After a tumultuous first week of the season and a bye week the second, normalcy should return to Vermont men’s hockey as they head out into the heart of flyover country to battle 20th-ranked Nebraska-Omaha.
The Mavericks swept a series at the Gutt last year as part of their impressive 14-3-1 start, peaking at #2 in the rankings. The dynamic duo of Jake Guentzel and Austin Ortega was bossing it, and Evan Weninger was stopping lots of pucks. But after Christmas, everything fell apart. Weninger was injured, but even after he returned, they went 4-14 the rest of the way and got swept by Denver in the NCHC tournament. Omaha has only played two games on the 2015/16 season, a pair of Ws at the Alaska Goal Rush against the two Alaska schools.
In goal, the Mavs return a healthy Weninger, along with last year’s third-stringer Alex Blankenburg. Last year’s backup, Kirk Thompson, is now an assistant coach for the team, and freshman Kris Oldham has taken his spot. I’d expect Weninger and Oldham to split duty this weekend as they did in Alaska.
Defensively, Omaha returns all but Brian Cooper from last season’s blueline. Size is definitely one of Omaha’s strong points, as five of the Mavericks’ defenders stand at 6’2″ or above (in comparison, Vermont only has eleven players PERIOD over 6’0″, and just four above 6’2″, one of whom is a goalie). Last year at the Gutt I remember the Cats’ smaller skill players were having trouble being at a physical disadvantage; we’ll see how Coach Sneddon deals with this, especially as all of our goals against Clarkson came from a similar area around the crease. I doubt Omaha’s bigger defenders will let those kinds of opportunities arise. Three NHL draftees highlight this defense personnel-wise: Ryan Jones (Pittsburgh), Dean Stewart (Arizona), and Luc Snuggerud (Chicago). Snuggerud led the team in scoring from the defense last season.
Offensively, one-half of their dynamic duo, Jake Guentzel, made the jump to pro last summer, signing with the NHL team that drafted him, the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, during the Alaska Goal Rush, Jake Randolph filled his void and did very well, posting four points in two games. The other half of the duo, Austin Ortega, returns, and he hopes to build on last season’s 21 goals. Throw in the growth of their underclassmen, such as NHL draftee sophomores David Pope and Steven Spinner, and you have an attack that will challenge the Catamounts’ defense.
Both games, Friday and Saturday, will be on NCHC.tv, at the rate of a staggering $15 (seriously, what? AHL Live costs less, and even THAT’S overpriced). So we won’t have a recap.
Women’s preview against St. Lawrence out later today.