OMAHA, Neb. — Forget everything you read about Thursday’s first game of the CCHA opening round playoff series between Nebraska-Omaha and Alaska; it’s a brand new game now, with ‘game’ being the operative word.
Reversing roles from the opening game, the Nanooks relied on a great performance from their first line of Dustin Sather, Dion Knelsen and Landon Novotney, as well as 28 saves from senior goaltender Wylie Rogers, to defeat the Mavericks 5-3 in front of 6,097 at Qwest Center Omaha on Saturday and force a third game in the best-of-three series.
Alaska (9-20-5, 8-16-4 CCHA) needed a quick pick-me-up in the form of a goal in Saturday’s first period to help get themselves back into the series, and opportunity came knocking in a big way nearly three minutes into the game when UNO defenseman Eddie Del Grosso was handed a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for checking Knelsen from behind deep in the UNO zone.
Combined with a hooking minor on Juha Uotila coming 33 seconds earlier, the Nanooks were essentially given a six and a half-minute power play to work with. UNO managed to kill off the shortened five-on-three, but could not keep Novotney from poking home the rebound from a Knelsen shot at 7:43 of the period.
It took the Nanooks until the waning seconds of the power play to beat Mavericks’ goaltender Jerad Kaufmann, but UA head coach Doc DelCastillo wasn’t so much bothered with when his team capitalized on the opportunity, just that they did, and was quick to give the UNO defense credit for keeping the puck out as long as they had.
“Kaufmann played pretty well on that power play and made some nice saves and the defense in front of him were blocking shots,” he said. “With that happening, it was always going to be hard for us to be able to execute very well in that situation.”
It was certainly different from UNO’s perspective, something coach Mike Kemp mentioned in his post-game press conference.
“It’s frustrating when that happens,” he said. “You’re working your tail off, and all of a sudden they score. From that standpoint, it was slightly deflating. It wasn’t a killer, but it was slightly deflating.”
UNO (16-17-4, 11-13-4 CCHA) equalized it at 15:41 when freshman defenseman Eric Olimb beat a screened Wylie Rogers for his first goal of the season, but a Ryan Hohl power-play strike with 1:29 left in the period allowed the visitors to head back to the dressing room with the lead after 20 minutes.
UA’s dominance continued in the second period, as goals from Knelsen and Tyler Eckford helped to make the scoreline better resemble the way that everything seemed to be going in the Nanooks’ favor on the ice in the first two frames.
The overabundance of opportunities that UNO had enjoyed in the first two periods of their 4-3 win on Thursday night were virtually non-existent through two periods on Saturday, as the visitors’ defense had improved by leaps and bounds over their showing in the opening game.
Part of the Nanooks’ defense overall improvement was down to their heightened coordination on the penalty kill, tightening up and communicating much better with one another as they stifled the country’s top power play Saturday, clearly frustrating Kemp in the process.
“I think they were doing a good job of being aggressive on the (penalty) kill and we were standing a little flat-footed (on offense), and that took away our options,” he said. “We had our chances, but we couldn’t get any sustained pressure on them.”
Third-period goals from Brandon Scero and Joey Martin cut the Nanooks’ lead to 4-3, as UNO began to create more and better scoring chances late, but the visitors held on long enough for freshman forward Derek Klassen to score into an empty net in the dying seconds.
Even though his Nanooks were weathered the storm over most of the third period, DelCastillo was happy to come away with his first win over a UNO team where he once served as Kemp’s assistant coach, and he now looks forward to seeing what his travel-weary team can do in the third and final game of the series.
“People don’t realize it, but we travel (over) three time zones every time we travel, so the longer we’re in someone’s town, the better it is for us,” he said. “The jet leg from a three-hour flight just takes that much out of you.”
The puck will drop on Sunday’s series-decider at 7:05 CST.