OMAHA, Neb. — Rarely in any sport you’d like to analogize over has there ever been such a stark contrast between combatants after a game: in one camp, a championship has been assured; in the other, a losing streak going on two months continues and their fate has been taken out of their hands.
That’s exactly what happened at the Omaha Civic Auditorium on Saturday, though, as second-ranked Notre Dame relied on a Dan Kissel goal in the third period to eke their way past Nebraska-Omaha 1-0 in front of a crowd of 7,991, thereby clinching the CCHA regular season title for the Fighting Irish.
“It’s an endurance test, an endurance race, so I’m proud of the kids,” Irish coach Jeff Jackson said after watching his team clinch their second regular season league title since he arrived in South Bend, Ind. in 2005. “A league championship to me is important to our program, and it shows consistency and being able to sustain our success this season.
“It’s a lot to say about the upperclassmen and particularly our senior class who have done it twice now, so I’m happy for them, but it’s only the first step hopefully towards other things.”
For as glorious a result as it was for the Irish, however, to walk the 30 yards or so over from Notre Dame’s dressing room to UNO’s was to find a vastly different atmosphere. The Mavericks have now gone their last thirteen games without what the NCAA would consider a win, with their only ‘win’ as such in that span coming in a shootout against Miami on Jan. 23.
In truth, however, after their celebrations have died down, the Irish should probably consider themselves fortunate to have clinched the title before the last week of the regular season. UNO put out their best two-game performance in months on Friday and Saturday against a team that now looks a relative lock for a regional 1-or2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but one mistake in the third period on Saturday turned out to be the Mavericks’ undoing.
With UNO trying to break into the Notre Dame zone, Irish winger Erik Condra stole the puck off of a Mavericks’ defenseman in the neutral zone, leading to an odd-man rush the other way. Condra ran out of room by the time he was able to get the shot he wanted on UNO goaltender Jerad Kaufmann, but he had enough space left that he was able to thread the puck cross-crease to Kissel, who wristed his shot into the gaping net.
UNO appeared to have equalized it at 17:00 of the period, but referee Mark Wilkins called the play dead by virtue of an inevitably controversial, but equally legitimate, cross-checking call on Mavericks’ forward John Kemp, leaving most of the crowd livid and even some throwing small, assorted missiles onto the ice in protest.
“It’s an emotional game, and obviously when you’re throwing stuff on the ice, that’s dangerous for their players as well as ours, so you don’t like to see that happen,” Jackson said. “I saw (the play) on tape, though, and I give Wilkins the credit for calling it.”
Jackson’s opposite number, UNO head coach Mike Kemp, seemed to agree.
“(After seeing it on tape), clearly it was a penalty,” he said. “I didn’t see it at the time that it occurred, but it was clearly a penalty. There’s no argument on my part.”
The final three minutes of the game went by without anything of real consequence occurring, apart from one or two more objects from the crowd landing on the ice immediately afterwards. UNO players and staff may have been more concerned about themselves, though, not having a NCAA-recognized win since the second week of January and home ice in the first round of the league playoffs still not assured despite being as high as No.14 in the country prior to Christmas.
“You look at how the league’s shaped up, and if you think about it, all you needed was for three of those one-goal games to go the other way and all of a sudden we’re in fourth place with a bye,” Kemp said. “That’s how close it is all the way through.
“From that standpoint, we didn’t think that would happen back at Christmas, and I don’t think anyone would have predicted this.”
Both teams’ season finales are now largely meaningless in terms of the regular season, but they will be important going forward in the CCHA playoffs. The league champions (25-5-3, 19-4-3-3 CCHA) have a home-and-home series with Michigan State next weekend, while UNO (13-15-7, 8-12-7-3) hosts non-conference foe Minnesota State on Tuesday night.