OMAHA, Neb. — A comeback of extraordinary proportions by the Alaska Nanooks nearly ended in two points on Saturday night, as UA overcame a three-goal deficit halfway through the second period to tie Nebraska-Omaha 4-4 in front of 5,861 fans at Qwest Center Omaha.
Two goals in the first period and another pair in the second gave the Mavericks virtually all of the momentum in the first 40 minutes, but the Nanooks showed a lot of resiliency and used great performances from freshmen Dustin Sather and Landon Novotney to force a draw and earn a point in the CCHA standings.
Much like what the home crowd saw in Friday night’s matchup, Alaska set the tone early once again on Saturday and did not have to wait long before being rewarded for their work in the offensive zone.
At 5:10 of the first period, Sather collected a Dion Knelsen set-up pass and beat Mavericks’ goaltender Eric Aarnio stick-side with a shot that went in off the right post.
The goal was Sather’s second tally of his collegiate career and his second in as many nights, something the fans in Omaha may need to keep in mind, as Sather could potentially become a Mavericks-killer in the coming years.
Despite being pleased with Sather’s performance this weekend, DelCastillo was not interested in bestowing that sort of title upon Sather or any of his younger players too soon.
“We have some young guys that can put the puck in the net,” he said. “It’s a good sign, but they are young so we don’t want to put too much pressure on them.”
With Sather’s goal, the opening stanza of the game had begun in much the same way as the night before, but UNO were a little less willing to wait until the second period to turn things in their favor.
At 18:41 of the period, Rich Purslow sent a centering pass from the edge of the Alaska blue line to junior winger Tomas Klempa, who beat Alaska goaltender Wylie Rogers five-hole to level the score at 1-1.
19 seconds later, the Mavericks exploited Rogers’ five-hole again, this time with sophomore forward Nick Fanto scoring on a breakaway to give UNO a 2-1 lead going into the dressing room.
The Mavericks continued to build upon their reputation this year as a second period team, scoring two more goals to extend their lead.
At 8:07 of the period, captain Bryan Marshall passed the puck to Alain Goulet, who was stationed at the Alaska blue line in front of the UNO bench, and he threw a shot on goal that deflected in off of Dan Charleston.
Exactly 1:30 later, Joey Martin set up Mavericks’ forward Brandon Scero in front of the Alaska net, and the senior rifled a shot under Rogers’ right arm to give the Mavericks what appeared to be an insurmountable 4-1 lead.
It was at this point that DelCastillo called a time-out.
“I told them at the time-out that this was a character-check time, to see what this team has, and they responded,” he said. “We still haven’t won, but I’m extremely proud of them. That’s as close to a win as you’re possibly going to get, being 4-1 down on the road in a hostile environment.”
Alaska junior center Adam Naglich started the rally at 10:51 on the second period. Aarnio had tried to clear the puck behind his net, but Naglich stepped in to steal it from the senior netminder. Aarnio saved the first shot, but Naglich scooped up the rebound in front of the net and scored from close range.
The Nanooks continued their comeback in the third period, with Novotney registering his first and second goals of the weekend late to tie the game.
At 15:09 of the period, a Mavericks’ shift change opened the play up for the attacking Nanooks, as Sather set Novotney up for a breakaway that ended in Novotney letting off a shot that Aarnio got a piece of with his glove, but the puck still fell into the net.
Soon after, with 1:32 left in regulation, Novotney beat Aarnio again to send the game into overtime as a shocked Qwest Center Omaha crowd was left hoping that the Alaska comeback they were witnessing wouldn’t result in a loss for their team.
The comeback was especially sweet for Novotney, who came back from a relative absence on the score sheet Friday night to be a major contributor in salvaging a point for the Nanooks in the series.
“I just felt more comfortable (tonight),” he said. “I struggled a little bit coming out of last night. I needed to get refocused and try and turn my game around, and sure enough I got lucky in the third period and bumped a couple home.”
UNO regained some of their composure in the extra period, with virtually every faceoff taking place in the Alaska zone, but neither Rogers nor Aarnio would allow another goal.
Mavericks head coach Mike Kemp was generally pleased with his team’s offensive output on the night, but was looking for a bit more consistency throughout the sixty minutes.
“You take what you can get,” he said. “But I wish we would have played with more consistency shift-in, shift-out. It’s (otherwise) a very frustrating way to finish a game.”
Alaska (0-7-1, 0-5-1 CCHA) are still winless on the season, but will take the momentum gained from their extraordinary comeback Saturday night into a home series next weekend against Northern Michigan. UNO (5-5-1, 4-5-1 CCHA) now goes on the road for what is sure to be a tough two-game slate with Notre Dame.