OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska-Omaha had for months billed Friday’s home game against Wisconsin as a showcase evening for the program, and when 15,137 fans—the most to ever attend a hockey game in the state—packed Qwest Center, the Mavericks needed to have their A-game on show.
And, before too long, it was.
Seventh-ranked Wisconsin controlled Friday’s opening period and ended it up 1-0, but No. 18 UNO’s class shined through in the night’s final 40 minutes. It was a quick pair of second period Maverick goals and two more strikes in the third that ensured a 4-1 victory for the host side on a night where a lesser team may have wilted under the sense of expectation from a school-record crowd.
“It was amazing, coming out and seeing that crowd,” UNO forward and captain Joey Martin said of the experience following Friday’s victory. “They were energetic all night, and once we got a goal, they gave us momentum and we went from there.”
The pace of Friday’s game certainly fit with the sense of occasion in the building, too. UNO’s school-record crowd wanted to see the two highly-potent offenses bombing forward at will and creating plenty quality scoring chances, and, to that end, neither team disappointed.
UNO had its chances to take an early lead, particularly with forward Brock Montpetit beating UW goaltender Scott Gudmandson but not the frame of the Badger netminder’s cage at the end of a 2-on-1 opportunity in the UW zone. Apart from that, Matt White came closest to getting
UNO on the board in the first period, racing in on Gudmandson on a breakaway but getting torn down from behind by Badger defenseman John Ramage before White could get a shot off.
Neither chance ended with a goal, then, and a UNO team with reason to feel unlucky became all the more unfortunate with just over five minutes left to go in Friday’s opening period.
Foiled on plenty of its own scoring chances up to then, it was UW that finally drew first blood at 14:54. Badger forward Jordy Murray did the honors, taking a centering pass from linemate Mark Zengerle and ripping a shot from the left point past Maverick goalie John Faulkner for Murray’s 15th goal of the season.
The Badgers went back to their dressing room after the first period with momentum on their side, but Friday’s middle frame belonged to UNO. It didn’t take the Mavericks long to level the score, either, with Joey Martin firing a wrist shot from 10 feet under Gudmandson’s right arm and into the net for a power-play marker just 81 seconds in.
Less than a minute and a half then went by before UNO bagged what turned out to be the game-winning goal. A shot from the left point by freshman forward Johnnie Searfoss hit the top of one of Gudmandson’s shoulders and bounced high enough in the air that it gave Searfoss enough time to skate around the back of the net to the far post, where he had acres of space to shoot at past the out-of-position Badger goalie.
Maverick forward Alex Hudson then doubled UNO’s lead 1:41 into the third period. The junior’s ninth goal of the campaign was one to remember, with Hudson picking up the puck at UNO’s blue line and barreling clear down the ice with only Ramage to beat before deking and surgically beating Gudmandson through the keeper’s five-hole.
UW head coach Mike Eaves talked about Hudson’s goal after the game, saying that that goal—as well as Searfoss’—made the Badgers rue missed chances that didn’t find their way past Faulkner.
“It’s 2-1, and then early in the third, it looks like Rammer got shot from the upper deck and falls, and their guy goes and makes a nice play and it’s 3-1,” Eaves said. “And then they started pulling back people. We had some chances, but it came down to moments of truth with the puck tonight, and we weren’t as good as we needed to be.”
Rich Purslow, linemate of Martin and White, finally put the game to bed with 33 seconds to go, taking an unselfish pass from Martin on a 2-on-1 towards the empty UW net before slotting home for his ninth goal of the season.
Speaking after the game, Hudson discussed the Maverick players’ reaction to the size of the crowd, and how UNO was able to overcome early jitters before taking over Friday’s game.
“We had a lot of emotion coming out, and I think it took us a little to settle in,” Hudson said of Friday’s opening period. “I think that’s just because when you have that many people and you see that, you can’t help it—your adrenaline’s going. But once we got settled in and kind of got into our game, it worked out for us.
“We like to play against teams that have skill and are trying to make plays, and that’s what we’re trying to do out there. I think we definitely enjoyed playing that style of game against a good team and in the atmosphere we played in.”
UNO head coach Dean Blais said that he and his coaching staff made sure the Mavericks knew throughout the week that they would experience the sort of atmosphere they played in on Friday night. He then hinted that that preparation paid off on the night, with UNO able to play their game while using the enormous crowd’s energy to the Mavericks’ benefit.
“The players were ready for this type of crowd every day,” Blais said about the team’s lead-up to Friday’s series opener. “We kind of told them what they’re trying to do and how many tickets were sold, and when it finally hit between 14,000 and 15,000, the players were fired up, but when we have that crowd, you’ve got to yell more and can’t get caught up in emotion, but we our played the game we wanted to.”
UNO (17-10-2, 13-6-2 WCHA) and UW (19-9-3, 11-8-2) conclude their weekend series on Saturday in Omaha.