Earning only one of a possible four standings points last weekend could prove to be just what the Omaha Lancers needed.
That’s how Lancers coach and General Manager Brian Kaufman has decided to frame the toughest weekend of what has been a remarkable start to the United States Hockey League season.
“It needed to happen,” Kaufman said, referring to Friday’s loss to Waterloo and Saturday’s shootout defeat against Lincoln. “We talked about it as a staff. Every team needs to go through some adversity, and we had not faced that yet. The fact we’re going through it now is good.”
When your team goes 20-4-3 through the first 45 percent of the season, there aren’t many opportunities to fight through tough times. And Kaufman and his staff welcome the fact that it happened just as the players left town for the USHL’s Christmas break.
there will be plenty of time for all 23 players to focus on what needs to be fixed to regain the strut the Lancers displayed while rolling to those 20 victories.
But the players also have plenty of good things to reflect on before they gather again Christmas Day to prepare for their Dec. 27 showdown at Ralston Arena against the Tri-City Storm.
Last season the Lancers didn’t have a single player among the league’s top 25 scorers. Omaha currently has three of the USHL’s top four scorers.
UNO recruit Jake Randolph leads the way with 47 points, including a league-leading 35 assists. Fellow future Maverick Tyler Vesel is No. 2 in points with 38, including a USHL-best 22 goals.
Native Omahan Gage Hough is tied for third with 32 points on 11 goals and 21 assists. Hough is tied with two others for second place behind Randolph in assists.
“We have guys you can rely on every night to score goals,” Kaufman said. “I don’t like to compare too much from year to year, but this year we have a few guys who have more junior experience.
“Overall our guys, for the most part, are showing a willingness to play defense first. Last year we had some guys running around concerned about offensive output. That’s not the case this year.”
Omaha also has the league’s best goalie in Cole Bruns, and his backup isn’t bad, either. Hayden Hawkey is 7-1 with a 1.85 goals-against average and a save percentage of .921.
Bruns has at times exceeded even his own lofty expectations. He has seven shutouts, and he’s the only starter in the league with a GAA of less than 2.00 (1.85). Bruns is 13-3-3 with a league-best save percentage of .930 and 479 saves.
“We knew he was a good goalie, but no one could have expected those kinds of numbers in his first season as a starter,” Kaufman said. “Between him and Hayden, our goaltending has been great. It was never a question mark.”
The stingy defense is not just Bruns and Hawkey. It’s also the defensemen and the forwards tuned in to trying to turn up the offensive pressure.
The blue line crew is led by Tucker Poolman. Besides being one of the league’s top defenders, he’s tied for first among defensemen with 19 points.
“Our willingness to play defensively, which for the most part has been very good, has made a big difference,” Kaufman said. “The last couple of games we slipped from that a little bit.”
The Lancers lead the league with 43 standings points, but a team that has beaten them three times — Waterloo — has 37 points in three fewer games.
That means there’s still work to do after all the presents have been opened.
“I think we’re a pretty deep team,” Kaufman said. “Obviously that top line offensively is great. Then we don’t really have a second, third and fourth line. It’s more like 2a, 2b, and 2c.
“It’s a great feeling to be comfortable with our guys. We just have to focus on playing a full 60 minutes every night. Our process is what we’re concerned about, for the most part it’s been good.”