It was an unseasonably warm Wednesday afternoon in Omaha — 75 degrees, on March 2 — when Mavericks coach Mike Gabinet spoke about a UNO team that seems to be heating up.
Six points back in the NCHC standings from fourth-place Minnesota Duluth, UNO (20-14) is all but assured of a road trip for the first round of the conference playoffs. The Mavericks are also on the outside looking in with regards to the PairWise Rankings, listed 21st and in need of a significant push if they are to reach the NCAA tournament for a second-consecutive season.
They might be starting to peak at a good time, though. Two losses Feb. 11-12 at last-place Miami stung, but UNO then swept No. 8 St. Cloud State at home. After that, last weekend, the Mavericks split a home series with third-ranked Denver.
A three-goal first period Friday propelled UNO to a 5-1 win over the Pioneers. Ty Mueller scored twice in that first period, on the eve of his 19th birthday, to help secure a seventh 20-win season in the 25-year history of the Mavericks hockey program.
UNO lost Saturday’s rematch, 5-2. Joey Abate and Taylor Ward put the hosts up 2-0 before Denver scored five unanswered goals, including four in the third period.
“We were up 2-1 against Denver with 10 minutes left, and you can’t give that team those power-play chances,” Gabinet said, referencing three special-teams goals in a span of 9:54 from Denver’s Carter Savoie, Mike Benning and Cameron Wright.
“But our guys have been playing well. Even before last weekend, we weren’t getting the results, but we were really strong on the Friday in North Dakota and have been doing a lot of good things.”
Gabinet felt that a 4-1 loss to UND on Feb. 4 wasn’t indicative of how the Mavericks played, and the same went for the Mavericks’ two defeats at Miami. The RedHawks have had UNO’s number this season, though, taking three of the teams’ four meetings.
“I didn’t think we were terrible against Miami, and people have to give them some credit, too,” Gabinet said. “They’re in the NCHC, and if they’re in another conference, their record’s not what it is.
“That Friday night (a 5-4 Miami win) was like 42 minutes of special teams, and they had three power-play goals in a game that could’ve gone either way, and on the Saturday (a 4-2 Miami win), there were a couple of fluke goals, and anything could happen. It wasn’t so much a reset after Miami, but just sticking with it. We just had to keep believing, keep working and keep showing up.”
Two more opportunities come this Friday and Saturday, when UND visits Baxter Arena on the last weekend of the regular season. The Fighting Hawks only need a split from the series in order to clinch the NCHC’s regular-season title.
Gabinet isn’t thinking about that. Instead, he is eager to see his team finish its six-game homestand strong, in the latest installment of an always-eventful rivalry.
“(UND coach) Brad (Berry) and I have got to get together and maybe ask the league that we don’t have to play each other at the end of the season all the time because it’s usually a pretty physical series,” Gabinet said.
“Everyone wants to go into the playoffs on a good note, but we’re preparing like we do for any other week in the NCHC, just giving ourselves a chance for success. I like our team, and we’re just continuing to grow and get better.
“The belief in the locker room is apparent, and everyone’s committed to the program, to getting better and to accountability. The personal responsibility just continues to grow, and when you see the guys taking responsibility for themselves, that’s when special things happen, and that’s the direction I feel our group is going.”