OMAHA, Neb. — After an emotional couple of days for the city of Omaha, the hockey team from the town’s flagship public university stepped up Friday night to try and return smiles to peoples’ faces, if only for a few hours.
The storybook ending that the Nebraska-Omaha players and fans were hoping for likely would have become a reality, too, if it had not been for 37 saves from Lake Superior State goaltender Pat Inglis in a 1-1 tie in front of 5,145 at Qwest Center Omaha.
The draw raised the Lakers’ record to 2-11-2, thereby giving them their first league point of the season. UNO (5-7-2, 4-7-2 CCHA) probably deserved more after throwing nearly 40 shots on goal compared to the Lakers’ 15, but instead only came away with a single point on the night.
The meat of Friday night’s action was slow to present itself, with neither team really flying out of the blocks in the opening frame. Inglis was much busier than his Maverick counterpart was in the first 20 minutes, stopping all 13 shots faced, but the most notable shot of the period was one that didn’t even find the target.
Junior forward Troy Schwab was handed a golden opportunity near the midway point of the period when he found himself all alone in front of Jerad Kaufmann’s net. Despite having plenty of time to throw a quality shot on net, Schwab barely got a piece of the puck and the shot ended up sailing safely away from Kaufmann’s net.
One only had to take a look around the crowd to gauge the overall level of excitement of the first period. The normally loud and boisterous Red Army supporters group had planned to remain silent for the whole of the first period regardless out of respect for the victims of a deadly shooting at an Omaha mall on Wednesday afternoon, but the rest of the crowd struggled to compensate for them as the score remained deadlocked despite the home side’s abundance of scoring chances.
The heretofore subdued crowd would find themselves with even less to cheer about at 5:21 of the second period when Laker defenseman Steven Kaunisto scored to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
Connecting on a one-timer at the top of the Maverick blue line, the sophomore placed a low, driving slap shot past Kaufmann’s glove for his third goal of the season.
The Mavericks had equaled their offensive output from the first period, but it wasn’t until the third period when a more familiar roar rang around the arena 51 seconds into the frame as UNO finally broke through the Lakers’ defensive wall.
Just after referee Matt Shegos waved Laker defenseman Steven Oleksy down on an interference call, Bryan Marshall set up Maverick winger Tomas Klempa from behind the goal line to Inglis’ left. Klempa’s initial shot on target was saved, but he would then pick up his own rebound and slot the puck home to equalize.
The Mavericks’ confidence and sense of endeavor in the offensive zone improved tenfold following Klempa’s goal, something coach Mike Kemp’s squad was clearly galvanized by.
“You score that goal, and you’re optimistic that that will take your team up to another level,” he said.
The goal came on a power play attempt that was a major improvement on a failed second period advantage from the Mavericks that would have shifted the momentum in UNO’s direction sooner if it werent for the Lakers ability to clamp down defensively.
“The one in the second period was a little frustrating, because we couldn’t keep the puck in the zone very long,” he said. “For the most part, though, that power play was moving the puck well and getting opportunities. We just didn’t capitalize on them.”
UNO would maintain its visibly unanswered offensive dominance for the remainder of the period, but Inglis and the Laker defense recovered well enough to force overtime.
In the extra period, the Mavericks had enough quality scoring chances to put the game away a few times over, but Inglis continued to stand tall and helped preserve the deadlock.
Lakers head coach Jim Roque felt relieved to get out of the game with their first point in league play this season, but was quick to mention that his team are better than their current record states.
“Obviously I feel fortunate,” he said, commenting on Friday’s game. “Pat played well, but at the same time, over the last month there’s been games we should’ve won that we lost.
“That’s the biggest thing we told the kids. There have been nights where we play well and don’t win, and other nights, when we don’t deserve it, we go the other way. It’s one of those nights for us.”
Both teams were well aware of what had happened in Omaha on Wednesday, and both coaches let their feelings on the tragedy known.
“We were in the airport, and we saw a lot of it (on television),” Roque said. “Something like that puts all this other stuff into perspective.”
“We talked today about our record and our bad luck, but this is only hockey at the end of the day. We’ve got a lot of people going through a lot of stuff right now; Not just the people that got shot, but you’ve got to have a lot of people traumatized by it. That’s scary stuff right there.”
“I don’t think anything like that can’t affect you,” Kemp said. “I don’t think it had any bearing on the game, but you can’t be close to it and live in the same community and see it and not have it affect you.
“It deeply affected me. You can’t drive past Westroads Mall without having the whole thing reappear in your mind.”
Kemp was especially appreciative of the fans’ coming out for the game, considering the week’s events.
“I appreciate the fact that they were here, and that they were supportive of us,” he said. “I appreciate the symbolism that they had.”
The two teams will face off once again Saturday night in Omaha.