OMAHA, Neb. — In college hockey, the first games of the second half of the season will invariably mean the world to all parties involved. If you’re at or near the foot of the league table, you’ll be trying to rally the troops for a solid run going into the playoffs. If you’re at or near the top, you’re wary of your opposition’s strengths while trying to boost your profile as a contender for an NCAA tournament spot.
Given that, you would have expected Friday night’s CCHA match-up between Northern Michigan and Nebraska-Omaha, each in their respective aforementioned situations, to have been a bit of a barnburner. The 6,235 fans in attendance at Qwest Center Omaha for UNO’s 4-3 victory over NMU didn’t quite get that, but they did get a third period worth writing home about.
While the whole of Friday’s game did have some of the trimmings, highlighted by back-to-back goals from Mavericks’ winger Rich Purslow in the third period that eventually saw the hosts through, few would have come away thinking the game was much of a classic. The game did have its backs-and-forths in the first and third periods though, and they were enough to leave those in the victors’ camp feeling relieved.
“It is a big win for us,” UNO coach Mike Kemp said. “There’s 13 (games left) to go now, and every game is going to be important for us down the stretch. To be able to withstand the onslaught that we did at the beginning of the game and then at the end and bend but not break, that’s a step in the right direction.”
After matching the visitors goal-for-goal through two periods to leave the score deadlocked at two going into the final frame, Kemp’s squad was able to turn it on for the final push, getting two clutch goals from Purslow to take a 3-2 lead at 3:41 of the third period and then what proved to be a vital insurance goal at 17:52, with the sophomore burying a rebound off a Tomas Klempa shot past NMU goaltender Brian Stewart.
Undeterred, Northern clawed their way back into the game late when, with Stewart pulled in favor of a sixth attacker, Wildcats’ senior forward Nick Sirota surprised UNO keeper Jeremie Dupont, scoring only 23 seconds after Purslow had appeared to have put the game out of reach.
Unfortunately for Sirota and his teammates, however, they didn’t have enough left in the tank to find an equalizer.
Indeed, the Wildcats appeared to be running on fumes near the end of the game, something which didn’t fly over NMU head coach Walt Kyle’s head. Despite his team having taken relative control of the first period and the waning minutes of the third, Kyle felt that a certain amount of energy was missing from his team all along.
“I didn’t think we had any jump coming in,” he said after the game. “We won the first period, but I don’t think we were a very good team tonight. You have to give (UNO) credit because they pressed us, but for me, we just looked tired.”
Back it comes, then, to the situation that was at hand coming into Friday night. UNO (13-6-3 overall, 7-4-3-2 CCHA) are one step closer to a potential top-four finish in the CCHA and a first-round playoff bye, while Northern (5-13-3, 2-10-3-2) are left that little bit more desperate for points as they try to move up the league standings.
“We need to get wins, just as they do right now,” Kyle said. “For both teams, this was important, and I think UNO’s probably out of play for us right now in our league, but we need points, no question about it.”
The two teams meet again in Omaha on Saturday night to round out their two-game series.