The Gophers will play Nebraska-Omaha for the last time in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association this weekend at Mariucci Arena, ending a short conference rivalry.
Omaha joined the WCHA in 2010 and will depart next year for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Minnesota will also leave the WCHA after this season for the newly formed Big Ten Conference.
The third-ranked Gophers (9-2-2, 4-2-2 WCHA) will look to buck a recent trend in the rivalry of road teams’ dominance. The No. 13 Mavericks swept the Gophers at Mariucci Arena in 2010, and the Gophers returned the favor last season at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb.
“I’d rather play at home than be on the road,” head coach Don Lucia said. “They came in a couple years ago and played very well against us and spanked us a couple times.”
Lucia added that he thought last year’s sweep of Omaha in a sense sealed the WCHA regular-season title for Minnesota.
The Gophers and Mavericks are two of the hottest teams in the WCHA. Minnesota is 4-0-2 in its last six contests after a road sweep at Vermont. Omaha has won its last six contests, two of which came at Michigan Tech — a team the Gophers split with earlier this season.
“They’re a pretty veteran group, I really like their [defensive] corps,” Lucia said. “It’s going to be a great test for our team.”
One large factor this weekend will be Omaha’s defense — literally because its defense is large. On a typical weekend, Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad, who stands at 6 feet 4 inches, is the largest skater on the ice. That won’t be the case this weekend. The Mavericks’ Andrej Sustr is 6 feet 8 inches, and their Jaycob Megna is 6 feet 7 inches.
“We’ll have to play them physical,” Bjugstad said. “And we’ll have to use our speed because we know they’re big guys, and they’ll use their reach on us and play physical.”
The Gophers will have the advantage of playing at Mariucci Arena, which has a wide Olympic-sized ice sheet. The extra space should allow the Gophers’ wingers an opportunity to get around the Mavericks’ defense.
“I don’t know if [Omaha’s] defensemen are really fast or not,” freshman Mike Reilly said. “But since they’re big, we’ve probably got to get to the net, get the puck wide and use our speed.”
Once the Gophers get past Omaha’s defense, they’ll have to score on Mavericks goalie John Faulkner, who is 7-0-1 in net this season. Faulkner owns a 2.03 goals-against average, which ranks second in the WCHA, behind Minnesota’s Adam Wilcox.
“We have got to get on them right away if we want to have a good series,” Wilcox said. “We can’t let them get us first.”
The Gophers have outshot their opponent in 12 of their 13 games this season. Before last weekend, they had struggled to score even-strength goals. But they corrected the issue in their two wins at Vermont.
Omaha is the Gophers’ first ranked opponent since their season-opening series against Michigan State, and the Mavericks should test whether Minnesota’s improvements are legitimate.
“We have four really important games before Christmas with [Omaha] and [Colorado College],” Lucia said. “Omaha is probably the best team we’ll have seen so far this year.”
Minnesota could bring a deeper team to the ice this weekend, as forward Sam Warning has been practicing and could return to the lineup from an undisclosed injury.
Gophers goaltender Michael Shibrowski is still on the shelf with an undisclosed injury, so Ryan Coyne will serve as Wilcox’s backup again this weekend.