Omaha Mavericks (15-12-5, 8-10-2) NCHC Standing: T-5th
@ #16 North Dakota Fighting Hawks (15-13-3, 8-11-1) NCHC Standing: T-5th
Friday, February 24th 7:37pm/ Saturday, February 25th 7:07pm
@ Ralph Engelstad Arena- Grand Forks, North Dakota
Two weeks ago I wrote about how one game can prove to be a pivotal moment in a season. The UNO hockey team is hoping a hard fought win over Western Michigan could be key in a possible return to the NCAA tournament. Since that crazy weekend of hockey the Mavericks had a chance to rest their legs and heal up for the remaining four games of the regular season with a weekend off from competition. Now they return to the ice healthy, confident, and determined to finish strong.
Omaha had their worst weekend of hockey the last time they faced off against North Dakota back in early January but there is reason for hope this time around.The Fighting Hawks have dropped 7 of their last 10 games since owning the Mavs. That includes losses to Miami and Colorado College and a rare sweep on the road to Western Michigan. Safe to say North Dakota is feeling some pressure for once. Omaha has gone 4-4-2 since the two teams met in January and it's hard to say there is a bad loss in that stretch. All four losses came to ranked teams but the Mavericks finally got a much needed win over a top-10 opponent when they beat Western Michigan the last time out. UNO now has it's sights set on a huge road challenge where oddly enough, Omaha has faired ok. The Mavericks have played North Dakota much better at Ralph Engelstad Arena with a 4-5-1 record. The players seem to feed off the hostile environment and are hoping to grab at least one game from the Hawks. Both teams enter the series tied for 5th in the NCHC standings with 26 points- just two points behind St. Cloud State. There will be plenty on the line this weekend in Grand Forks with the opportunity to still host a first round playoff series but more importantly a chance to improve the PairWise ranking for both teams. I fully expect this series to be a tight one this time around with UNO skating right with the Fighting Hawks.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Omaha's power play has been a constant source of strength but in the series against Western Michigan the Mavs allowed 3 short handed goals in one game. UNO still got 4 goals with the man advantage in the series and have 41 on the season, good enough for third in the country. Sophomore Riley Alferd notched his first 2 goals of the season against the Broncos and the Mavericks got big contributions from several sophomores. Jake Randolph is recovering from an ankle sprain and should see the ice this weekend after missing the Western Michigan series. The Mavericks have been one of the worst teams when it comes to killing off penalties and given the talent of North Dakota it will be key once again for Omaha to stay disciplined. Omaha has the 9th best offense in the NCAA scoring an average of 3.38 goals per game.
Yes North Dakota has been struggling but they still have the most collection of talent in the conference. Sophomore Shane Gersich leads the way with 19 goals and 15 assists. Brock Boeser, Tyson Jost, and Tucker Poolman are among a hand full of Fighting Hawk players that are legit NHL talents. This team feeds off of turnovers and other mistakes by the opposition. Teams that have played sound disciplined hockey have had success against this them.
BETWEEN THE PIPES: Junior Cam Johnson has been the work horse for North Dakota. Johnson is 14-10-3 this season with a GAA of 2.31 and a save percentage of .907. With a quality group of defenders in front of him, Johnson doesn't always see a flurry of shots. North Dakota has done a solid job of protecting him.
Sophomore Alex Blankenburg is expected to get the Friday night start against the Fighting Hawks. The last time Blankenburg stood between the pipes in Grand Forks he earned his first collegiate victory. Blankenburg earned his first win of the 2017 season in a gutty effort against Western Michigan with 33 saves. Goaltending has continued to be leaky with Evan Weninger and Kris Oldham. Dean Blais is hoping one of the three can get hot and solidify the spot. Could it be the the little used sophomore? Why not.
THE SERIES: North Dakota leads the all-time series 14-7-1 and are 5-4-1 at home against Omaha.