OMAHA, Neb. — In order for a playoff hockey game to be considered a classic, there are certain criteria that need to be met. A low-scoring game, plenty of end-to-end action, 19,000 minutes of overtime.
Still, two out of three isn’t bad.
Blame J.P. Platisha on that end if you must, as it was his goal at 4:22 of the third overtime Sunday night that gave Nebraska-Omaha a 2-1 win over Alaska in front of 3,405 at Qwest Center Omaha, giving the Mavericks a two games to one victory in the teams’ best-of-three series.
After winning the longest game in school history, not to mention the ninth-longest in the history of the NCAA, UNO (17-17-4) advances to the second round of the league playoffs, where they will meet top-seeded Michigan in Ann Arbor next weekend. Alaska ends their season at 9-21-5, good for ninth place in the conference.
“Actually, I’m feeling pretty drained after that. Everyone is,” UNO coach Mike Kemp said. “Something that goes that long, it becomes a real strain on you.
“I will say, though, that during the course of the whole night, I never lost faith. I always felt that we were going to have the kind of success that we had the potential for, and that it was only a matter of time.”
After an uneventful first ten minutes in which both teams seemed more interested in figuring out what the other side was going to do instead of going out and making it happen themselves, opportunity struck for the Nanooks just past the halfway point of the opening period when a loose puck during a UNO power play came to Tyler Eckford’s stick high in the Alaska zone.
With most of the UNO offensive corps still nearer to Alaska goaltender Wylie Rogers’ net after a failed scoring chance, Eckford and Trevor Hyatt had only one defender to beat on a shorthanded 2-on-1 going the other way. Eckford’s shot from atop the left face-off circle rattled around in Maverick keeper Jerad Kaufmann’s five-hole, eventually trickling towards the goal line where Hyatt knocked the puck in for his second goal of the season.
In fairness to Eckford, his shot had enough inertia and direction on its side that it would’ve gone in regardless of whether Hyatt were there to tap it home, but Alaska head coach Doc DelCastillo was just happy to get the first goal of the series-deciding game, regardless of how it went in.
“It doesn’t matter how that shot goes in, just that it does,” he said. “As long as it goes in, it’s good, and I’m glad Hyatt was there to push it in.”
After Hyatt’s goal, the Nanooks appeared to be content with spending the rest of the game playing back and blocking everything that wasn’t nailed down, but there was plenty of time for a breakthrough, and UNO’s NCAA-leading power play unit was charged with making it happen.
With Nanook winger Dustin Sather serving a high-sticking penalty late in the second period, Tomas Klempa gained the Alaska zone and fired a hard shot from the right face-off circle. The shot seemed to have a pinball effect, appearing to hit a couple of players in front of Rogers before UNO freshman winger Matt Ambroz redirected it in.
The Mavericks’ momentum gained from the Ambroz goal carried into the third period, as the hosts outshot the Nanooks 14-7 in the third period and nearly ended it at the death.
With about 45 seconds left in regulation, Klempa was presented with a golden opportunity to send UNO through to Ann Arbor and the second round of the playoffs, coming in all alone on a breakaway on Rogers, but skied the shot high, wide and not at all handsome over the Nanook goalie’s net.
It doesn’t take much imagination to hazard a guess as to Klempa’s disappointment, but Kemp summed up his and the home crowd’s thoughts on it adequately enough after the game.
“He made an effort, and I thought he was going to have it,” Kemp said with a laugh. “He shanked that thing wide, but it looked to me like he had the corner picked.”
Conventional overtime playoff hockey logic states that the referees should generally swallow their proverbial whistles and only call penalties on things that players would need to be sent to The Hague to face war crimes over, but referee Keith Sergott called six penalties in the three overtimes, including a too many men penalty on UNO 52 seconds into the second overtime. With that many calls, it was some wonder that it was an even-strength goal that ended the game.
Taking the puck behind the net, Maverick forward Dan Charleston looked for an open Maverick attacker in front of Rogers. He found a wide-open Klempa right in front, and Klempa’s subsequent shot was saved by Rogers, one of his 64 on the night. Unfortunately for Rogers, Platisha was able to pick up the resulting rebound and emphatically stuff the puck into the net.
The goal, Platisha’s first since the Rensselaer Holiday Tournament against Holy Cross in his freshman year, couldn’t have come at a better time for the junior forward.
“It’s my first since my freshman year, although I didn’t realize it was my first since the tourney,” he said. “It’s definitely a huge relief to have that off my shoulders.”
“I just couldn’t believe it went in,” Kaufmann said, relaying to reporters his thought process when Platisha scored. “To see J.P with his hands up in the air was great.
“I live with the guy, and everyone in our house predicted that he would score a big goal this weekend, and there you have it.”
The goal put a merciful end to DelCastillo’s first season at the helm in Fairbanks, his first as a head coach after spending five years as an assistant to Kemp. It was certainly a bittersweet way to finish the year, though, and he said after the game that he wished it hadn’t come to as fast an ending as it did.
“There’s no relief there,” he said. “I wish we were still playing.”
The Nanooks now return to Fairbanks to prepare for the offseason, while the Mavericks have a few days to celebrate before setting their sights on the Wolverines.