thought we played well and kept it close down to the end, but I just told our team you have to lean into pressure a little bit and want more in order to grow. You’re going to get knocked down, but you’ve got to learn how to respond. I think our guys did that the last four games and got rewarded with a win.”

Working overtime

Never a doubt, right? At 4-0-0 in the extra frame, Omaha leads the NCHC and is tied with Penn State for the most overtime wins in the country with four.

Friday night in Grand Forks was arguably their biggest, as Ward re-directed a Brandon Scanlin shot past Adam Scheel for a power play goal in the sudden-death period. The goal snapped a three-game losing streak, which was Omaha’s longest of the season. That stretch was also the only time the Mavericks lost consecutive games this season.

It’s much-needed momentum heading into the postseason.

“It started with a big save from Isaiah (Saville) at the other end, and that’s usually how overtime works,” Gabinet said. “Weisser (Tyler Weiss) had a breakaway and drew the penalty, great play by Conley to get it up to Scanlin, and then obviously phenomenal hand-eye coordination by Wardo to get the winner.

“My gut said to get Wardo on the ice in overtime. I thought he was playing well and was going to make something special happen, and sure enough, he did.”

Regular season in the rearview

A lot has happened since that Dec. 1 season-opening game against Minnesota Duluth, but the Mavericks have made it through the 2020-21 regular season.

“I think it’s been a great journey for us,” Gabinet said. “Even for me as a coach, that schedule can look pretty daunting. Especially when you see conference only and 24 games against the opponents that we have to play on a nightly basis. I think there’s been a lot of growth, both individually and collectively, and it’s been a very exciting season with this group. We’re not done yet and have to keep improving.”

Three weeks living in a hotel, 14 games in empty arenas, and a COVID-19 outbreak and three-week shutdown in early January. However, the Mavericks were still able to put together one of their most successful regular season campaigns in recent years at 14-9-1.

The program climbed into the top-10 for the first time since Jan. 18, 2016, and has been ranked every week since Dec. 7. They’re 5-5-0 in their last 10, granted their final four games were against the top team in the country, and finished fourth in NCHC standings. It’s the first top-half finish for the program since the 2014-15 season.

It’d be hard not to consider this season a success, but now the focus shifts to the postseason.

Date with Denver

After playing four straight against North Dakota to close out the season, it’ll be a change of scenery Saturday as the Mavericks will take on the Pioneers. Omaha is 11-32-5 all-time against Denver, however, the two teams split the season series this year. Omaha’s 5-2 home win on Jan. 24 snapped a 19-game winless streak against Denver.

Gabinet and his group are ready for the challenge.

“Whenever you play four straight against the No. 1 team in the country it’s going to be a challenge, but in the same breath we take a lot of pride in being the one team to get wins up there,” he said. “Another tough opponent now with Denver now, but we’re looking forward to the playoffs.”

Saturday will feature what was supposed to be one of the four NCHC Quarterfinal series last season. The Mavericks were in Denver when that series and the remainder of the season were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also be the third playoff meeting between the two schools. Omaha is 1-4 in five previous postseason games.

This season hasn’t been the year head coach David Carle or anyone around his program has wanted. Ranked fourth in the country to open the season, the Pioneers got off to an 0-3 start and left the Pod at 3-6-1. They finished this season at 9-12-1 overall.

As a team, the talented Denver roster has struggled to find the back of the net. They’re averaging just 2.77 goals per game, which ranks sixth in the NCHC and 28th in the NCAA. The Pioneers scored 118 goals in the 36 games last season, an average of 3.27 per game.

Bobby Brink, who had an impressive freshman year with 11-13-24, has only scored once and added just seven assists. Brett Stapley, who battled injury and only appeared in 13 games before undergoing season-ending surgery, had a line of 4-3-7. He put up 5-25-30 in 35 games last season.

Take Carter Savoie’s 12 goals away, which account for nearly 20 percent of the total goals Denver has scored (61), and only one other Pioneer has more than four goals. Cole Guttman has eight.

They’ve also had their struggles in the faceoff circle with an NCHC-worst .457 faceoff win percentage. That also ranks seventh from the bottom of the NCAA. Between the pipes, which Magnus Chrona will Omaha see. The member of the NCHC All-Rookie Team, or the one who has been up-and-down at times throughout this season?

No matter what, it’ll be a tough task.

“There’s a reason they were picked fourth in the country to start the season,” Gabinet said. “They’ve got a talented roster and we’ll have to play the right way to be successful, but we’re looking forward to it.”

It’ll be interesting to see what type of team the Mavericks see from the start. The Pioneers have been idle since Feb. 27, as their final two games against Colorado College were canceled due to COVID-19 concerns at CC. Those two schools only played 22 games this season compared to 24 around the rest of the conference.

To make matters worse, Denver has faced COVID-19 issues of their own recently and will have just 16 skaters available for the tournament. Eight players were left behind in Denver, according to a report by College Hockey News. The minimum requirement to play is 15 skaters.

 Tournament time

In a season that has already been full of challenges and an unusual schedule, the Mavericks will return to Grand Forks this weekend for the third time in four weeks. After facing UND in a single-game the previous two Fridays, they’ll get tested with another single-game format to start the NCHC playoffs. However, this one will be the most important. Win or go home.

