Blackhawks prospects part of emerging Nebraska-Omaha hockey program

Blackhawks prospects part of emerging Nebraska-Omaha hockey program

When you think of college hockey programs, a few readily come to mind. North Dakota, the University of Minnesota and Boston University are among them.

And then there’s the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Wait, where?

“That’s what a lot of people say, but you’d be surprised,” said Omaha junior-to-be Jake Randolph, who was invited to the Blackhawks’ prospect camp this week. “Hockey’s been big in Omaha lately. We just got a new arena last year, and that took off, bringing all ages into hockey. It’s pretty cool what’s going on in Omaha.”

No, it doesn’t leap off the college hockey page like some of the others. But for Omaha players Randolph, Luc Snuggerud and Fredrik Olofsson, UNO is where they’ve been cutting their college hockey chops, and the school has gotten a taste of the national stage.

The Mavericks made their first NCAA Frozen Four appearance in 2015, losing to Providence, the eventual title winner, in the semifinals. While Omaha struggled last season, players still feel the program, which began in the late 1990s, is headed in the right direction.

So what made these guys choose Omaha?

“I wanted to be a part of a hockey team that was up and coming, and I knew if I went there I would have a big role right away. That was a big part of it,” Snuggerud said on Monday. “We have a good group of guys down there; we work hard. We’re more blue-collar than white-collar guys. I kind of like that mentality, just working hard every day and getting better.”

Olofsson said the team is drawing interest and big crowds. The Mavericks started playing at their new home, Baxter Arena, prior to last season, and coach Dean Blais said the team is fourth in the country in attendance behind Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

“It’s getting pretty big out there,” Olofsson said. “When you think Nebraska-Omaha you don’t think too much hockey, but we’re on the rise. We’re looking to have a good team this next year and I’ll be going into my sophomore season, so it’ll be fun.”

Speaking of coaches, the Mavericks have a great one in Blais, who coached the University of North Dakota to titles in 1997 and 2000.

“We want to win championships like we did in North Dakota. There’s a way to do that. Omaha’s a good sized town. We’re in a good drawing area, but the staff and the commitment to the players help us get better,” Blais said. “A lot want to get drafted and get better. We want to make sure they get their education first and then develop hockey skills.”

The Blackhawks prospects, including Snuggerud, have done that. Snuggerud, who the Blackhawks selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft, said he’s improved his defense over his past two seasons in Omaha. Blais concurred.

“Luc’s a lot like Duncan Keith. Obviously Keith’s in a league by himself, but (Luc) likes to get the puck in,” Blais said. “He’s a good passer, but he’s getting more confident in the offensive zone. He didn’t do that much his first year. He needed more time to get stronger, more confident, and he’s developed that. He’ll have a heck of a year with us. He’ll get a chance to put that Blackhawks jersey on in the next couple of years.”

Omaha had a tough 2015-16 — the Mavericks started off well but faltered in the second half, finishing 18-17-1. But the team still likes the direction in which it’s going and is looking to build off the success of their 2015 Frozen Four appearance. Blais said the Mavericks return 20 players for the 2016-17 season. The University of Nebraska-Omaha doesn’t have a long hockey tradition, but it’s starting to make its mark.

“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back. We usually have a pretty young team, so it’ll be a good year. We have a good goalie coming in and some young players just picked up,” Snuggerud said. “We’re going to have a lot of talent, so hopefully it’ll all come together.”

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks hit road to face Blue Jackets

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. One big reunion.

The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.

Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.

Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.

2. Panarin and Kane bromance.

The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:

Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).

He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.

3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.

The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.

The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.

So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start


Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."