Attention NCHC: Beware of Omaha

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Every year for the past three, we have covered the Mavericks of Omaha when they play the Fighting Hawks. Each time in those spans they have put together efforts centered on speed and transition, while needing some timely goaltending. The margins have gotten consistently closer, and the Mavericks have put on tape a road map to beat one of the top teams in the country.

This year is no different, in the need to heed the Mavericks of the NCHC.

As we wrote back in September in our NCHC preview for Steve Kournianos Draft Analyst on these Mavericks:

“The Mavericks display a free-flowing, up-tempo style that is at its best when it forces the opponent to defend on turnovers. Although they were hit hard with several key graduations on defense, the goaltending of starter Isaiah Saville (VGK 5th/2019) will play a critical role in whether or not Omaha can finish above .500 for the first time since 2016. Additionally, coach Mike Gabinet will ice two critical transfers in former North Dakota puck-moving defenseman Jonny Tychonick (OTT 2nd/2018) and ex-Michigan winger Jack Randl (2000). They will join a trio of top-scoring wingers in Tyler Weiss (COL 4th/2018)Taylor Ward (1998), and Kevin Conley (1997). Therefore, scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem considering the notable transfers and returning firepower up front. It should be the Mavericks’ ability to limit the chances against, however, and minimizing the amount of energy Saville has to expend that could swing Omaha into one of its best finishes in recent team history.”

All of this still rings true, and now Omaha has everyone on notice with their strong play in the NCHC Pod. Boasting a 6-3-1 record, these Mavericks seem to be living up to the promise that their previous two iterations had, but never fully capitalized on. The past month showed how we underestimated how far this team has come. We picked the Mavericks fifth in the referenced article, and feel comfortable moving them into the top four at minimum.

During the Pod, this team was shown to play the same style that Mike Gabinet has been using over the past few years. That is, they attack fast, downhill, and care not for staying in their opponent’s end for too long unless they are celebrating a really good goal. Last year, it was jarring to see this team come to Ralph Engelstad Arena and knock off the Fighting Hawks playing this way. This year, that January night proved not to be a one-off, but a positive harbinger of the future for these Mavericks. Saville has gotten better since that game in January, through his improved rebound control and ability to play odd-man rushes, as an example. There are many more as Ward and Conley have each seemed to progress closer to an NHL look following the end of their time in Omaha. They both are catalysts for the speed game Gabinet likes all five skaters to play consistently.

If the Fighting Hawks play a buttoned up system game that relies on cycles and wearing down opponents, Omaha is their polar opposite. The Mavericks gain the zone, and get shots on net, whilst always looking to make the simple pass and carry the puck through the neutral zone instead of dumping the puck in deep. They have a goalie that allows them to play this way in Saville, and when he is on his game, very few in the country can put home anything against him.

How this team plays UND this weekend and beyond in the second half will show how much these Mavericks have grown. How they can play the Fighting Hawks on back-to-back nights and what they do to agitate their system will once again serve as a model for other teams, and come tournament time will probably be used by coaches of other teams to pre-scout ways to beat them, or at least make their lives a bit more difficult on the ice.

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