OMAHA, Neb. — A three goal second period helped Nebraska-Omaha climb out of a steep early hole before sophomore defenseman Eddie Del Grosso sealed the deal late in a come-from-behind 4-3 win over Alaska at Qwest Center Omaha on Friday night.
Del Grosso’s second and third goals of the season boosted the Mavericks’ record to 5-5-0 (4-5-0 CCHA), while the Nanooks fell to 0-7-0 overall, with five of those losses coming in the league.
In a fashion similar to that found in home losses to Michigan and Ferris State earlier in the season, the Mavericks found themselves on the back foot early on Friday night as Alaska flew out of the blocks in the first period.
At 8:27 of the opening period, Nanook freshman forward Nathan Lawrence delivered a pass from the right faceoff circle in the UNO zone to a wide open Derek Klassen, who was left to knock the puck home past UNO goaltender Eric Aarnio to give Alaska a 1-0 lead.
The hard work on the goal was all down to Lawrence, whose pass managed to beat the diving Maverick defenseman Mike Phillippi, and the unmarked Klassen had plenty of time to redirect the puck into the net for his first goal of the year.
Alaska would double their lead two minutes later when a hard shot from Lawrence just inside the UNO zone stayed low enough to beat Aarnio, who had been screened on the play. Braden Walls and captain T.J. Campbell were credited with assists on the goal.
Lawrence’s power play goal gave the Nanooks their first two-goal lead of the season — the first of the Doc DelCastillo era in Fairbanks — something that the UA head coach welcomed with open arms while still being weary of a possible Maverick comeback.
“For being on the road in a hostile environment, I think we got off to the start that we wanted,” he said. “Even at that time when it was 2-0, we knew it was still going to be a very competitive game.”
The second period presented the 6,022 fans at Qwest Center Omaha with a feast of goals worthy of the Thanksgiving holiday just gone by, as the game reached the 40:00 mark with pucks flying into both nets at an ever increasing rate.
The scoring barrage on both ends started at 4:28 of period when Del Grosso lit the lamp for his second goal of the year, one that put the Mavericks back into the game.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a carbon copy of Klassen’s strike in the first period. Sophomore forward Jeric Agosta’s cross-ice pass in the Alaska zone found Del Grosso with a partially empty net and UA goaltender Chad Johnson’s back facing him as he slotted the puck home.
Alaska would regain their two-goal lead at 12:48 of the period when Dustin Sather and Dion Knelsen combined on an odd-man rush that resulted in Sather beating Aarnio at arm’s length for the first goal of his collegiate career.
The goal didn’t seem to faze UNO the way that the first two Nanooks’ strikes had, however, and they would score back-to-back goals to end the period tied at three goals apiece.
At 13:52 of the period, senior forward Brandon Scero found himself on the receiving end of a Matt Ambroz fake shot and pass before beating Johnson for his third goal of the year. The goal was the mirror image of Del Grosso’s strike earlier in the period, with the set-up pass coming from Johnson’s right before Scero beat him glove-side.
The Mavericks were beginning to find more unguarded routes to the Nanook goal, and they would equalize at 16:35 of the period when a loose puck bounced off of the boards to the stick of senior forward Bryan Marshall in front of the Alaska net.
Marshall, left virtually uncovered by Nanook defense on the play, took advantage by faking Johnson out before beating him blocker-side into the middle of the net.
UNO head coach Mike Kemp was less than pleased with his team’s slow start, but was happy with their performance in the second and third periods.
“We started the game the way I kind of expected,” he said. “I knew they were going to come out and play very, very hard.
“I didn’t think we created many chances for ourselves in the first period. You can tell guys what to expect, but until you get into the battle you really don’t always know.
“I thought we regained our composure in the second period, and I was pleased with the way we played both offensively and defensively in the second period and in the third. I thought we played more like we were capable of playing in the last two periods.”
The Mavericks would take the lead for good at 14:51 of the third period, when a Del Grosso slap shot changed trajectory after hitting a Nanook defenseman, and the shot sailed over Johnson’s outstretched glove and into the net. The goal guaranteed two points for the Mavericks, and also clinched the team’s fourth win in five games.
DelCastillo, making his first trip to Omaha as a head coach after spending five years as an assistant under Kemp, threw praise on the Maverick defenseman that he had recruited to UNO.
“I understand their team a little bit, and when (Del Grosso) gets the puck, I’m going, ‘Guys, watch out,’” he said. “I know what he’s capable of doing, and he made a difference in the hockey game tonight.”
Aarnio was shaky in the first period, but stabilized as the game went on, stopping 19 shots and earning his second win of the season in as many appearances.
He, too, was full of praise for the team in front of him.
“The second goal was a bad goal, but I just shook it off and tried to get back in the game and hoped that the guys didn’t get down on me,” he said. “They responded and they kept battling, tied it up, and we just went from there.”
The two teams face off once again Saturday night in Omaha.