MANKATO, Minn. — Talk about saving the best for last.
On Senior Night, senior Adam Gerlach scored three goals in his final game in Mankato as Minnesota State defeated Nebraska-Omaha by a score of 6-4. The victory, in front of 3,318 fans, gave MSU the Spirit of the Mavericks Trophy for the second straight year.
The three goals for Gerlach marked the first hat trick in his career. The senior also posted an assist to help Minnesota State complete the sweep over UNO (17-15-4 overall).
“It’s going to be a great memory obviously,” Gerlach said after the game while holding his son, Joey. “It got a little emotional. I didn’t think it was going to. It was a great game for our team, and I’m just really excited to go into the playoffs with this momentum.”
Gerlach nearly missed his senior year completely. With a new son and a new wife, the forward almost hung up his skates for good. But Gerlach decided at the last minute to come back for his final year.
“I think he’s a kid that deserves everything he’s gotten,” said MSU coach Troy Jutting. “He sacrificed a lot. His family has sacrificed so that he could play this year, and I know that’s he having a lot of fun right now. He’s really enjoyed himself, and it shows out on the ice.”
Seniors Jake Brenk and Brad Thompson also scored for MSU, as Minnesota State (13-17-6 overall) erased a 4-3 deficit to start the third by scoring three goals in the final frame.
MSU outshot Nebraska-Omaha 15-5 in the third. It was the first time all season Minnesota State won when it trailed heading into the last period (1-13-1).
Gerlach got his team going with his second goal of the night 56 seconds into the third. After taking a drop pass from Steve Wagner, Gerlach ripped a shot between UNO goalie Chris Holt’s legs.
Brenk gave MSU a 5-4 lead less than two minutes later. The senior center fired a shot from the right circle that beat Holt high.
Then, at the 13:50 mark, Gerlach sealed the win with MSU’s third power-play goal. David Backes passed from the left boards, and Gerlach tipped the puck into the net.
Gerlach said he got a little emotional after the third goal.
“I’ve been waiting for it for four years. I’m not a scorer. What better time than tonight?” Gerlach said.
Like it did Thursday night, UNO took the first lead of the game. Freshman star Bill Thomas stole the puck from Wagner at Minnesota State’s blueline, spurring a two-on-none rush. Scott Parse quickly passed to Alex Nikiforuk on the left side, who shot the puck past goaltender Chris Clark at the 8:49 mark.
Nebraska-Omaha had a several chances to build on its early lead. While UNO enjoyed a five-on-three power play, Thompson broke his stick, crippling Minnesota State even more.
But UNO’s best chance on the advantage, a shot from Thomas on the left side of the net, was robbed by Clark’s right pad. Clark made 18 saves in the first and 35 in the game.
Meanwhile, Minnesota State was able to tie the game with a later power-play goal. Gerlach fired a shot from inside the blue line that hit Holt’s stick and took a weird bounce over the goalie and into the net. Gerlach had five goals total in the two-game nonconference series.
Nebraska-Omaha bit right back with a power-play tally of its own. Micah Sanford fired from the top of the right circle to beat Clark under his right arm. Sanford’s first goal of the season at 2:23 of the second gave UNO the 2-1 lead.
MSU tallied two goals in a row to take a 3-2 lead. On the power play, Backes followed up on a three-on-two rush and beat Holt low at 4:36 of the period. Then, just 2:17 later, Thompson found the puck after a scramble in front and put it in to give Minnesota State the lead.
Holt was pulled in favor of freshman Eric Aarnio after Thompson’s goal, but he was back in just 1:37 later.
“The idea was to get into his head and get him playing again,” said UNO coach Mike Kemp. “He did not play all night long with what our expectation level of his performance is.”
UNO retaliated with two goals of its own to recapture the lead. After a turnover in MSU’s zone, John Thomas fired a laser from the slot to beat Clark at 17:32 of the second.
With 33 seconds left in the period, Dan Hacker put Nebraska-Omaha up 4-3 by putting in Sanford’s rebound.
But a flurry to start the third gave Minnesota State the lead once again, and they held on for the victory and the Cup.
“The idea is that, you’re up 4-3, you should be able to shut the door and get the job done,” Kemp said.
“We were pretty excited to go and get the job done after the second period,” Brenk said. “We were down a goal in our own barn, and Coach said, ‘We’re down a goal, and it’s senior night.’”
Jutting felt the key to victory was that his team now has goal-scoring confidence. Minnesota State has scored six or more goals in three of its past four games.
“Scoring the goals is, I think, a real key for us heading into the playoffs. Now we have that confidence that we can score, so one or two against us doesn’t set us back as far as it maybe would have earlier in the year where we were struggling to score … Now it doesn’t seem like as big of a mountain,” Jutting said.
Minnesota State, the No. 8 seed in the WCHA, will head to Minnesota to take on the Gophers in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’re playing our best hockey right now, and we’re going to need to play our best hockey,” Jutting said.
Nebraska-Omaha, the No. 4 seed in the CCHA, will return home to play Lake Superior.
“Hopefully next weekend we can take care of business at home,” Kemp said.