OMAHA, Neb. -- Every time I checked in with people in Dubuque, Iowa, last year about how things were going in the United States Hockey League, they would immediately talk about Riese Gaber.
They couldn't say enough good things about him on and off the ice.
They insisted he was going to be a big-time college hockey player who was ready to make an impact immediately as a freshman. They never tempered their comments.
On Wednesday afternoon, late in the second period of UND's season-opening game against Miami University, my phone buzzed. It was a text message from one of those Dubuque contacts.
Did he ever.
Not long after that text, Gaber scored his first collegiate goal and UND went on to win 2-0 in its first game at the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Pod.
The freshman from Gilbert Plains, Man., was electric in his debut right from the start of the first period, generating chances with his speed, showing off his heavy wrist shot and instantly finding chemistry with center Shane Pinto.
He registered six shots on goal, matching the highest total of anyone in the NCHC Pod thus far. He hit the post once. He scored a goal at even strength. And he finished with a plus-one rating.
"It was really good," Gaber said about playing his first college game. "I enjoyed it out there. I thought we played a really good team game from start to finish. Obviously, I have some pretty good linemates to play with, so that made the adjustment pretty easy. I was happy with it overall."
On Gaber's goal, Pinto made a nice pass from the left side to find Gaber streaking down the middle. Gaber collected the pass and rifled it into the corner of the net on Miami goalie Ben Kraws.
"I probably should have had a couple there early on," Gaber said. "But I knew I was playing well, so I had a feeling it was going to come. I just needed to keep working and eventually it was going to come. Obviously, I got a good pass from Shane and we executed that play really well, so it was good to pot that first one."
Impacting the power play
Gaber's goal came at even strength, but one big takeaway from Wednesday's game is that Gaber is going to have a significant impact on UND's power play.
The Fighting Hawks use a popular formation, a 1-3-1, with their top unit.
Three players who excelled at their spots last year are the same: Jordan Kawaguchi in the right circle, Shane Pinto in the left circle and Matt Kiersted at the top.
Two spots are different. Last season, UND had Westin Michaud, who has graduated, on the goal line/net front, while putting Jasper Weatherby in the bumper/middle spot between the hash marks.
Kawaguchi, the best setup man on the team, runs the power play from the right circle, dictating everything.
On Wednesday, UND coach Brad Berry and power-play coach Karl Goehring put Gaber into the bumper/middle spot instead of Weatherby. This gives UND a much greater threat in the middle, because Gaber is right-handed and can one-time a pass from Kawaguchi, whereas Weatherby is left-handed and cannot.
Weatherby did manage to score a few power-play goals last season on high tips from that area, but by the end, his power-play production tailed off. He had power-play goals in three-straight games in November, but only had one in the final 25 games of the season, as Kawaguchi frequently looked for the seam pass to Pinto in the circle.
Now, with a right-hander in the middle spot, Kawaguchi can feed either Pinto or Gaber for one-timers and it becomes much more difficult to defend. Gaber hit the post from that spot on one of UND's power plays.
Gaber also is able to use his shorter size as an advantage in that spot. Because he's just 5-foot-8 and has a shorter reach, the puck is closer to his body when he shoots than a taller player who has a longer stick. So, when defenders collapse around Gaber in the middle -- a spot where a player has to operate in tight quarters -- they're going to have to go farther to get their stick on his stick than they would with a taller player.
The bumper/middle not an easy position to play. Former UND forward T.J. Oshie does it very well for the Washington Capitals in the NHL and it appears that Gaber, who played in that exact spot on Dubuque's power play last season, has a chance to be that guy this season for the Fighting Hawks.
A spot on Pinto's wing
No two players showed as much chemistry on the ice Wednesday as Pinto and Gaber.
They combined for 11 shots on goal. Gaber scored and Pinto had two assists.
This should be welcome news to the coaching staff, which juggled Pinto's right winger all the way to the final month of last season. Weatherby and Judd Caulfield were the two most common options.
UND would seemingly prefer to leave Weatherby at center, and that becomes much easier to do if you find good matches on the wings of UND's top two lines.
It's one game, but there's a lot of promise there. And if it continues, I might get used to seeing Dubuque-area phone numbers in my text messages this year.