Mavericks Re-Power Up
by James V. Dowd/CHN Correspondent
As the announcer bellowed out the starting lineups at Omaha's Qwest Center last year, opponents felt their nerves flaring up as the crowd rose to their feet.
The Maverick fans' commotion was well-justified, as their starting front line — Scott Parse, Bill Thomas and Bryan Marshall — was the most prolific single line in the nation. Combining for 149 points, the threesome torched almost every opponent at home or on the road, leaving defenses feeling paralyzed.
Everyone knew that this season would be a little bit different now that Thomas, considered by many to be the glue of the line, is skating for the Phoenix Coyotes. And certainly no one expected the same level of production, regardless of who stepped into the lineup.
But in the early stages of the CCHA regular season, the Mavericks have somehow managed to maintain their offensive prowess, averaging 5.25 goals per game in their first four conference games and keeping the hometown crowd on their feet.
"You really can't replace a guy like (Thomas)," Marshall said. "What's important is to not change our game at all. Scott and I are off of the same line right now, trying to mix things up, but we're really not changing our style at all."
Without Thomas in the lineup, maintaining the same style and level of play hasn't been easy for Nebraska-Omaha, but some new cogs have combined to pick up Thomas' load. Seniors Alex Nikiforuk and Nenad Gajic flew under the radar most of last year, but have stepped into the limelight by combining for 19 points in the team's first eight games.
"I think the upperclassmen realize that in losing Bill, it was time for other guys to step up," Nikiforuk said. "If other guys carry the load, we knew we had a shot to make some noise."
Nikiforuk, who stands at just 5-foot-7, personally spent the summer trying to improve his strengths so that he could better battle for pucks.
"I'm a smaller guy and I wanted to be a bit stronger, so I worked on speed and strength," Nikiforuk said. "As a senior and a second-year captain, you kind of know what's going on, so I tried to help the younger guys."
A particularly successful offshoot of this hard work has been an awe-inspiring power play, which has converted a whopping 30.8 percent of its chances in CCHA play. Through eight total games, the unit has been averaging two goals per game — an important addition to the offense when so much of the game is spent in special teams play.
Even now that the season has started, Marshall says that the power-play unit has become obsessed with success, meeting outside of practice to insure they stay on the same page.
"We've been doing a lot of extra work," Marshall said. "The power play meets two or three times a week on the ice before practice. We try to get shots through at every opportunity, and crash the net."
With this offensive success, Nebraska-Omaha finds itself at third place in the CCHA standings, going 2-1-1 in its series with Western Michigan and Alaska. This weekend, however, it faces its biggest test so far, traveling to Ann Arbor, Mich., to play the Wolverines at the unforgiving Yost Ice Arena.
"Obviously, when you go play Michigan, it's a tough game," Marshall said. "Their arena is as intimidating as anywhere you play. They know how to play in that building and they know how to play off the crowd. We just have to outwork them on every shift."
Lucky for the Mavericks, tough arena or not, Nebraska-Omaha's strengths play right into the Wolverines' weaknesses. Michigan's penalty kill has been anemic thus far, allowing opponents to convert 20-percent of their chances, giving the Mavericks the perfect opportunity to solidify their place in the upper echelon of the CCHA standings.
But regardless of their early success, Marshall knows that the luck of the bounce can play a big role in any series, especially on the road.
"Sometimes you need bounces," Marshall said. "But you have to work hard to get control of the puck and then you have general ideas of plays to run. But sometimes, you just need to throw it at the net."