OMAHA, Neb. — There’s something to be said for a hockey team that is able to find a healthy balance between playing a physical game and still being able to create plenty of its own scoring chances.
Head coach Jim Culhane and his Western Michigan Broncos should know, as they were made to learn that particular lesson that the hard way on Saturday night.
The Broncos chose playing the body over playing the puck early on against No. 19 Nebraska-Omaha on Saturday so as to try and defuse a potent Mavericks’ offense that had jumped out to an early 3-0 lead the previous night before grinding out a 4-3 win.
The Broncos’ plan on Saturday ended up backfiring however, with the visitors only managing 10 — yes, 10 — shots on goal en route to a 4-2 loss to the homestanding Mavericks at Qwest Center Omaha.
Western’s offensive output marked a new all-time low in the Broncos’ record books for the team’s fewest shots on goal in a single game, and even though a goal apiece in the second and third periods from WMU saw the game tied at 2-2 early in Saturday’s final frame, a pair of third-period goals from UNO defensemen Eric Olimb and Eddie DelGrosso allowed the Mavericks to cap off the weekend sweep.
“I thought it was a good team game for us from start to finish,” UNO coach Dean Blais said. “We capitalized on our chances in the first and third periods, and I liked what I saw there.
“Just like with last night, I had the feeling on the bench that our guys weren’t going to let this game slip away. We weren’t going to let (Western) back in, and we just picked things up and got better and didn’t give up many more chances as the game went on.”
Just as the Mavericks had on Friday, UNO got off to a good start in Saturday’s opening period, with junior winger Matt Ambroz camping out in front of WMU goaltender Jerry Kuhn’s net before redirecting a long Olimb shot in for a power-play marker 12:45 into the game.
Western’s offense finally came to life in the second period though, with senior forward Cam Watson negating Ambroz’s first-period strike by finding open space in the slot, taking a centering feed from linemate Chris Clackson and beating UNO goaltender John Faulkner low at 7:23 of Saturday’s middle frame.
Watson’s second goal of the season wasn’t to be the Broncos’ only contribution to the score sheet on Saturday, though. UNO temporarily retook the lead through DelGrosso’s first goal of the night with 1:02 left in the second period, but the tables were turned once again 13 seconds into the third period, with Ian Slater catching all six Mavericks on the ice off-guard before beating Faulkner low to the goaltender’s glove side.
UNO has played well in the third period at home so far this season, however, and Saturday proved no exception, with Olimb swatting home a loose puck from close range at 2:59 after Slater’s game-tying goal, and DelGrosso eventually ensured the weekend sweep with his second goal of the night with 6:25 left in regulation.
“Tonight was a real battle in the neutral zone, and I thought we did a really good job of grinding the puck in down low and wearing (Westerns) defensemen down,” DelGrosso said. “That takes a lot out of the other team’s defense and slows the game down, especially when you have a lead like we did in the third period.”
“It’s the best I’ve seen anywhere this season,” Blais said, echoing the comments from his alternate captain. “Western is a team that works hard and doesn’t give you a lot, but we created a lot with our team speed and ability to move the puck, and we made a point of keeping them from doing the same thing against us.”
On the other side of the dressing room divide, Culhane was happy with his team’s tenacity through the first two periods and into the third, but he also regretted the Broncos’ inability to put more shots through in order to test the Mavericks’ defense.
“We wanted to come out strong because (UNO) attacks so well on transition and on the rush, and we just talked before the game about trying to slow down their foot-speed and take away time and space, and if that means that you have to get a body on someone, then you go ahead and do it.
“We obviously need to get more pucks on net, though. There’s no argument there at all. We need to hit the net and get more pucks and traffic to the net.”
The Broncos (5-7-2 overall, 1-7-2-1 CCHA), who have now lost eight of their last ten league games, head back to Kalamazoo, Mich. to prepare for a vital home series against No. 12 Alaska. As for UNO (7-4-3, 4-4-2-1), the Mavericks hit the road next weekend to face No. 17 Ferris State.