DETROIT — After scoring three first-period goals to take a commanding lead, the Michigan Wolverines earned their 3-2 victory over the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks the hard way — they worked for it.
Craig Murray, Mike Cammalleri, and Joe Kautz, all tallied in the opening stanza to give the Wolverines a 3-0 lead after one, but the Mavericks fought back with goals by Scott Turner and Greg Zanon in the second to make a game of it.
Josh Blackburn stopped 16 of 18 shots on goal, while Dan Ellis made 31 saves in the effort.
“Obviously, it’s a very disappointing outcome,” said Nebraska-Omaha head coach Mike Kemp. “Any time you’re going to play a team with the talent of Michigan and give them that much of a jump on you in the first period, you’re going to have your work cut out for you to battle back.”
Michigan head coach Red Berenson said that he’s happy with the win but not so pleased about letting the Mavericks come from behind and nearly steal this one away. “We should have had the advantage going into the second period but they got back into the game. Maybe we played a little more defensive [after the first] or less offensive, but certainly it was anyone’s game in the third period.”
Murray opened the scoring at 7:25, a slapshot from the top of the slot that went over Ellis’s glove, and at 9:52, Cammalleri made it 2-0 on a centering pass from Andy Hilbert.
Kautz gave the Wolverines their 3-0 lead at 18:26, tipping Dave Huntzicker’s blast from the to of the left circle. The puck hit the left post and ricocheted in, punctuating a period in which Michigan outshot Nebraska-Omaha 13-7.
“They came out with a heck of a lot of jump, and we were more tentative,” said Kemp, summarizing the first stanza. “I didn’t think we got on them with our forecheck very well, we didn’t finish checks. We were just playing cautious, almost in a capacity of not wanting to take the game, but trying to keep them from taking the game away from us. Consequently, when you play that way … you’re going to be on the short end of the stick.”
In the second, the Mavericks capitalized on two Wolverine mistakes to cut the lead to one.
At 10:02, Bob Gassoff lost control of the puck when he fell behind his own net, just as he was surveying the ice to set up a play to clear the puck. UNO’s Aaron Smith picked it up and skated to the right of the net, where Michigan’s Mark Kosick was lending a hand by accidentally interfering with his own goaltender. Smith passed back to Scott Turner, who jammed it in at close range.
Five minutes later, Bob Matzka screened Josh Blackburn on Greg Zanon’s rocket from just inside the blueline. After winning a faceoff in the left circle, Kyle O’Keefe dropped the puck back to Zanon, who fired without missing a beat. Instead of blocking Zanon’s shot, Matzka blocked Blackburn’s view, and UNO trailed by one at the end of two.
Early in the third, Turner should have earned his second goal of the night, but for a bizarre set of circumstances. At 4:14, with the Mavericks pressuring hard in front of the Wolverine net, Turner fired at a tight angle from close range. The puck skittered past Blackburn, but wound up on the stick of O’Keefe, who was stationed in the crease, ready for the tip. After the puck danced along the goal line, it hit O’Keefe’s stick and bounced out of the net.
“Unfortunately for Kyle, it was one of those things…where it may have gone in if he had not inadvertently deflected it. It was just one of those bad breaks that happen in a hockey game,” said Kemp. “I thought that Kyle and Aaron Smith and Scotty Turner gave us a lot of jump tonight. They worked really hard.”
Late in the hard-fought third period, the Mavericks went to the box twice for penalties earned while preventing breakaway goals. On the last Wolverine power play of the night, David Brisson nearly evened things up for UNO when he stripped Andy Hilbert of the puck in the neutral zone. Hilbert was skating toward the Omaha end when Brisson, in full stride, stole the puck from Hilbert’s stick. Without hesitation, Brisson crashed in and fired — and hit the right post with less than two minutes left in regulation.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the effort of my club,” said Kemp. “They showed a lot of character, a lot of resiliency. The things that have gotten us to this point were evident in the way … our guys responded after being down three-nothing. We just didn’t get the break in the end.”
The Mavericks end their season with a record of 24-15-3, 15-10-3 CCHA, but still hold some hope for an NCAA berth.
The Wolverines (24-11-5) and the Spartans (31-4-4) will meet in the title game Saturday, March 17 at 7:35 p.m. in Joe Louis Arena. It’s the first time the teams have gone head-to-head for the post-season crown since 1997.