As the second half of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference season begins, Omaha is in a decidedly unfamiliar position: last place in the conference. With only two victories in their first eight league games, the Mavericks are currently chasing every conference foe, and home ice in the first round of the playoffs seems unlikely.
Despite a dreadful 2-6-0-0 mark in conference play, #18 UNO is tied for 13th in the Pairwise Rankings thanks to a 7-2-1 non-conference record (against UMass-Lowell, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Northern Michigan, and Union).
On the plus side, Omaha is scoring 3.56 goals per game, the fifth-highest scoring offense in the country.
On the minus side, Omaha is allowing 3.78 goals per game, the second-worst scoring defense in the country.
Fans of #6 North Dakota (10-5-5 overall, 5-3-2-2 NCHC) will need to get used to a new face behind the Mavericks’ bench. Gone is Dean Blais, who spent sixteen combined years as an assistant and head coach at UND before becoming an associate head coach with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. After a short stint as head coach of the USHL’s Fargo Force, Blais rejoined the college hockey ranks as the head coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
In eight total seasons as the Mavericks’ bench boss, Blais amassed an overall record of 145-131-30 (.523) and a CCHA/WCHA/NCHC record of 97-90-16 (.517), with one NCAA tournament appearance (2015).
After finishing in third place during the first two seasons of the NCHC, Dean Blais could only muster a pair of sixth-place finishes during his last two years behind the Omaha bench.
Omaha chose Mike Gabinet (Omaha ’04) as the successor to Dean Blais, and it has not been an easy transition. The first year for any new head coach is the most difficult – learning a new role, implementing a new system, and coaching someone else’s recruits – and this situation is made even more difficult by the fact that Blais was (is) a coaching legend. After three years as an assistant coach at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, Gabinet (currently 36 years old, the youngest Division I hockey head coach in the country) became NAIT’s head coach in 2015-16, leading the Ooks to a 36-0 record and the ACAC championship. Last season, he returned to Omaha and served as the associate head coach under Dean Blais.
Things will not get easier for the Mavericks in the second half. UNO will play sixteen conference games in the second half, including trips to #4 Denver, #1 St. Cloud State, and #16 Duluth and home series against #12 Western Michigan and #6 North Dakota.
Omaha will also have to deal with the loss of junior forward Mason Morelli (4-10-14) for the season. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Morelli tore his ACL in a freak accident over the winter break.
The Mavericks are also thin on the blue line. Sophomore Dean Stewart (0-2-2) did not play last weekend against Union, and two junior defensemen – Jordan Klehr (1-7-8) and Jalen Schulz (1-2-3) – were both injured in the finale. That left Gabinet with only four healthy defensemen. Junior forward Riley Alferd (1-4-5) finished Saturday’s contest at defense and has been practicing at that position this week for the Mavs. Freshman blueliner Lawson McDonald (one career game played) could also see the ice this weekend in Grand Forks.
On the injury front, North Dakota finally appears to be healthy after losing 46 man-games due to injury or illness in the first half. UND used a different lineup in each of their first twenty games, including 39 different line combinations at forward and ten different defensive pairings.
One key returnee for Brad Berry will be sophomore forward Dixon Bowen, who missed seven games with a lower-body injury. Bowen is a key cog in UND’s penalty kill: with him in the lineup, North Dakota kills over ninety percent of opponent power play opportunities; without Bowen, the Fighting Hawks penalty kill is under eighty percent.
Out of conference, North Dakota had decent success (5-2-3, .650) against Alaska Anchorage, St. Lawrence, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Union. UND has only a home-and-home series with Bemidji State on the second-half schedule. The league as a whole has gone 43-19-12 (.662) in non-conference play and could easily place five teams in the NCAA tournament field.
In this weekend’s matchup, I see North Dakota’s team defense stifling Omaha’s high-powered offense. UND’s forward group is superior defensively to anything Mike Gabinet’s crew has seen (outside of Notre Dame), and the Fighting Hawks are solid on the blue line and between the pipes.
In nine wins, the Mavericks have scored 45 goals (5.0 goals scored/game). In eight losses, the Mavericks have only scored fifteen goals (1.88 goals scored/game). I see Omaha scoring two or three goals in each game this weekend, not four or five.
If Brad Berry can lead the program to its sixteenth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, North Dakota would be placed in the 2018 West Regional (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) as the host school. The 2018 NCAA Frozen Faceoff will take place at Xcel Energy Center (St. Paul, Minnesota).