“I think it’s great,” Gabinet said. “Whatever the scenario that’s presented to you, you’ve got to accept it and be excited about it. I think that’s kind of the mindset we’ve had all season long with the wacky schedule a little bit and the different opponents and consecutive games against the same team and all that stuff. At the end of the day you’ve got to look at as an exciting opportunity to challenge yourself and for your team to grow.”

Although the games were at Baxter Arena in December, the Mavericks are 6-3-1 in neutral site games this season. Gabinet says his group needs to just take it one play and one game at a time.

The Mavericks will leave Omaha on Thursday and arrive in Grand Forks Thursday evening, where they’ll practice on Friday. It won’t take long to get familiar with the building they played in just one week before.

Around the NCHC

The season started with all eight teams in one location, and that’s exactly how the National Collegiate Hockey Conference will finish. There’s no denying the Pod in Omaha was a success with 38 games in 21 days. The league will use that same concept once again with the playoffs and Frozen Faceoff, but this time it’ll be in a new location at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Top-seeded North Dakota takes on Miami, St. Cloud State faces Colorado College, Minnesota Duluth takes on a Western Michigan team that closed out the regular season on a roll, and Omaha will be the home team in an intriguing matchup against Denver that could go either way.

Could Ludvig Persson or Dominic Basse steal a game for either Miami or Colorado College? Will the Broncos five-game win-streak and recent success, coupled with the Bulldogs struggles lead to an upset win for Western Michigan? Will the Pioneers show why they were a top-5 team to open the season? Or will the top four teams prevail?

Here are the final NCHC standings from the regular season:

 No. 2 NORTH DAKOTA 54 PTS / 24 GP / 18-5-1

No. 8 ST. CLOUD STATE 45 PTS / 24 GP / 15-9-0

No. 9 MINNESOTA DULUTH 43 PTS / 24 GP / 13-9-2

No. 11 OMAHA 40 PTS / 24 GP / 14-9-1

RV DENVER 31 PTS / 22 GP / 9-12-1

RV WESTERN MICHIGAN 33 PTS / 24 GP / 10-11-3

COLORADO COLLEGE 18 PTS / 22 GP / 4-16-2

MIAMI 18 PTS / 24 GP / 5-17-2

*All rankings according to the most recent March 8 poll from USCHO.com.

Friday March 12

2:37 p.m. No. 2 SCSU vs. No. 7 Colorado College (NCHC.tv)

7:37 p.m. No. 1 North Dakota vs. No. 8 Miami (NCHC.tv)

Saturday March 13

2:37 p.m. No. 4 Omaha vs No. 5 Denver (NCHC.tv)

7:37 p.m. No. 3 Minnesota Duluth vs No. 6 Western Michigan (NCHC.tv)

Monday March 15

3:06 p.m. NCHC semifinals (CBS Sports Network)

8:06 p.m. NCHC semifinals (CBS Sports Network) 

Tuesday March 16

7:37 p.m. NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship game (CBS Sports Network)

News and notes

  • The Mavericks are 23-40 all-time in playoff games and 2-12 in the NCHC. Six of the 14 NCHC games have gone to overtime.
  • Taylor Ward is Omaha’s leading scorer against Denver with 5-3-8 in 10 games.
  • Junior Chayse Primeau was named to the NCHC All-Conference Second Team earlier this week. Primeau leads Omaha with a career-high 23 points, including nine goals. He finished the regular season tied for fifth in the NCHC in scoring. Sophomore defenseman Brandon Scanlin and goaltender Isaiah Saville were honorable mentions.
  • Both Primeau and Scanlin have been getting serious interest from multiple NHL teams this season, especially as of late.
  • The Mavericks are currently ranked No. 11 and 12 in the two respective polls, but are considered on the bubble by many around college hockey. Six of Omaha’s 14 wins are against Colorado College, but another win against Denver would help solidify that resume. Of the four regional sites, the Mavericks would likely be ticketed for Loveland, Colorado or Fargo, North Dakota if they’re one of the 16 teams selected.
  • Friday’s win at North Dakota tied Omaha’s season win total from 2019-20 in 10 fewer games.
  • The Mavericks were a perfect 5-for-5 on the penalty kill last Friday. They’re back in second in the NCHC and seventh in the NCAA at 86.5 percent.
  • The Mavericks are averaging 15.1 penalty minutes per game. That’s the highest total in the NCHC and third in the NCAA.
  • Joey Abate is second in the nation in individual penalty minutes with 59.
  • The Mavericks have scored first in 11 of their 14 wins this season. Omaha has lost only one game this season where they’ve scored first.
  • Omaha finished the regular season 8-1 in one-goal games. They were 3-7 in that department last season.

Ways to follow

Game three of the NCHC Tournament between Omaha and Denver is set for a 2:37 p.m. CT start at Ralph Engelstad Arena. The game will be available on NCHC.tv. You can also listen to the radio broadcast on 1180 Zone 2 with Donny Baarns and Terry Leahy. As always check out https://unothegateway.com/category/sports/ice-hockey/ and follow @jordan_mcalpine on Twitter for live game updates and Omaha Hockey coverage all season long.

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