Coming into tonight's season-opening match-up between #6 Minnesota State and #11 Nebraska-Omaha, it was expected that Omaha might have a bit of an edge by returning most of their line-up from last season while Minnesota State is still trying to figure out how to replace some of the top players they lost from last year's team.
That turned out to be exactly the case. The Red Mavericks built a 2-0 lead in the first period thanks to goals from Jake Randolph and Jake Guentzel and extended that lead to 3-0 in the first minute of the second period on a goal by Austin Ortega. That was all the offense they would need as they held off a late charge from Minnesota State to open their season with a 3-2 road victory over the sixth-ranked Purple Mavericks.
Minnesota State got a second period goal from Jimmy Mullin and an early third period goal from CJ Franklin, but failed to find the equalizer late despite some high-quality chances.
Omaha goalie Kirk Thompson made 24 saves to earn his first win of the season. Minnesota State's Cole Huggins made 22 saves in the loss. The two teams will meet again tomorrow night in Mankato at 7:07pm for game two of their two-game series.
-Both teams came out swinging in this game. The first four-and-a-half minutes were played without a whistle and each team trading a high-quality scoring chance before Omaha opened up the scoring. It was a fun, fast first period, but Omaha looked about a step ahead of Minnesota State in terms of their execution and that showed when they connected on two pretty passing plays to take an early lead. The ice tilted in Minnesota State's favor as the night went on, but it's so hard to dig out of a hole in college hockey.
-Luc Snuggerud was very good last season as a true freshman and if tonight was any indication, he's going to take off as a superstar this season. With everything played so tight defensively in college hockey, the only time you ever really see any quality offensive chances are either a) off of bad turnovers or other mistakes by the opposition or b) when you have a defenseman that can jump into the play to create odd-man situatons. Snuggerud is such a tremendous skater that he gives Omaha the ability to do the latter on a consistent basis.
That really showed on Omaha's first goal when Snuggerud pinched in from the point and picked up a puck creating an odd-man situation for UNO. Two crisp passes later and the puck was in the back of the net for the game's first goal. He almost added another goal later in the first when he was able to pick up a loose puck in the high slot for quality scoring opportunity. The ability to cover that much ice and win loose pucks his team might otherwise lose gives Omaha a huge offensive advantage in terms of keeping possession of the puck. Snuggerud playing a bit more conservative with the lead was also a big reason Omaha's offense sputtered in the final two periods.
-The other half of that equation I mentioned for creating offense is turnovers and Omaha took advantage of a pair of bad ones by Minnesota State for their next two goals.
A neutral zone turnover created a 3-on-2 opportunity for Omaha's top line, and they made no mistake with it. Jake Guentzel is certainly one of the best players in the country, and maybe one of the best I've seen at creating at finding open space on 3-on-2s. That's what he did and he buried the chance when he got it.
The third UNO goal was the result of a sloppy defensive turnover by Minnesota State at their own blue line and the puck finding the right guy in Austin Ortega.
-On the other end, you can't say Minnesota State didn't have their chances, but the Mavericks looked very much like a team in their first game of the season. Everything felt just a little bit off, from not connecting on passes, or connecting but taking a player off stride, to simple mishandling of the puck--including on semi-breakaways for Brad McClure and Bryce Gervais. There's potential there--they controlled play against a very good team for the better part of two periods--but with such big roster turn over, it might take some time for MSU to really start to gel.
-In terms of match-up, both teams seemed content to match up first line vs. first line, second line vs. second line, etc. all night, which makes it a little easier to judge the talent level of both teams. UNO's first line had the huge edge over MSU early in the game, and that line scoring twice early ended up being the difference. Minnesota State controlled the second half of the game as UNO went into a shell to protect their lead. When Omaha was attacking, their speed was problematic for Minnesota State. Big picture, I give Omaha a slight edge in terms of quality because they have some legitimate star players in Guentzel and Snuggerud. But Minnesota State is very close. If two pucks off the pipe go in, this is a very different recap. Bottom line is that I think these two will both end up being NCAA tournament-caliber teams, and likely teams ranked in the top ten much of the year.
-I mentioned Jake Guentzel's great play on the offensive end, but the play of the game may have been made by him on the defensive end when he made a tremendous back-check on the penalty kill to eliminate an easy tap-in goal for CJ Franklin.
-CJ Franklin was the best player on the ice for Minnesota State. He got a long overdue goal in the third period, but was good all night. He banged a cross bar in the first period, caught a tough pass in stride in the second period that sent him in a decent chance, and made a beautiful 1-on-1 move to generate a scoring chance in the third period. He was also tough in the corners and along the boards all night with a very strong stick. Franklin showed a lot of potential last season and looks like he could make a big jump this season.
-There were questions about both goalies heading into this game but both goalies were very strong tonight. Cole Huggins didn't see a high volume of shots and he'll end the night with less-than-ideal numbers, but he faced a lot of a high-quality chances and gave MSU a chance to tie it late in the game with a lot of very good saves. Kirk Thompson was solid all night, making all the saves he needed to. Neither goal was a bad one either. Both definitely deserve to start again tomorrow.
-If you really hate fancy stats like Corsi, or, anything resembling aesthetic beauty, Omaha is still the team for you. The Red Mavericks were dominated in possession stats by virtue of packing it in defensively for the final two periods, but just like much of last year, it was good enough, thanks in large part to the Red Mavericks blocking 23 of Minnesota State's 68 attempts--basically one out of every three tries. Conventional wisdom, at least at the NHL level, is that a team can't regularly give up 60% possession and still be successful, but maybe at the college level you can. It sure makes for some ugly hockey to watch though.
Shots on Goal: MSU: 9-10-7-26 UNO: 9-7-9-25
Even Strength Shots Attempted: MSU: 17-27-12-56- 62.2% UNO: 14-10-8-34-37.8
Prime Scoring Area Attempts: MSU: 8-16-12-36 UNO: 7-5-9-23
4:34 Jake Randolph from Justin Parizek and Luc Snuggerud 1-0 Omaha
Snuggerud pinched in from the blue line and grabbed a loose puck on the left half boards. He made a crisp pass to Parizek in the slot, who faked a shot and slid the puck over to Randolph at the right side of the goal mouth for an easy goal.
18:22 Jake Guentzel from Austin Ortega and Frederik Olofsson 2-0 Omaha
Omaha came into the zone with a 3-on-2 off a neutral zone turnover by Minnesota State. Olofsson took the puck wide and deep down the left wing, then slipped a pass to Ortega who dropped the puck back to Guentzel. Guentzel's wrist shot from the left circle beat Huggins to the near side.
0:53 Austin Ortega from Brian Cooper 3-0 Omaha
Ortega created a turnover at the Omaha blue line and raced down the ice on a 2-on-1. His first shot from the bottom of the right circle was stopped by Huggins, but he stayed with the play and chipped a second opportunity over Huggins for the goal.
13:28 Jimmy Mullin from Sean Flanagan and Zach Stepan (power play) 3-1 Omaha
Flanagan took a shot from the top of the point that went wide. Mullin gloved down a rebound behind the net, circled around to the left side of the net and chipped the puck over a sprawling Kirk Thompson for the goal.
4:37 CJ Franklin from Casey Nelson and Clint Lewis 3-2 Omaha
During an extended sequence of pressure in the Omaha zone, goalie Kirk Thompson had his stick knocked away from him. With both teams scrambling, Casey Nelson collected the puck at the point, waited for a shot blocker to slide past to create a shooting lane and took a low shot. Thompson made the initial save, but without a stick, Franklin was able to collect the rebound and put it into the back of the net.