OMAHA, Neb. — The history between Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha said that this would be a high-scoring series. In 12 previous matches between the two, an average of just under seven goals had been scored.
But coming into this series at Qwest Center Omaha, both coaches said that their teams had been struggling to score.
The coaches were right, as Michigan outlasted the Mavericks 2-1 in front of a crowd of 9,180 Friday night.
Wolverine goalie Al Montoya was the backbone of the win. Early in the first period, with Montoya roaming, the puck squirted loose to the slot where Kaleb Betts fired to an open net. Montoya made a baseball-slide save to rob the Mavericks of the lead, and the momentum. It was indicative of how the night would go for UNO.
“With a one-goal lead in here, they way they were playing the game was in doubt right to the end,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “We were hanging on defensively.”
“They have a great team, today was a battle,” UNO forward John Thomas said after earning his first point on the year on UNO’s only goal. “It was clutching and grabbing and clawing for inches. I think that comes with the better teams, you have to fight for every inch.”
Mike Brown scored for Michigan at 5:59 of the first period to put the Wolverines on top. Dwight Helminen fed a cross-ice pass to Brown just in front of UNO goalie Chris Holt and Brown wristed the puck off Holt’s leg pad and into the net.
Michigan stretched the lead with the eventual game-winner, a T.J. Hensick goal at 18:06 of the first. Hensick skated down in transition and filled a backhander over Holt’s shoulder.
It was just another chapter in the book of bad starts for UNO. The Mavericks have been outscored 18-6 in the first period this year.
But they wouldn’t give up.
Justin Chwedoruk ended a season of frustration with a goat at 9:43 of the second period to pull UNO within a goal. It was Chwedoruk’s 14th shot of the year, and his first collegiate goal.
“It’s nice to get it out of the way. I’ve been looking for that for quite a while,” Chwedoruk said. “Longer than I’d hoped for.”
The third period never clicked for UNO despite carrying much of the play. Michigan held tight in the defensive zone, forced poor shots and blocked several others.
“You don’t get many chances in a game,” Thomas said. “When you do you want to bury it so bad. Tonight we just didn’t do it. They capitalized on their two chances and we didn’t capitalize on about 10.”
Of the 18 third-period shots attempted by the Mavericks, just three were on goal, an easy job for Montoya who earned first star honors for the 22-save performance. Montoya spent a lot of time for the Wolverines roaming out of the net and handling the puck.
“I thought he was a big factor in the game. He was very involved, he had to be,” Berenson said. “There was so much play in our zone. It was a game where you needed the goalie to make a difference and he did.”
Michigan was without Jeff Tambellini, trying out for the Canadian World Junior team. Without him, the Wolverines lost their second-leading scorer from a team that was only scoring 2.8 goals per game in conference. The Mavericks were scoring an even 2.0 in conference.
“When you’re team isn’t gifted offensively, when you get behind it goes from a bump in the road to a monumental mountain,” UNO coach Mike Kemp said. “At some point in time something has to hit the back of the net. Certainly we didn’t find that range tonight.”
The two teams meet again Saturday at the Qwest Center with Michigan looking to climb into a tie for second place going into the break. One point for UNO would get it out of the conference cellar.