Starting off strong: Mavericks finish Pod 6-3-1 and jump into new year ranked No. 11 in the country


Jordan McAlpine

Alex Roy jumps to join the celebration as the Mavericks tie Minnesota Duluth late in the third period on Dec. 16. Omaha went on to grab the extra point in a shootout and followed it up with wins over Western Michigan and Colorado College to close out the Pod. Photo taken by Mark Kuhlmann / NCHC.

After nine months without game-action, being thankful to be back playing was an understatement for everyone on the Omaha roster. That excitement translated to success on the ice right away, as the Mavericks are off to an impressive 6-3-1 start and are knocking on the door of a top-10 ranking.

Currently ranked No. 11 in the country, it’s the highest Omaha has been since they were at No. 12 in February of 2016. The next closest ranking was on March 5, 2018, as the Mavericks came in at No. 13. Omaha hasn’t been in the top-10 since Jan. 18, 2016.

Especially considering the circumstances with Baxter Arena empty throughout the Pod and players spending three weeks living in a hotel, the Mavericks have been one of the most impressive stories and biggest surprises in the NCHC so far.

“I don’t think we really had an off game,” said Omaha Head Coach Mike Gabinet. “Which is a testimony to our players and their mindset, and just how consistent they performed. It was really nice to see us show up and represent ourselves well and our school well.”

Through 10 games, their speed and tempo is evident, and the Mavericks offense has been nothing short of explosive. Picked sixth in the NCHC preseason poll, Omaha caught people’s eyes from the start by going toe-to-toe with then-No. 3 Minnesota Duluth in game one, falling just short 5-3.

From there the Mavericks won six of their next nine and also picked up an extra point in a shootout win against those same Bulldogs, which goes down as a 2-2 tie.

Omaha sat alone in second place in the NCHC standings with 19 points coming out of the Pod, trailing only North Dakota. The Mavericks and Fighting Hawks saw their first two series of the second half postponed due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests within the Omaha program.

The Mavericks currently are in fourth place, one point back of Minnesota Duluth and North Dakota, who are tied for second. They’re now three points behind St. Cloud State, who leads the way with 22 (standings as of Jan. 8). Omaha has played one fewer game than both SCSU and UMD.

“I thought we did a really good job in the Pod,” said Omaha sophomore forward Jack Randl. “Even in those games that we lost, we were right there. I think we even just kept getting better every game and I really like what we’ve done here in the first 10 games.”

Randl is one of two transfers (along with Jonny Tychonick) and six freshmen who joined the Omaha roster heading into this season. The Michigan transfer has made an instant impact with four goals and eight points. He’s part of a top-line with Nolan Sullivan and Martin Sundberg, who  has already tied his goal total (5) from one year ago, which has been arguably Omaha’s best line overall.

The Mavericks so-called second line of Chayse Primeau, Taylor Ward and Tyler Weiss, who were together for most of the latter half of the Pod, has also really impressed. Primeau leads the team in scoring and was tied for the conference lead with 12 points, four goals and eight assists. Ward and Weiss have each put up eight points of their own. Ward is tied with Sundberg for the team lead in goals with five.

Kevin Conley (2-4-6) and Matt Miller (4-2-6) have also played significant roles in the Mavericks success offensively.

On defense, Brandon Scanlin and Jason Smallidge have both registered a goal and seven assists from the blue line as well. Smallidge tied two single-game school records on Dec. 3 against Western Michigan with four assists and five points.

It’s been an all-around effort so far, and the Mavericks bench boss has to like seeing the contributions up-and-down the lineup. Omaha scored 37 goals throughout the first 10 games,  those coming off 15 different sticks. Four other Mavericks have picked up a point as well.

“I think that’s going to be the story of our team,” Gabinet said. “We’ve got good depth here, we’ve got a lot of guys that are good hockey players and we want to play as a team.

That’s what we want to be known as for Omaha hockey: a team. Not just a couple of high-end individuals, we want to be a team.”

Along with finding the back of the net on offense, the Mavericks have been able to keep the puck out of their own. Austin Roden notched a 41-save shutout against Saint Cloud State in one of his two starts, while Isaiah Saville has been the Mavericks workhorse, which was expected coming into the season.

Saville started eight of the first 10 games and appeared in relief in one more. He picked up his first shutout of the season and second of his collegiate career overall in the Mavericks Pod finale, a 3-0 victory over Colorado College.

At the end of the Pod, the sophomore owned the second-best save percentage (9.29) and Goals Against Average (1.98), trailing Miami’s Ludvig Persson in both categories. Saville was also second in the conference in wins with five.

“I thought he’s really gotten better throughout the Pod and he’s grown not only in practice, but in the games as well,” Gabinet said.

If the Pod was any more of an indication, Saville will surely get most of the Omaha workload between the pipes in the second half.

The Mavericks have been idle since that Dec. 21 win over Colorado College, which is the team they will see next. That series is scheduled for Jan. 15 and 16 in Colorado Springs. The Tigers came into 2020-21 picked one spot behind Omaha in seventh, but have also impressed early on.

Even though the results might not show it, they’re currently 3-5-2 on the season, but the Tigers have played well. Their resume includes wins over Minnesota Duluth and Denver.

The back-to-back postponements against current No. 3 North Dakota also sets up an interesting element to the Omaha schedule, as the Mavericks will now face the Fighting Hawks in six of their final 10 games of the regular season. That includes four consecutive games over the final three weekends of the season.

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