Denver rallies to sweep Omaha and keep four-year winning streak over Mavs alive

Photo courtesy of Shannon Valerio/Denver Athletics

It’s going to happen sometime. Denver’s four-year winning streak against the University of Nebraska Omaha, dating back to January of 2015, is eventually going to end. Whether it’s because of the planet’s inevitable destruction due to climate change or because of an incredible individual performance by Omaha goalie Evan Weninger, it’s going to end. For more than 58 minutes of hockey on Saturday night, it appeared the latter was going to happen. But with just 1:21 left in regulation, Ian Mitchell scored to tie the game at 2 before Cole Guttman scored less than a minute into overtime to lift the #3 Denver Pioneers to a 3-2 overtime win over the Mavericks for the second straight night.

For the vast majority of the game on Saturday night, the Mavericks may not have been the better hockey team but they certainly were the team that wanted the victory more. They adjusted well to what the Pioneers were doing and played very well in their defensive zone. They kept the Pioneers to the outside and made sure that Weninger could see almost every shot he faced. And the ones he couldn’t see? Well, he found ways to save those too.

“He was unbelievable,” Denver head coach David Carle said of Weninger’s performance. “Not only him but they showed a lot of desperation as a group blocking out at the net front, collapsing, and blocking shots. I thought they defended really well.”

As well as Omaha played in their own zone, it wasn’t like Denver wasn’t generating enough chances to take control of the game. The Pioneers outshot the Mavericks 42-31 on the night including a dominating 12-4 margin in the third period. Omaha and Weninger specifically played just well enough to keep the Mavs in it and allow Mason Morelli and Zach Jordan to score to give the Mavs a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes of hockey.

It was definitely tough,” Mitchell said of Omaha’s defensive effort. “Their structure was good defensively, they kept us to the outside. It was definitely tough for us to get through the inside.”

Sometimes hockey is fair and sometimes it isn’t (just go up I-25 a few miles and ask the Avs). With the extra skater on and less than 90 seconds of hockey left, Mitchell fired a shot from the point that found a Maverick stick. The puck careened off of it and past Weninger. Tie game. Less than three minutes of hockey later, Guttman finished a beautiful sequence on the rush that saw Ryan Barrow, Slava Demin, and Jarid Lukosevicius all touch the puck before Guttman buried his shot to end the game.

Obviously, Luko made an awesome move,” Guttman said of his overtime goal. “[He] kind of danced around the defenseman and took it to the middle. The puck was just sitting in the slot for me. I just fell up top and put it [in] there.”

While Omaha isn’t exactly challenging for the Penrose Cup, this was a key sweep for the Pioneers who have suddenly found themselves sitting in a tie for #2 in the all-important Pairwise Rankings. These were six key NCHC points for 3rd-place Denver (yes, your instincts are right. It’s weird) with 4th place Minnesota Duluth and 5th place North Dakota both within three points of the Pioneers.

“For us, you have to win games different ways,” Carle said. “To be able to win two close, hard-fought games like that against a quality opponent, it obviously helps our confidence going forward. We have 14 games left in the NCHC and there’s not going to be an easy game left on our schedule. I don’t care where teams are in the rankings.”

With a key home-and-home series with struggling archrival Colorado College on the docket next weekend, more key conference points will be on the line with another chance for the Pioneers to solidify their position in the top half of the conference standings. As if you need another reminder, every game in this conference is one hell of a battle and nothing is ever guaranteed. But with 14 conference games left and on a seven-game winning streak, Denver should feel good about entering the stretch run on a high note.