OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska-Omaha backup goaltender Eric Aarnio had far and away the best performance of his collegiate career on Sunday afternoon, picking up 18 saves en route to a 2-0 victory over Ferris State in front of 4,227 at Qwest Center Omaha.
In sharp contrast to Friday night’s opening frame when Ferris State took hold early and never let go, Sunday’s first period was played mainly in the neutral zone. Neither side managed to throw much pressure at the opponent early on, registering only four shots apiece in the opening 20 minutes.
Aarnio, making his first appearance in goal this season and his first start since the 2005-06 campaign, showed no signs of rust in the first period as he cleanly saved each shot he faced.
The stat sheet for the opening stanza was somewhat bare with referee Kevin Hall only calling four penalties — two of them being matching minors — but there was one controversial instance midway through the period.
With Casey Hines serving a hooking penalty on Ferris State, UNO defenseman Eddie Del Grosso threw a shot on goal which appeared to have beaten Bulldog netminder Mitch O’Keefe into the top far corner of the net. The Maverick bench appealed, thinking that the puck had gone in, but a video review proved otherwise.
“That’s what we thought on the bench, but the guys upstairs that had the video said that it had went off the crossbar,” UNO head coach Mike Kemp said. “It was a good call by the official.”
“If it was for us, I would have sworn it went in,” Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels said. “I’m going to have to say that it probably didn’t, because the ref right away waved it off, and he was in a good position.”
The Mavericks would eventually strike first, however, when an Alain Goulet wrist-shot at the Ferris State blue line sailed through traffic and into the Bulldog net. It was his third tally of the season, which has put him on track to rack up many more points than he had anticipated coming into his first year with the team.
“I wasn’t expecting to get many points when I got in because I was a freshman and didn’t know what to expect,” Goulet said. “It’s going good right now, though, and I’m planning on keeping the pace going.”
The goal came on a 5-on-3 power play for UNO, helping to erase the sour memory of a failed 5-on-3 advantage in the third period of Friday night’s game that could have catapulted the Mavericks back into a game that they eventually lost 5-1.
“You’re living on borrowed time when you’re trying to kill 5-on-3′s,” Daniels said. “I thought both those penalties were penalties on us that we didn’t need to take. I was disappointed on both of them. I think the referee made the right calls; I’m saying that I thought there was no need for us to take those penalties.
“They’re just two very useless penalties, and there’s no reason for them, so (the goal) was self-inflicted.”
The Mavericks appeared to show a lot more jump in the first two periods than they had on Friday, creating more quality scoring chances while stifling the Ferris State offense at every turn.
The penalty boxes became a little more crowded in the second period, with Ferris State taking five minor penalties to go with the Mavericks’ three. The game showed the potential of becoming a bit chippy at 12:48 of the period when Hall took off two players from each side for a scrum after the whistle in front of O’Keefe’s net, but the period would expire without any further incident.
As the crowd counted down the minutes and seconds to what they hoped would be Aarnio’s first collegiate shutout, the Mavericks put the game away as team captain Bryan Marshall beat O’Keefe for his second goal of the year.
Sophomore Dan Charleston barreled into the offensive zone down on the left side before laying the puck off for Marshall. Marshall had traffic from the Ferris State defense to deal with, but managed to get off a backhanded shot that deflected off O’Keefe, back to his stick, and into the net.
The Mavericks had pulled a complete 180-degree turn from how they had performed on Friday night, going forward with drive and conviction while clamping down defensively enough to give themselves an opportunity to salvage a split in the series.
“It was very critical for us to bounce back,” Kemp said. “We talked a lot yesterday and today about playing the right way.
“Friday night, we didn’t compete with the right amount of intensity. We just weren’t mentally prepared. Today, I think we came out with the right kind of workman-like attitude, and it reflected in the way we played.”
It was an especially feel-good afternoon for Aarnio, who had spent three seasons playing second and oftentimes even third fiddle to Maverick goaltenders higher up on the depth chart. He certainly didn’t mind, though, as the clock hit zero on Sunday and he heard the home crowd chanting his name as he left the ice.
“It felt good, real good,” Aarnio said. “Not too many people have said my name in my four years here, so it was good to get my name out there a little bit.
“Every day in practice, I’ve been confident, stopping pucks, so I just stepped in today thinking I don’t get a lot of chances to play, so I’m just gonna go out there and have fun.”
As for earning his first shutout in a UNO sweater? “It was great, just having all the guys maul me at the end there,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Marshall was especially proud of Aarnio’s performance. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt better, so good for somebody as I did this afternoon for him,” he said.
“Good things happen to good people. That’s the bottom line, and he’s as good a guy as you’ll ever meet, and I’m glad that he got the opportunity. I’ve lived with him for three years, so I’ve seen how difficult it is for him, and it’s just unbelievable. An unbelievable feeling.
“When the place was chanting his name at the end, I was getting cracked up. If there’s anybody on our team that deserves to have the crowd chanting their name in their rink, it’s him.”
“There’s very little you can say about it that isn’t just spelled out in what it is,” Kemp said about Aarnio’s performance. “It is exactly what it is on the face: A great story, and a great tribute to a kid who’s been here for four years, who’s been a model teammate, a model student.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s been a leader on and off the ice, and for him to come in in a time when we needed him most and to step in and play in this kind of game was huge.
“It was evident by the way his teammates reacted at the end of the game. You’d thought we’d won a championship by the way they went out and celebrated with him on the ice.”
Ferris State (5-6-1, 4-4-0 CCHA) now heads home to Big Rapids to prepare for a home-and-home series with in-state rival Western Michigan. UNO, now 4-5-0 and 3-5-0 in the league, ends its four-game homestand next weekend against CCHA cluster-mate Alaska.