OMAHA, Neb. — After Ohio State’s 5-4 overtime upset in the first game of this best-of-three series and Nebraska-Omaha’s 2-1 rebound Saturday night, only a double-overtime game could end this hard-fought, closely contested battle.
In the end, the hero was UNO’s Billy Pugliese, who backhanded one into the OSU net at 7:31 in the second overtime to give the Mavericks the win and their second trip to the CCHA Championship Tournament in as many years.
“You can’t have a better feeling than that,” said the senior forward. “It’s a good way to go out.”
The marathon match capped an incredible weekend of hockey in Omaha, where two evenly matched teams delivered arguably the best first-round playoff series in Division I men’s hockey. Each game was decided by one goal; the Mavericks outscored the Buckeyes 10-9 on the weekend; the two teams logged nearly 210 minutes on the ice.
“This has been a long weekend,” said Nebraska-Omaha head coach Mike Kemp. “Friday night overtime loss, last night tight game all the way down to the nubbins, and tonight was a real emotional roller coaster with us scoring a goal with not too much left on the clock and them coming back thirty seconds later to tie it up.”
The Mavericks thought they had the game and series sewn up when Pugliese scored his first goal of the night with less than two minutes left in regulation, giving UNO a 3-2 lead. But the Buckeyes had other plans, as exactly 30 seconds later Paul Caponigri tied it up to send the game to overtime.
“That was disappointing,” said UNO goaltender Dan Ellis, who had 44 saves in the contest. We remembered the other night when they came back and scored with two minutes left right after we had a nice goal to go ahead. I started to think…that it might end up like that, but I had confidence in my boys.”
Caponigri gave Ohio State the 1-0 lead at 8:13 in the first, picking up Doug Andress’s rebound. David Brisson answered for the Mavericks at 17:29, right off the initial faceoff of a UNO power play. The first stanza ended in a 1-1 tie.
The second period ended with a 2-1 Buckeye lead on Daymen Bencharski’s goal on a last-minute, cross-crease pass by Luke Pavlas as both were crashing in two-on-one at 8:07. Through the first two periods of play, the Buckeyes outshot the Mavericks 24-14, and it looked as though UNO had run out of steam at the end of two.
“Ohio State pinned us back in the zone and just kept taking it to us in the second period,” said Kemp. “They had all the jump in the world, and we were back on our heels a bit. I thought our guys really regrouped between periods. Both [assistant coaches] Tommy Mutch and David Quinn made inspired speeches to the team and we came out with a ton of jump, and we were able to get ourselves right in there in the third period.”
It was David Noel-Bernier who gave tied the game for the Mavericks at 1:26 in the third. Just after a Nebraska-Omaha penalty had expired, Jason Cupp wrapped the puck around the back of the net and found Noel-Bernier, whose shot beat Mike Betz short and low.
When Pugliese scored five-hole at 18:25 on pass from James Chalmers, a trip to the Joe seemed certain for Nebraska-Omaha, but after Caponigri rained on the Maverick parade, the UNO faithful would have to wait another 30 minutes for Pugliese to make it official.
There were too many grade “A” chances to count in the first overtime, as each netminder played a brilliant game. Early in OT Ellis made a huge save on Jaisen Freeman’s wicked blast from the right point, and Betz answered moments later with a stick save on Noel-Bernier.
In the first overtime, Betz stopped Noel-Bernier twice, stoned Andrew Wong at close range, and denied Pugliese two sure goals, but it was the UNO crossbar that was responsible for perhaps the biggest stop of the night. Four minutes into overtime, Buckeye Ryan Smith crashed into the Maverick end alone, stopped in the left circle and let one rip – right off the pipe.
“Someone’s looking out for me,” said Ellis. “I was definitely blessed the entire weekend with the posts. That could have been the final goal, could have been the season. Thank God that it wasn’t.”
The Mavericks lost Shane Glover to a shoulder injury in the first period and David Brisson to a migraine in the second, making an already difficult game even tougher. “Our guys pulled together. We’ve been fighting through adversity all year long,” said Kemp.
“You look at the losses we’ve suffered through injury in the course of the year, and tonight was no different having Glover go down in the first period after he played so great last night, and losing [Brisson] after the second. Both of those were important losses to us. We had to shorten our bench up, and when you shorten your bench up you’re playing the same guys over and over again. In a game that goes this long, it’s very exhausting.”
Each team recorded one power-play goal in the contest. Betz had 36 saves for Ohio State to Ellis’s 44. The Buckeyes outshot the Mavericks 47-40.
Ohio State ends its season with a 17-18-2 record.
“We gave it everything we had,” said Buckeye head coach John Markell. “I thought that was a gutsy effort by our team. That was the best game we played all season. Let’s chalk it up to experience. It was unbelievable. I thought we deserved to win that game as much as they did. It’s the bounce of a puck here or there.
“These guys can walk out of the dressing room with their heads held high. I shook their hands and told them they had a great season. They played like men tonight. They played like men all weekend.”
Nebraska-Omaha (24-14-3) advances to play Michigan in the CCHA Semifinals in Detroit March 16, a rematch of last year’s Semifinal game in which the Mavericks beat the Wolverines 7-4.
“It’s a great accomplishment for our team,” said Kemp. “Our seniors — our first recruiting class, the first freshmen in our program – it’s a great accomplishment for them that they get the second trip back to the Joe our second year in the league.”