Omaha Team Profile
Head Coach: Mike Gabinet (1st season at UNO, 9-8-1, .528)
Pairwise Ranking: 13th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #18/NR
This Season: 9-8-1 overall, 2-6-0-0 NCHC (8th)
Last Season: 16-16-5 overall (missed NCAA tournament), 9-13-2-0 NCHC (6th)
Team Offense: 3.56 goals scored/game – 5th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 3.78 goals allowed/game – 59th of 60 teams
Power Play: 24.7% (21 of 85) – 9th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 83.5% (66 of 79) – 16th of 60 teams
Key Players: Senior F David Pope (11-12-23), Senior F Tyler Vesel (6-9-15), Junior F Fredrik Olofsson (4-11-15), Senior D Joel Messner (3-7-10), Junior D Jordan Klehr (1-7-8), Junior G Evan Weninger (7-6-0, 3.55 GAA, .882 SV%)
North Dakota Team Profile
Head Coach: Brad Berry (3rd season at UND, 65-27-12, .683)
Pairwise Ranking: 8th of 60 teams
National Rankings: #6/#6
This Season: 10-5-5 overall, 5-3-2-2 NCHC (2nd)
Last Season: 21-16-3 overall (NCAA West Regional semifinalist), 11-12-1-1 NCHC (4th)
2017-18 Season Statistics:
Team Offense: 2.80 goals scored/game – 35th of 60 teams
Team Defense: 2.20 goals allowed/game – 6th of 60 teams
Power Play: 19.3% (16 of 83) – 27th of 60 teams
Penalty Kill: 87.1% (74 of 85) – 8th of 60 teams
Key Players: Junior F Nick Jones (6-7-13), Freshman F Grant Mismash (5-9-14), Junior F Shane Gersich (5-6-11), Junior F Rhett Gardner (4-7-11), Junior D Christian Wolanin (5-11-16 and a wicked slap shot for a shootout goal), Sophomore D Colton Poolman (4-8-12), Senior G Cam Johnson (7-3-2, 1.83 GAA, .917 SV%, 1 SO)
By The Numbers:
Last meeting: February 25, 2017 (Grand Forks, ND). One night after North Dakota forwards Tyson Jost and Brock Boeser combined for four goals in a 6-4 UND victory, Omaha netminder Evan Weninger pitched a 22-save shutout as the Mavericks salvaged a weekend split with a 3-0 win. The Fighting Hawks had won six in a row before this most recent meeting, including a 9-1/7-3 shellacking in Omaha seven weeks earlier.
Most memorable meeting: The game that UND fans will long remember is the outdoor game played at TD Ameritrade Park (Omaha, Nebraska) on February 9th, 2013. One day after winning a tight 2-1 contest indoors, North Dakota throttled UNO 5-2 on a sunny, melty afternoon. Mavericks netminder John Faulkner was pulled after allowing three goals on five shots in just ten minutes of game action. In my opinion, this hockey weekend solidified the notion that for UND hockey, it’s always a home game.
Last ten: North Dakota has won seven of the last ten contests between the schools, outscoring the Mavericks 44-25 over that stretch. Two of Omaha’s three most recent wins were overtime victories.
All-time: UND leads the all-time series 15-8-1 (.646) and has a slight edge (6-5-1, .542) in games played in Grand Forks.
Game News and Notes
UND leads the nation in faceoff efficiency (56.2 percent); Omaha is 14th at 52.0 percent. In 2015, both North Dakota and Omaha advanced to the Frozen Four but neither team made the championship game. UND fell to Boston University 5-3, while the Mavericks were upended 4-1 by eventual national champion Providence. Among active players, senior forward Austin Poganski leads UND with seven career points in twelve games against the Mavericks, while senior goaltender Cam Johnson has won six of his eight starts (2.25 GAA, .918 SV%).
Friday’s opener will be telecast nationally on CBS Sports Network, with Saturday’s rematch available on Midco Sports Network. Saturday’s game will also be streamed live in high definition via NCHC.tv.
UND men’s hockey games (home and away) can be heard on 96.1 FM and on stations across the UND Sports Radio Network (as well as through the iHeart Radio app). Follow @UNDMHockey for real-time Twitter updates, or follow the action via live chat at UNDsports.com.
Four of North Dakota’s seven remaining conference series will be played at Ralph Engelstad Arena, and UND will need to take care of business at home to finish in the top half of the NCHC and secure an NCAA bid. The Fighting Hawks will earn a hard-fought sweep this weekend. UND 4-2, 4-3.
As always, thank you for reading. I welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions. Follow me on Twitter (@DBergerHockey) for more information and insight. Here’s to hockey!