OMAHA, Neb. — It’s all over for Nebraska-Omaha.
The CCHA season, yes. But UNO’s winless streak in its last 11, of 14 winless against Alaska-Fairbanks and a goal drought of over 200 all came crumbling down Saturday night at the Qwest Center Omaha. UNO built up a four-goal lead in the first period and went on to a 7-4 win in its last CCHA game of the regular season.
UNO put the scoreless streak to an end early and in a big way. Dan Hacker and Josh Weeks broke out a 2-on-1 as Weeks came out of the penalty box. Weeks fed Hacker for the goal at 5:31 of the first. Twelve seconds later the Mavericks struck again. Kaleb Betts tipped in his first of his two on the night off a blue line shot from Mike Gabinet.
Scott Parse increased the lead at 8:03 by banging in a backdoor feed from Andrew Wong. It was the Mavericks’ third goal on six shots.
That goal sent Nanook goalie Preston McKay to the bench in favor of Kevin Bartusch. But that decision was McKay’s.
“Preston pulled himself, ” UAF coach Buy Gadowsky said. “I’ve always had a lot of faith in Preston and I wasn’t going to pull him. He felt like we needed a spark and quite honestly I wouldn’t have done that.”
Bartusch was welcomed by Ryan Bennett’s shorthander at 10:12. Bennett sprang himself into the zone and fluttered a wrister to the top corner for a 4-0 lead.
“It was a battle. I’m really happy our team jumped out to such a lead off the bat, we don’t usually come out like that,” UNO goalie Chris Holt said.
Game over, right? Wrong. Fairbanks came back with two goals in the first to pull within two. Ryan Lang scored a power-play goal at 12:46. A brilliant sprawling save by Holt fell free in the crease where Lang slid it home. Ryan Campbell found the net at 19:27 with a tip of a Jared Sylvestre shot.
Betts got his second goal, the eventual game winner, at 1:56 of the second. Betts collected the puck at center, wheeled down the boards and backhanded the power play winner.
Alaska-Fairbanks kept coming, though, and Cam Keith scored midway through the second to again pull within two. Then Sylvestre scored to open the third period and for the first time since early on, it was a one-goal game.
“That’s hockey for you,” Betts said. “That’s a good time, coaches are rallying, fans are in it, that’s what we live to play for.”
“It was a character test,” Holt said. “It was a test to see who would step up and not let it affect our game.”
But an unlikely source became the nail for UNO. John Thomas sprang a breakaway and scored at 10:06, his first goal of the year and the one that sealed the win.
Fairbanks tried everything it could, even pulling Bartusch with nearly six minutes left, but UNO added an empty-netter.
“We had to do anything we could to try to get points,” Gadowsky said. “At that point it didn’t matter if we lost 10-4. I felt that was our best chance to get points and I thought we played well with the goalie pulled.”
What a difference a day makes. Friday the game saw just one goal and 37 shots on goal. Saturday saw 11 goals and 78 shots, 44 for Fairbanks.
In the end the outcome mattered less to Gadowsky, who was as pumped up as a losing coach could be when he found out Miami had beaten Western Michigan. With that win, UAF sealed home ice for the CCHA playoffs.