OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska-Omaha kept alive on Saturday its slim hopes of a WCHA regular season championship in the team’s first campaign in the league, defeating seventh-ranked Wisconsin, 4-3, at Qwest Center to cap a weekend sweep of the visiting Badgers.
No. 16 UNO (18-10-2, 14-6-2 WCHA), now riding a four-game winning streak, looked poised to replicate the 4-1 pasting it handed the Badgers on Friday night, taking a seemingly comfortable 3-1 lead into Saturday’s final period. The host side had dominated large parts of both games in the series, and the fact that the Mavericks weren’t having too much difficulty breaking the Badgers defense down gave UNO confidence in bunches.
In fact, when the Mavericks’ Matt Ambroz beat UW goaltender Scott Gudmandson through the keeper’s five-hole for the senior forward’s 16th goal of the season and second on Saturday 3:55 into the final frame, most of the 10,111 fans in attendance were ready to celebrate what national polls would have onlookers believe were back-to-back upsets.
Just then however, the Badgers’ power play, which was 0-for-9 heading into Saturday’s third period, sprang to life and catapulted UW back into the game. UNO committed the frame’s only two penalties, and the Mavericks were made to pay first through a redirected goal in the slot from UW forward Jordy Murray, his second tally of the weekend, at 12:11.
Just 4:09 later, UW cut what once looked like a comfortable lead for UNO down to just a single goal. Murray’s linemate Craig Smith’s 16th goal of the season did the trick, his long shot from the top of the left point sailing through traffic in front and beating the screened UNO goaltender John Faulkner high glove-side.
Shaken but not defeated, UNO’s defense clamped down during the final 3:40 of the game following Smith’s goal, and despite UW coach Mike Eaves pulling Gudmandson for a sixth attacker, Faulkner and the Mavericks defense in front of him finally shut the proverbial door.
UNO coach Dean Blais cut an understandably relieved figure after Saturday’s game. With as close as the WCHA race is this season, UNO is seemingly as close to winning the regular season title as it is to entering a dogfight just to clinch home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Because of that, Blais was pleased to see his team not only open up a six-point lead over UW in the league table, but also get that much closer to gaining home ice in the Mavericks’ first postseason in the WCHA.
“It’s good to win obviously, with what’s at stake and Wisconsin being the team that they are,” Blais said. “This doesn’t guarantee us home ice, but it really sets the table.”
Where his own team was concerned, Eaves was pleased with his team’s ability to stage its comeback bid on Saturday night, and he heaped plenty of praise on Blais after Blais’ 300th win as a collegiate coach and 38th with UNO as he nears the end of his second season in Omaha.
“Maybe because we were put into a desperate situation, we had to get it done,” Eaves said. “And our guys made some good plays in the end there. As a result, we scored some goals, and we had some opportunities, even when we pulled our goalie.
“But Dean knows exactly what he’s doing here, and everywhere he’s been, he’s had the same formula. He’s going to get kids that are going to work hard and are going to understand that, and he’s going to get kids to play together, and as he gets his kind of player here in terms of talent and draws those kids here, they’re well on their way to being a big-time program and doing things.”
The Badgers (19-10-3, 11-9-2) now return to Madison, Wis. to prepare for a very important series at home against arch-rival Minnesota. UNO, on the other hand, is on the road next weekend for a two-game set at Alaska-Anchorage.