OMAHA, Neb. — After going 3-0-1 against Alaska in the regular season, the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks must have felt confident going into the first game of their CCHA first-round playoff against the Nanooks on Friday night. They probably just would’ve hoped for a more flattering result than the one they ended up getting.
Indeed, Alaska nearly knocked the Mavericks back down to size on Thursday night, rallying back from a 4-1 deficit late in the second period to cut the lead down to one, but UNO sophomore winger Jeric Agosta’s shorthanded marker late in that middle frame stood up as the winner as the Mavericks won 4-3 to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.
It was a deserved victory for the eighth-seeded Mavericks (16-16-4, 11-13-4 CCHA), and while the Nanooks (8-20-5, 8-16-4 CCHA) may understandably feel a bit hard done by after going unrewarded for their raised effort late in the second period and throughout the third, UA head coach Doc DelCastillo instead emphasized defensive mistakes that led to UNO jumping out to what was at one point a commanding lead.
“I would’ve had a tough time going into the game thinking that if we gave up 26 shots, we’d give up four goals,” he said after the game.
For a seven-goal thriller like the 4,034 in attendance at Qwest Center Omaha witnessed on Friday night, it took quite a while for either team’s offense to really show up. For the first half of the opening frame — and especially in the first five minutes — the two teams moved forward cautiously like Wall Street investors in the middle of a recession, wary of the uncertain future that laid ahead for the rest of the series.
It would eventually be the home side who got the scoring underway, though, as senior forward Brandon Scero redirected a Dan Charleston shot past Alaska goalie Wylie Rogers at 11:55 of the opening period, but the offensive fireworks were mainly left until the middle stanza. A power-play strike from Dustin Sather at 6:37 tied the game at one, but unanswered goals from JJ Koehler, Tomas Klempa and Agosta appeared to put the opening game of the series beyond doubt.
Alaska freshman defenseman Jeff Penner, however, had other ideas.
Penner notched two clutch goals past Maverick keeper Jerad Kaufmann to pull the Maverick lead back to 4-3, the first with 20 seconds left in the second period followed by one 50 seconds into the third. His two goals, both on the power play, seemed to breathe life back into the Nanooks, something DelCastillo hopes to see a lot more out of the freshman in the coming years.
“He found a way to get it in the back of the net twice tonight, and I think time will show that he will be a dominating player in this league,” the coach said. “It’s a testament to him that it’s playoff time and he’s really stepped up.”
It may have been the case that Penner had caught the Mavericks resting on their laurels after going up 4-1 in the second period, although UNO head coach Mike Kemp seemed to point fingers elsewhere.
“Getting comfortable really had nothing to do with it,” he said. “What happened was that we started taking stupid penalties.
“We score our third goal, and we take a penalty right afterwards. We score shorthanded, and we take another one right after that. We kill a 5-on-3, and then Charleston takes one. That’s what you would call shooting yourself in the foot.”
Charleston himself took responsibility after the game, and also said that he thought that he and his team had gotten a bit too laid-back once they had established their three-goal lead.
“I think that’s natural. With any team who’s going to be up by that amount, they might lay back a bit, but we’re learning,” he said. “We have a bunch of new guys in the locker room (this season), and the veterans and myself need to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
“That can’t happen against a team in the next round, should we get there.”
Charleston and the Mavericks appear to be in the driver’s seat for the moment as they try and advance to the next round, but they will have to wait a day due to a scheduling conflict at Qwest Center Omaha. The series resumes, therefore, on Saturday night in Omaha.