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Austin powers Omaha with clutch, game-winning goals, baby

 

UNO, HKY

That Austin Ortega is continuing to score points in bunches for the University of Nebraska-Omaha is no surprise.

The senior from Escondido has always had a knack for that, whether in youth hockey for the San Diego Jr. Gulls, Anaheim Jr. Ducks or LA Hockey Club, in junior in the United States Hockey League or in NCAA Division I hockey.

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This season there are subtle differences to his game that have made him an even more effective player and have him on the brink of setting an NCAA career record for game-winning goals.

“This year, he’s done a better job playing in his defensive zone,” Mavericks coach Dean Blais said. “He’s reliable on the penalty kill now. We’ve got him to block shots.

“I think he’s not cheating as much on the ice and looking for offense. He’s working for it.”

That notoriety extends to his teammates and opponents as well.

“The guys love it when he’s killing a penalty because he’s such a skilled player, and when one of your skilled players blocks a shot or throws a big hit, it gets the momentum of the game changed,” said Omaha captain Justin Parizek.

Ortega has relished the added responsibility.

“I like that coach puts me on the penalty kill now; I’m not just out there for offensive opportunities,” he said. “Helping out defensively is something I’ve gotten to do more, whether we have a one-goal lead or we’re tied.”

Rounding out the defensive side of his game certainly hasn’t hurt Ortega’s offense. He had career highs in assists (20) and points (27) after 30 games.

“If we win a game and he hasn’t got any points, he’s not upset he hasn’t got any points,” Blais said. “Scorers like to score. Two years ago, if he wasn’t getting any points, he thought he played a poor game.”

One of just three seniors on UNO (Parizek and Ian Brady are the others), Ortega also has grown into a leadership role for the Mavericks.

“He’s a good teammate,” Blais said. “He’s a leader off the ice, but he’s more of an on-ice leader in practice this year for us.”

Added Parizek: “Whenever you’re a great player, leadership is there because guys look up to you. He’s got over 100 points (in his career), so guys look up to him. Off the ice, he’s a hard worker and is obviously doing well in academics and hockey. He’s striving hard to get a professional contract.”

That work is paying dividends for Ortega and UNO. His three game-winning goals through the first weekend in February gave him 23 for his career, tied with, among others, Pasadena’s Brett Sterling, who hit the mark at Colorado College.

“When the game’s on the line, I like to be that guy who is looked to – I’m extra motivated to get that goal,” Ortega said.

Desire and motivation are one thing, but Ortega’s skill set lends itself to the clutch play, his coach said.

“All those game-winning goals, it’s pretty incredible,” Blais said. “There’s a lot of good players in college hockey, but he’s found a way to score in shootouts, in overtime. When we need the goal, he’s around the puck.

“He gets the goals when the game’s on the line and the next goal wins.”

And as good as Ortega’s numbers are, they could be even better, Blais added.

“We want him to shoot it more,” Blais said. “He’s unselfish. This year, part of our success on the power play is part of his success shooting the puck because he’s got a real good shot. Sometimes, people don’t know it because you only see him going in and sniping goals from 10 feet out. They don’t see that slap shot from the top of the circle – he’s got a rocket.”

It’s one that’s taking him to the top of the NCAA record books.

Photo/Jeff Beiermann/Omaha Athletics

— Chris Bayee