MANKATO, Minn. — Sometimes hockey truly is a game of inches, as was the case in Tuesday’s nonconference game between Nebraska-Omaha and No. 9 Minnesota State.
MSU drilled a pair of posts in a scoreless first period before a critical major kneeing penalty in the second put UNO on a five-minute man-advantage.
The red Mavericks scored twice on the power play and added a pair of third-period markers to win 4-2 at the Alltel Center and sweep the season series from Minnesota State. It also allowed Omaha to take back the Spirit of the Maverick Trophy for the first time since 2002.
Of more importance, however, were the NCAA tournament implications. With UNO all but eliminated from a possible at-large spot, the game was a critical one for the purple Mavericks — who entered the game tied for seventh in the PairWise rankings. The loss dropped MSU into a tie for 11th.
“We didn’t have it tonight,” MSU head coach Troy Jutting said. “We gave them all the life in the world with that five-minute power play.”
“It was a very good win for us,” UNO head coach Mike Kemp said. “Last weekend, we lost a 3-1 lead up at Northern [Michigan] and lost in overtime. We needed this win. It’ll be a real confidence boost heading into the playoffs.”
The penalty came 1:44 into the second period on Mankato’s Trevor Bruess. It didn’t take the nation’s No. 1-ranked power play long to capitalize, as local boy Matt Ambroz tipped in a shot from the point just 26 seconds into the advantage. It was just the third goal of the season for Ambroz, a New Prague, Minn., native. Alain Goulet and Joey Martin were credited with assists.
UNO stayed on the attack and scored just under two minutes later on a wrist shot by Goulet. His shot from the point made it through traffic and past a screened Mike Zacharias at 4:07. J.J. Koehler had the assist.
“You don’t know how many power plays you’re going to get in a game, especially on the big sheet,” Kemp said. “We knew we had to take advantage of our opportunity and certainly we did.”
UNO dominated play for much of the rest of the period but was unable to capitalize on numerous odd-man chances. A costly tripping penalty on Goulet gave MSU a power play with 1:52 to play in the period, and Minnesota State finally snapped out of its funk. Senior Joel Hanson dangled from behind the goal line to the left circle, and fired an off-speed shot that fooled Jeremie Dupont with just 5.2 seconds remaining in the second. Geoff Irwin and Andy Sackrison had helpers.
Both teams finished the frame with 18 total shots on net.
The goal did not give MSU the life many expected, however, and in fact, it was UNO that struck first in the third on a goal by Mick Lawrence at 9:24.
“We play in a league with only two Olympic sheets, but I think the bigger ice is good for us,” Kemp said. “It complements our team speed well and our guys were excited to play on it.”
Omaha continued to pressure before Mankato sustained its best pressure of the night after pulling Zacharias. An apparent MSU goal with 1:25 remaining was disallowed because Dupont’s helmet fell off just before the puck reached the net. Mick Berge made it 3-2 on the ensuing faceoff as his shot from the point snaked through traffic in front.
Much of the final 45 seconds was played in the UNO zone, but MSU could not fire a shot. Koehler finally relieved the pressure by skating free from the zone and scoring an empty-netter at 19:49.
“It’s always a concern when you have a night off,” Jutting said. “And it looked like it tonight. We didn’t have our usual jump.”
Dupont stopped 28 shots in his most impressive performance of the season.
“This was a big game for him,” Kemp said. “He came out a very solid freshman year but has struggled mightily all season long. He has not had a start since Christmas, so he needed this to feel good about himself heading into the playoffs and into the offseason.”
Nebraska-Omaha (15-16-4, 11-13-4 in the CCHA) is off until the start of the CCHA playoffs in just under two weeks.
Minnesota State (16-12-4, 10-10-4 in the WCHA) has a critical series at No. 4 Colorado College Friday and Saturday. Faceoffs from World Arena in Colorado Springs are scheduled for 7:37 p.m. MST Friday and 7:07 p.m. MST Saturday.