OMAHA, Neb. — With the program’s inaugural home game as a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the eighth-ranked Nebraska-Omaha hockey team was experiencing an evening to remember on Friday even before the opening faceoff.
The host’s 5-1 win over longtime non-conference—and now in-league—rival Minnesota State was just icing on the cake.
Not everything at Qwest Center Omaha was perfect on Friday, with seemingly poor ice conditions—arena co-tenant Creighton University hosted a basketball game there the night before—causing both Maverick squads to miss plenty of scoring chances.
Two power-play goals and a perfect seven-for-seven night on the penalty kill, however, saw UNO through a game that was slow-burning to start but whose momentum quickly shifted towards the home side and stayed there.
A combination of UNO’s rustiness after a week off and MSU coming off the back of a three-point weekend at Alaska-Anchorage last time out saw a very even opening to Friday’s game. UNO finally took the upper hand at 13:07 of the first period, though, thanks to an outstanding individual effort from sophomore defenseman Bryce Aneloski deep in the MSU zone, deking past visiting goaltender Phil Cook before giving the home side the lead.
Freshman forward Ryan Walters doubled UNO’s advantage 6:41 into Friday’s middle frame, slotting home after connecting on a cross-ice pass at the goal line from fellow freshman and linemate Brock Montpetit, and senior captain Joey Martin effectively put the game out of MSU’s reach at 3-0 with 1:09 left in the second period.
Another UNO freshman forward, Johnnie Searfoss, added to his team’s lead in the third period, deflecting home two long shots from Eric Olimb and Rich Purslow, respectively, past backup MSU goaltender Austin Lee 29 seconds apart from one another.
Junior forward Joe Schiller got the visitors on the board 1:17 later with MSU’s lone goal to thwart UNO goalie John Faulkner’s shutout bid.
“With the emphasis on obstruction, there’s going to be more goals scored, there’s going to be more 5-on-3′s and there’s going to be higher-scoring games with the way the rules are being enforced right now,” UNO head coach Dean Blais said. “Tonight, I thought we held our composure.
“Our game is forechecking and pressuring the puck all over the ice, too, but you’ve got to give MSU credit. It’s 5-1, but it’s two power play goals back-to-back by Johnnie Searfoss that sealed the victory.”
Blais’ opposite number, MSU head coach Troy Jutting, was frustrated with the way his team played, but also made a point of giving credit to his team’s opponent.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance to gain any momentum throughout the course of the game,” he said. “They’re a good hockey team. Every team in this league is good, and so is UNO, and they’ve got some older kids who are playing very well for them, and that’s usually a recipe for success at this level.”
UNO (6-1-0 overall, 3-0-0 in the WCHA) and MSU (2-3-4, 2-3-2) will meet again in Omaha on Saturday to decide the winner of this season’s Spirit of the Maverick Trophy series. MSU has a mountain to climb if it wants to keep UNO from winning the trophy for a second consecutive season, as the visitors must win by at least five clear goals on Saturday in order to take the trophy back to Mankato, Minn.