OMAHA, Neb. — Two goals on a team’s first six shots of a hockey game usually mark tell-tale signs that there’s a rout in progress, but when that didn’t happen for Nebraska-Omaha on Saturday night, one of the Mavericks’ seniors stepped up and made all the difference.
UNO looked well on its way to a second win in as many nights after besting Northern Michigan 2-0 through Saturday’s first 20 minutes of play at Qwest Center Omaha, but after the Wildcats clawed their way back into the game to draw level at 3-3 nearly halfway through the third period, UNO forward Nick Fanto responded with a highlight-reel goal to ensure what ended up as a 5-3 win for the host side.
NMU will have felt hard done by with Saturday’s result, having bounced back from a 7-2 pasting that UNO had administered upon them on Friday night. The Wildcats still appeared shell-shocked during Saturday’s early throes, made evident by goaltender Brian Stewart giving up two goals on the Mavericks’ six shots in the first period, but Northern looked an entirely different team in the final 40 minutes, and the second of back-to-back goals from sophomore forward Andrew Cherniwchan restored parity at 8:57 of the third period.
UNO wasn’t to be denied its first weekend sweep since late November though, and Fanto scored Saturday’s game-winner with 2:29 remaining, navigating past two NMU defenders on his way into the Wildcat zone before dekeing past the sprawling Stewart and slotting the puck home.
Fanto scored again 2:03 later, this time into an empty net, and the senior’s eighth goal of the season put beyond doubt a game that UNO coach Dean Blais though had the potential to see the Mavericks tripped up by complacency following their lopsided win the night before.
“Fanto scored a great goal there, and hopefully that’ll happen again,” Blais said after the game. “There’s definitely a little bit of panic there when it goes 3-3, but the guys didn’t panic on the bench. We felt that some way, somehow, we were going to still pull this game out.
“When it’s 7-2 one night, there’s a tendency to not be as intense the next night. Last night, after the game, the guys said the job’s half-done, and you worry about that as a coach to make sure that the players are mentally ready for the (second) game, and they were.”
Blais’s players echoed their coach’s sentiments. Redshirt freshman goaltender John Faulkner, who recorded 24 saves on Saturday, said that even though he hadn’t played in Friday’s blowout win, he still knew that NMU would come back the next night with a renewed sense of energy that he and his teammates would have to be ready to counter.
“When a team gets beat 7-2, obviously they’re going to come out (the next night) with a little bit of fire, but you have to be ready to match it yourself,” Faulkner said. “From the start of the game, it’s important to set a good, hard tone to show that you’re right there with them.
“No matter what they’d bring, we were going to stop it and just push right back at them.”
On the other side of the dressing room divide, NMU coach Walt Kyle was pleased with his team’s improved play on Saturday, even though it wasn’t enough for the Wildcats to salvage some of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association league points that were on offer this weekend.
“We needed to do a better job defensively here than we did last night,” Kyle said. “They beat us 7-2, but it could’ve been 9-2 with some of the defensive mistakes we had and everything that we were giving away.
“We weren’t good last night. We weren’t solid. I thought we did a better job with it tonight, and it would’ve been enough on most nights, but it wasn’t tonight.”
The Wildcats (10-10-6, 6-8-4-1 CCHA) will have an opportunity to bounce back next weekend, though, when they welcome Alaska to Marquette, Mich.. As for UNO (12-11-5, 8-10-2-1), the Mavericks face their penultimate regular season CCHA road trip next week as they travel to Indiana to face Notre Dame.