OMAHA, Neb. — Mike Kemp thought it might be dj vu all over again in the third period when Merrimack erased a two-goal deficit and had his Nebraska-Omaha club on the run.
In its two previous Maverick Stampede championship appearances, Nebraska-Omaha fell short in the final period, watching visitors Boston College and Denver, two of the last four Frozen Four defending champions, pack up and take home the coveted gold-plated championship cup.
Enter flashy Maverick freshman Bill Thomas.
With the score tied at 3-3 in the third and the Warriors skating with the man advantage, Nebraska-Omaha sophomore forward Scott Parse stole an attempted cross-ice pass at the top of his own face off circle and immediately raced up ice on a short-handed 2-on-1 break with linemate Thomas.
Parse fired a hard shot that knocked Merrimack goalie Jim Healey off-balance as the rebound rested on the goal line. Thomas, already with three points in less than two career games, dodged the outstretched stick of Warriors defenseman Jeff Caron to tap the puck into the net for the eventual game-winner with 12:31 remaining, as Nebraska-Omaha won its own early season tournament for the first time in five tries, 4-3.
The goal was Thomas’ second of the game leading to him being named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player, delighting the overwhelming majority of the 3,741 on hand at the Qwest Center.
“For us, it’s big,” admitted Kemp, now in his eighth season in Omaha. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this. We’ve been close so many times, for us to get over the hump is so very important.”
After trailing 2-0 and 3-1, Merrimack managed to tie the game just 2:20 into the final period on a pretty 2-on-1 break between sophomore Mike Alexiou and freshman Jeff Royston, who until last February was committed to the Mavericks.
Alexiou delivered a pass from the left boards to the tape of Royston’s stick. With no more than five feet to work in front of Mavericks goalie Chris Holt (18 saves), Royston roofed a shot under the crossbar for the equalizer, silencing the always-boisterous Maverick crowd.
“The goal that Jeff Royston scored was a great goal,” said Kemp. “When that happened, I got a little nervous. But we tried to settle our kids down, just play through it, it’s still a tied game and I think our kids responded.”
The momentum was clearly on Merrimack’s side entering the third thanks to Caron’s buzzer-beating, power-play goal with less than a second remaining in the second period that pulled the Warriors within a goal at 3-2. After Royston’s first career goal, the Warriors were looking for their first lead while on their sixth power play of the night until Parse and Thomas, both all-tournament team selections, connected for a second time.
“We made a bad pass,” explained Merrimack coach Chris Serino about the decisive goal. “We’re trying to do things that we’re just not capable of doing.
“In the third period, I thought we played hard. I had no problem with the way we competed in the third period, but we didn’t play smart. We got the puck, we’re on the power play and we got the momentum, but we tried to make an impossible play.”
Nebraska-Omaha relied on a territorial advantage in the first period to build a 2-0 lead on the first career goals from two of its eight freshmen in the lineup.
The Mavericks opened the scoring on the night’s first power play. Thomas, who notched two assists in his college debut Friday against UConn, made a power move up the left wing around Merrimack freshman Jordan Hart and flipped a shot under the left pad of Healey (34 saves) for his first career goal at 8:39.
Just over three minutes later with the Warriors unable to make a much-needed line change, Nebraska-Omaha took advantage when freshman center Bryan Marshall emerging from a pileup along the left boards to walk in on Healey, sliding a snap shot to the far post.
Alexiou notched his second strange goal of the weekend at 10:38 of the second period when he stole the puck from Holt, who came over to the left boards to make a play, and deposited it in the empty net for the Merrimack’s first goal. The Mavericks got that one back, however, seven minutes later on the power play, as captain Mike Lefley scored on a one-timer at the right post off a nifty pass out of the left corner by Dan Hacker.
The score stayed that way until Caron let go a slapshot with 1.8 seconds left that got to the net in enough time to slip through legs of Holt just before the horn sounded ending the second period.
Caron and Alexiou joined Parse and Thomas on the all-tourney team, which was rounded out by Holt and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute defenseman Scott Romfo.
RPI, which lost to Merrimack in Friday’s opener, fell to UConn in Sunday’s consolation game, 4-3, in an overtime double shootout.