COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nebraska-Omaha head coach Mike Kemp said it best: “It was a tight game all the way through. It was just a tight-checking game. Neither team had the opportunity to get open, to get loose.
“When you play that kind of tight-checking game, it’s going to be low-scoring, few opportunities.”
In the end, the Buckeyes bested the Mavericks by the width of one puck, a power-play goal by defenseman Thomas Welsh at 6:15 in the second period, assisted by Paul Caponigri and Scott May.
Mike Betz had 24 saves in his first shutout of the season, the second of his collegiate career. At the other end of the rink, Dan Ellis also had 24 saves.
Both goaltenders played well, but Betz made some spectacular saves on the evening, especially on two penalty kills in the second, and on Andrew Wong’s point-blank breakaway shot early in the third.
“That was the one I really didn’t think I was going to get,” said Betz. “Yesterday in practice, we were working on two-on-ones the whole time, and all I wanted was for the defenseman to take the pass, and it wasn’t happening at all.”
“Then that’s exactly what happened [tonight]. I didn’t think I was going to get there.” Wong took a cross-crease pass from Aaron Smith, with a lone Buckeye defender back. Betz flopped onto his back with his legs in the air, and Wong redirected the puck. “It went off the top of my leg,” said the netminder.
OSU head coach John Markell said the game was “totally what we expected.”
“We knew that if we came out and played well five-on-five and stay out of the box, it was going to be a close game. They had our chances and we had our chances. Fortunately for us, a young kid got his first goal and a big goal at that.”
Understandably, Welsh said the goal “felt great,” and said he was relieved to finally earn his first collegiate point. “I’m just happy it stood up for the game [winner].”
The power-play tally, which squeaked by Ellis five-hole, surprised even Welsh himself, who didn’t expect to score on the play. “I moved the puck up to [Caponigri] behind the blueline, and then he just saw me right behind him and did a little back pass. I saw Daymen [Bencharski] trying wide to the net, and I was looking ‘pass’ the whole time, but I didn’t think I’d be able to slide it across so I threw it on net. Luckily it went in.”
Betz said that Welsh’s goal was a big relief. “In a game like that you’re just waiting for who is going to crack first. It’s always fun to play against Danny [Ellis]. There’s a rivalry here and nobody wanted to back down, so it was a huge relief when we got that one-goal lead.”
Ohio State went 1-for-3 on the power play, while UNO was 0-for-4.
“We had great chances,” said Kemp. “It was a one-goal game, and it came down to special teams. Their power play scored one goal, and ours didn’t. That was absolutely the difference. Neither team had an abundance of scoring opportunities. Both teams had about equal opportunities, and the goaltenders were up to the task each time.”
The Buckeyes were without Dave Steckel and J.B. Bittner, the duo who combined for the game-winning goal against Bowling Green last weekend (Oct. 27). Steckel and Bittner received game disqualifications at the end of that contest, and so sat this one out.
“These are the kinds of things that you have to work through,” Markell said. “We were facing a few obstacles … but other guys stepped up and played well in their positions. Sometimes a team can rally around a thing like that.
“When you work hard, you can make up for a lot. You need solid talent out there, but you need unbelievable teamwork in order to get a win like that.”
This was the fourth consecutive match between the Mavericks and Buckeyes decided by just one goal. In March, OSU and UNO battled through three one-goal games in Omaha in the first round of the 2000-01 CCHA playoffs. The final match was a double-overtime 4-3 Nebraska-Omaha win.
Kemp said that the familiarity between the teams was enough to make anyone psychic regarding Friday’s game.
“Their team has changed even less than our team has,” said Kemp. “These are teams that haven’t changed a lot from last March. The key players are still the key players; the key individuals are still the key individuals, and the game was played much like those [playoff games], nip and tuck, down to the wire.”
The last time Ohio State shut out a team 1-0 was on Jan. 2, 1999 — the first game played in the Schottenstein Center. The Buckeyes beat Michigan, with Jeff Maund in net.
Betz attributed his shutout to the “night-and-day better” play of the Buckeyes, and to his own sense of calm. “When they play better, it allows me to play better. But the biggest thing was that I could tell, even in warm-ups, that I was relaxed, and everything seemed to slow down.”
The last time the Mavericks were shut out was Nov. 24, 2000, a 2-0 road loss to Merrimack.
Kemp said that Betz’s five quick saves during a Maverick power play late in the second left him shaking his head. “You ask yourself, how did those not go in?”
Added UNO captain David Brisson, “He robbed us a few times. We’ll be fine. The effort was there. We just didn’t bury our chances.”
Both coaches said the game was a good one. “I wasn’t disappointed at all by our team’s effort, by our team’s approach to the game. In fact, I was pleased,” said Kemp. “In this league, it’s not easy on the road, ever.
“We’ll just have to come out and play hard again tomorrow and let the chips fall where they may.”
Said Markell, “We have to turn around in twenty-four hours and try to do the same thing.”
With the win, Ohio State improves to 3-1-1, while Nebraska-Omaha is 5-2-0. The Buckeyes and Mavericks meet for their final regular-season match Saturday, at 7:05 p.m. in Value City Arena.