OMAHA, Neb. — No. 14 Minnesota Duluth finished off a sweep of No. 18 Nebraska-Omaha on Saturday via a 4-3 victory at Baxter Arena, a win that keeps the Bulldogs within six points of league-leading North Dakota in the NCHC standings.
Cole Koepke, Justin Richards, Kobe Roth and Jackson Cates all scored for the Bulldogs while Hunter Shepard made 26 saves, including 12 in the third period to preserve the win.
Below are Saturday’s thumbs up, thumbs up and three stars from News Tribune college hockey reporter Matt Wellens.
Thumbs up to UMD generating offense from good defense
The Bulldogs first two goals Saturday were terrific offensive plays that were the product of even better defensive plays.
Koepke, the sophomore wing from Hermantown, stole a puck just inside the Mavericks’ zone to set up his own breakaway that he finished with a backhander.
Richards, the junior center and assistant captain, created a shorthanded chance for himself after pressuring an Omaha puck handler at the Bulldog blue line. Richards had to fight through a slash and hook to score his goal top shelf.
“That’s what we always talk about. Offense starts with defense,” UMD junior defenseman Nick Swaney said. “It starts from defense out, having good sticks, being in the right position. At the end of the day when we’re doing that, we know we’re going to get offensive opportunities and obviously it showed on the first two goals.”
Koepke and Richards indeed used their sticks to set up their successful scoring chances.
Koepke used his stick to initially knock the puck out of the Bulldogs zone and into the neutral zone. The Mavericks’ Brandon Scanlin then took the puck back into the Mavs’ own zone to regroup, but Koepke maintained his pursuit and poked the puck ahead to himself for the backhander.
On the second goal, Richards just came hard at UNO’s Ryan Brushett on the penalty kill, poked the puck to open ice, and took off. A strong stick again helped to keep the puck away from the Mavs’ Ryan Jones, who was all over him.
“There's a lot of good sticks, a lot of second-effort plays,” UMD senior defenseman Nick Wolff said. “A lot of forwards didn't give up on the puck. Even if they got it taken away, they hustled back, got in good stick position and just made those second efforts.
“That's how we win games is by the second efforts and just keeping above pucks, and just hunting it down. The forwards did a really good job this weekend just battling in the corners. We knew it was going to be a gritty, grindy game this whole weekend. The forwards did a really good job just moving, keeping their puck possession.”
Thumbs up to a break
With Omaha in the rearview mirror of the Bulldogs’ bus, which left for Duluth shortly after Saturday’s game, the Bulldogs will take two weeks off for finals and Christmas.
Exactly 21 days will pass between Saturday’s game in Omaha and the next one on Sunday, Dec. 29, at Merrimack. That’s 21 days the Bulldogs sure could use after all the injuries they’ve suffered in the first two-plus months of the season. Seven Bulldogs have missed a total of 26 games this season due to injuries.
This weekend was the healthiest we’ve seen UMD since the start of the year, with Wolff and Swaney both returning to the lineup after missing games last weekend. The only player not back right now is sophomore defenseman Hunter Lellig, who's missed 12 games thus far and is not likely to return this year because of a leg injury.
And just because someone is in the lineup, it doesn’t mean they’re healthy. Wolff admitted he’s a bit brittle after the weekend.
“We need the rest, let the bodies heal up,” Wolff said. “It’s been a long first half of the season. Those two weeks will be a good mental relief for a lot of guys and physically it helps. Once we come back we’ll be ready to play and get after it.”
Matt’s Three Stars
3. UMD sophomore wing Cole Koepke: His goal in the first helped erase the early 1-0 hole UMD fell into. It was his third goal of the weekend.
2. UMD junior wing Justin Richards: Thanks to Richards, Omaha was left chasing UMD the rest of the night as he shifted the momentum of the game with a big shorthanded goal to make it 2-1.
1. UMD sophomore wing Jackson Cates: We should have known the Bulldogs would need an insurance goal in the third and the elder Cates brother came through with 8:28 to go in regulation. His goal to make it 4-2 UMD was the difference Saturday.