OMAHA, Neb. — As the more casual hockey fans amongst the 7,641 in attendance at Qwest Center Omaha filed into the arena for Saturday’s match-up between Nebraska-Omaha and Michigan State, they may have looked at Friday’s 7-1 win for the Mavericks and thereby anticipated an entertaining night out and another big win for the home team. Another blowout didn’t come, but a sweep over one of the CCHA’s generally-accepted ‘Big Four’ did.
It wasn’t quite as smooth as the sailing proved to be on Friday night for the 19th-ranked Mavericks, but a hot night on Saturday from UNO’s second line of Nick Fanto, Jordan Willert and Matt Amroz was enough to carry them to a 3-1 win over the Spartans, crashing the visitors to 4-8-2 (2-6-2-2 CCHA) on the season and, more worryingly, into their first six-game losing streak since the 1979-80 campaign.
The Spartans did all they could to defuse UNO’s fireworks on Saturday, but as has been the case for the Mavericks (9-2-1, 5-2-1-1 CCHA) so far this season, their play in the second and third periods allowed them to complete a regular season sweep over MSU, their third in seven years.
“Obviously, we’re pleased with the sweep,” UNO coach Mike Kemp said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy tonight, and we knew that they would play with pride, and as a result of that, it made for some anxious moments, but the second and third periods have been big for us the last couple of weeks, and we kind of took the game over.”
Saturday night’s opening period came and went without anything to really remember it by, but the game finally came to life at 5:39 of the following frame when Fanto fed a centering pass from behind the net to Willert, who in turn slipped the puck past MSU goalkeeper Drew Palmisano from close range.
The opening goal was a bit of a rarity for the Mavericks, who had only scored first in three of their eleven matches so far this season. What was even more rare about Saturday night’s second period was that it was the first time that UNO’s opponents scored before the Mavericks could extend their lead, as Matt Schepke emerged with a loose puck from a goal-mouth scramble in front of UNO keeper Jerad Kaufmann’s net before slotting it home for his fifth goal of the year.
Undeterred by finding themselves in recently-uncharted waters though, UNO regained the lead at 5:44 of the third period when senior forward Tomas Klempa raced into the MSU zone, deked his way past a Spartans’ defender and took a shot that clipped the outside of Palmisano’s glove and floated end-over-end into the back of the net.
Klempa’s seventh goal of the season proved to be the game-winner on Saturday night, but the Mavericks weren’t yet finished making their mark on the weekend, and they added an insurance goal in the last five minutes of the game.
With UNO trying to clear their zone, defenseman Eric Olimb sent a long headman pass to Fanto, who beat an MSU defender to the puck just inside the Spartans’ blue line before chipping the puck over a diving Palmisano to end the scoring.
The goal saw to it that Kemp’s second line had a part to play in two of the Mavericks’ three goals on Saturday night, and the coach was pleased with that line’s wanting to stand up and be counted in the series finale.
“I was saying earlier in the season that people were stepping up at different times, and it was the same thing tonight. If you look at it realistically, last night, they were the only line that gave up a goal and weren’t overly effective, but they scored two of our goals tonight and were solid all night long.”
The final buzzer brought a stark contrast in moods between the two dressing rooms. Kemp’s Mavericks had managed to win three games out of four in an important homestand against Ferris State and MSU, thereby continuing to roll along on their best start in program history.
In the visitors’ camp, however, the atmosphere was very different, with the Spartans having lost six games in a row for the first time since before any of the current Spartans’ players were born.
“It’s just not good enough,” Spartans’ coach Rick Comley said. “I thought we played a little better tonight, (but) I thought UNO played very well the whole weekend.
“I thought we played very well in the first and got the lead in the game, but we made a couple of mistakes and that hurt us.”
The road doesn’t get much easier any time soon for MSU, with away dates against Wisconsin and Minnesota and then a home-and-home series with arch-rival Michigan looming, but Comley said that any win will do to break his team out of their current skid.
“Any win is going to be important,” he said. “It’s a young hockey club that’s struggling right now, and we’ve just got to take our lumps and work to get better.”
UNO, on the other hand, travels next week to Columbus, Ohio for two games against Ohio State and then back home for a pair against Alaska.