ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan goaltender Al Montoya earned his sixth shutout of the season as the Wolverines blanked Nebraska-Omaha 2-0 in a gritty game Friday night.
Thanks to goals from David Rohlfs and Dwight Helminen, Michigan (24-11-2) took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three first-round playoff series at Yost Arena. Montoya made 16 saves and was named the first star. Mavericks goaltender Chris Holt, the game’s second star, stopped 40 shots.
Both of the Wolverines’ goals came out of scrambles in front of Holt.
“Whenever we play these guys, the ones that go in are never the pretty ones,” said Helminen, who netted his 15th of the year. “They’re a team that goes out there and hits and bumps, and they’re kind of hanging on you. It’s not pretty. You kind of get chances off of working hard.”
The Mavericks’ offense never got going, as they struggled to produce scoring chances. Nebraska-Omaha (7-25-5) recorded just two shots on goal in the third period and was outshot 42-16 in the game.
The final period opened with a scrum in front of the Mavericks’ net that resulted in 16 minutes’ worth of penalties and a trip to the box for six players. There were plenty of penalties throughout the period, but no goals.
Michigan led by two at the end of the second. Helminen scored in traffic to double Michigan’s lead with a little more than four minutes left. Eric Nystrom and Matt Hunwick assisted. Nebraska Omaha didn’t manage a shot until more than halfway through the period.
The Wolverines took a 1-0 lead in the first frame when Rohlfs banged in the puck while Michigan was on a power play. Holt protested the goal — Rohlfs appeared to get pushed on top of the goaltender before the puck squirted in — but after some deliberation, the officials ruled it a goal.
Rohlfs was surprised to see that he scored on the play. “I ended up pushing the goalie and I guess me, him and the puck all went into the net somehow,” he said. “I didn’t know it was in until I saw the red light go on and the ref point, and I was confused.”
Jeff Tambellini earned the sole assist on Rohlfs’ seventh goal of the season.
Helminen said the Wolverines were surprised that the Mavericks trapped right from the start, but Nebraska-Omaha coach Mike Kemp said his team needs to play a defensive style to have a chance against its high-octane opponent.
“We really wanted to keep playing a defensive game,” Kemp said. “We wanted to keep the game low-scoring because they’re a powerful offensive juggernaut, and we’re not going to put up the numbers offensively — and we haven’t all year — to play racehorse hockey with them. It’s just not in the cards. We needed to play a smart game defensively, we needed to not give them too many man-advantage rushes and try to limit their opportunities.”
Kemp added that he thought the Mavericks followed the game plan well but were hurt by the number of penalties. Michigan had nine power plays, although it capitalized on just one.
Twelfth-seeded Nebraska-Omaha faces the daunting task of trying upend the No. 1 seed and CCHA regular-season champ. To add to the difficulty, Michigan has not lost a league game at Yost all season. But Michigan coach Red Berenson said the Mavericks didn’t play like a No. 12 seed Friday.
“Nebraska weathered our best effort and hung in there,” Berenson said. “I still can’t believe they finished last in our league. They’re not a last-place team.”
“You look at it as kind of a rebirth, an opportunity to come in and rectify some of the things that maybe didn’t happen for us during the regular season,” Kemp said of being the 12th seed. “This is a chance for us to redeem ourselves and make another step and prolong our season. Let the chips fall where they may, because we’ve got another opportunity.”
The Mavericks, who lost and tied when they met the Wolverines in Omaha during the regular season, get their next opportunity Saturday night at 7:35.