OMAHA, Neb. — Down 3-0 to St Cloud State after Saturday’s first period of play and in clear danger of watching its hot-and-cold season grow chilly again, Nebraska-Omaha needed a hero.
It didn’t get one; it got five.
Despite outshooting the Huskies 18-8 through the opening 20 minutes, UNO looked well on its way to its fifth Saturday loss after Saturday’s first period. A change in goal to heretofore unproven freshman goaltender Mike Taffe provided a sense of stability though, and after four goals went in at their opponent’s end without reply, the No. 18 Mavericks skated out 4-3 winners at Qwest Center in what turned out to be a much more exciting game than it seemed going into the first intermission.
The Mavericks actually controlled Saturday’s early throes, leading the visiting Huskies 7-0 in shots on target at one stage, but a game misconduct penalty for boarding to UNO’s Alex Simonson turned the game on its head. Just 48 seconds after Simonson was given his marching orders, SCSU forward David Eddy drew first blood for the Huskies at 8:08 of the period, hammering a loose puck home past starting UNO goaltender John Faulkner.
SCSU then found itself 2-0 up at 12:59 when senior forward Garrett Roe put away his sixth goal of the season after cleaning up the rebound from a Eddy shot that Faulkner had stopped but couldn’t hold onto.
With only 35 seconds left to play in Saturday’s opening period, the Huskies struck for a third time. As much a dagger to UNO as Simonson’s penalty earlier in the game, Drew LeBlanc redirected a long Taylor Johnson shot through Faulkner’s five-hole and into the unscreened goaltender’s net.
Faulkner’s reaction to the goal, throwing his head back seemingly in disgust, appeared to be proof that the sophomore – who had shut out SCSU 3-0 on Friday for his sixth whitewashing of the season – knew that his number was up for the night.
In came Taffe at the start of the second period, and the backup goaltender who had only seen action in one game this season took over, stopping all 17 Huskies shots he faced in the second and third periods. UNO’s skaters seemed to be galvanized by this, and senior defenseman Eric Olimb got the Mavericks’ fightback started at 14:30 of Saturday’s middle frame, bombing a shot from the SCSU blue line past Huskies goaltender Mike Lee.
UNO ended up controlling the second period in most facets, but it was in the third period that the Mavericks well and truly took over. Outshooting the Huskies 24-7 in the frame, Lee’s end of the ice looked a shooting gallery, and three UNO goals in fairly quick succession capped the hosts’ comeback and proved enough to give the Mavericks a needed win as they try and claw their way back into the discussion for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.
UNO freshman standout Matt White cut the Huskies’ lead to one goal at 6:48 of the third period, taking a head-man pass from linemate Rich Purslow before gaining the SCSU zone, racing down the right point towards Lee and backhanding the puck off of the near post and into the net.
Exactly three minutes later, UNO equalized, and the Qwest Center crowd let loose its loudest roar in months. The Mavericks had several foiled chances leading up to their third goal, but those then missed chances seemed miles away when Olimb fired a shot from the blue line that forward Terry Broadhurst, standing 10 feet in front of Lee in the slot, knocked iceward and down and past the SCSU keeper.
Just 40 seconds after that, the comeback was made complete, with freshman forward Ryan Walters scoring his ninth and undoubtedly most memorable goal of the season to date. Coming off of a clearing attempt at the far boards from linemate Brock Montpetit, nobody from SCSU had marked Walters, and when the puck came to his stick, Walters had time and space to fire the puck into the net and send the home crowd into raptures.
“It was an unbelievable comeback – one of the best comebacks I’ve been associated with,” UNO coach Dean Blais said after the game. “And (against) a program like St. Cloud’s and with a future NHL goaltender like Mike Lee, too.
“He’s a goaltender that’s been on our World Juniors team, a kid who was in the net when his team won an under-18 national championship and won a state championship in Minnesota, so to score four goals on him – a kid that is going to play in the NHL – is pretty amazing.”
When asked about how he felt his team might bounce back after going 3-0 down early in the game, Blais said he felt he knew that his team knew it had what it took to turn the game around in its favor. What’s more, he felt that replacing Faulkner – who was injured late in Friday’s a win but came back to start on Saturday – with Taffe only provided a further spark for the team going forward.
“I got the feeling in the dressing room that even though we were down by as many goals as we were, we were going to find a way to win, and that says a lot about the character of our team and how they believe in each other. That goes for Taffe, too – he hadn’t started all year, but when Faulkner wasn’t having the best of luck fighting through his injury from last night, Mike came in and shut St. Cloud, a very good hockey team, out. He’s the story of the game.”
In the dressing room opposite, a distraught SCSU coach Bob Motzko was a man of significantly fewer words after seeing his Huskies drop their three-goal lead en route to Saturday’s sweep-ensuring loss.
“We hand-delivered three turnovers to UNO on its first three goals,” Motzko said. “And we didn’t take care of business with our lead.
“We didn’t get the job done, and then Taffe made those critical saves right at the end of the second, and I know he made a big save right in the last five minutes of the third. He made some really critical saves and really came through for his club.”
UNO, now 16-10-2 overall and 12-6-2 in the WCHA, will face another stiff test next weekend with No. 7 Wisconsin coming to Omaha for the teams’ first-ever series as league rivals. SCSU (11-14-3, 7-11-2) is on the road again next weekend, this time at No. 4 Minnesota-Duluth.