OMAHA, Neb. — When the potent Nebraska-Omaha offense fires 59 shots on goal in a game, the general consensus seems to be that the 15th-ranked Mavericks should win.
Problem is, nobody told Clarke Saunders.
Nor did anyone tell Sebastian Geoffrion, who scored the game-winning goal 29 seconds into overtime to help Alabama-Huntsville upset UNO 2-1 on Saturday at Qwest Center. It was the freshman goaltender Saunders’ superb performance, however, that really stole the show, as the Chargers (4-24-2) picked up their first win since Jan. 8 and only their second since Thanksgiving weekend.
Saturday’s game was a slow-burner to start with in terms of scoring chances for either side, but UNO tested Saunders almost constantly throughout the second and third periods, posting 25 and 22 shots in those two frames.
None came in the Huntsville end during the overtime period, though, where instead the only action was seen at UNO’s end of the ice. Soon after the faceoff to start the extra period, UAH forward Neil Ruffini raced into the Mavericks zone and took a shot, only to see it saved by UNO goaltender John Faulkner. Faulkner had a clear view of the shot and should’ve had it covered, but instead fumbled the puck out into the low slot, where Ruffini’s sophomore linemate Geoffrion slotted the rebound home.
The way the Chargers celebrated the winning goal was particularly telling. After the UAH bench exploded with joy caused by Geoffrion’s third goal of the season and the players went to greet their teammate, the team celebrated near center ice, the halfway point between UNO’s net, where the Chargers found their winning goal, and their own cage, which Saunders protected so stalwartly for over 60 minutes.
“I couldn’t be more proud of all our guys,” UAH coach Chris Luongo said after the game. “We could’ve easily started to fold up our tent early in the second period where we were getting beaten up physically, and as the game wore on we had some guys playing way too much and some not playing often enough because of penalties.
“Even with UNO’s goal after our first, that would’ve been a point where we could’ve quit, but the guys hung in there and got the winner, and Saunders was obviously great in net.”
UAH’s first goal arrived early into a period, as well, with freshman forward Mac Roy connecting on a home-run pass from Justin Cseter before beating Faulkner low stick-side on a breakaway 58 seconds into Saturday’s third period. UNO equalized at 10:17 of the frame when Ryan Walters finally solved Saunders, but the freshman goalie reverted back to standing on his head the rest of the way and long enough for Geoffrion to score the winning goal.
Saunders, who ended up four saves away from tying Barry Friedman’s school record set in 1986 for the most saves in a game by a UAH netminder, gave most of the credit for his performance to the team in front of him, who, despite conceding so many shots on goal, limited UNO’s number of real quality scoring chances throughout the evening.
“Sometimes you play in the sort of game where all the pucks are hitting you in the right spots and you feel like you’re in position most of the time, and this was one of them,” Saunders said. “I didn’t feel like I’d done anything spectacular tonight or last night; I know our team gave up a few shots here and there, but I thought we played really well defensively, and UNO struggled to find its rhythm.
“I don’t really care how many shots the other team gets; as long as they’re not all Grade-A scoring chances all the time, I feel like we can shut teams down.”
Where UNO is concerned, Mavericks coach Dean Blais conceded that Saturday’s loss likely takes UNO out of the picture for the moment for an automatic spot in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, but for as unlucky and unpolished as he felt his team’s offensive execution was on the night, he also gave equal credit to Saunders for his performance in the Chargers net.
“We got to the net but just didn’t get any puck luck,” Blais said. “Every once in a while, the puck will bounce off a skate or something (and go in), but when you get that many attempts, it’s either down to bad luck or good goaltending, and I think (tonight) it might’ve been a little of both.
“The other goaltender played really well, and we had a lot of shots on the power play, but none of Grade-A quality. There were too many chances that were missed right in front of the net. There’s got to be more pucks getting to the net. You give their goaltender credit, but we’ve got to be a little bit sharper in our execution.”
To that end, UNO (14-10-2, 10-6-2 WCHA) will need to bump up its ideas in a hurry, especially with St. Cloud State coming to Omaha next weekend, followed by No. 8 Wisconsin the weekend after that. D-I Indepenent UAH, on the other hand, now returns home to Alabama for a week off before preparing for two games at Ferris State, the penultimate series of UAH’s season.