OMAHA, Neb. — Of all the things No. 12 Nebraska-Omaha has become known for over the course of this season, scoring short-handed goals hasn’t really been one of them.
You wouldn’t have known it on Friday, though.
The Mavericks’ two goals while on the short end of five-on-four’s proved all the difference in Friday’s 5-2 win over No. 6 Denver at Qwest Center. One of the short-handed goals came from UNO senior forward Rich Purslow, who contributed his 10th and 11th goals of the season to the night’s winning effort.
UNO’s penalty killers were perfect, too, leaving the visiting Pioneers 0-for-5 on the man-advantage. DU also lost its second-place standing in the WCHA on Friday, with UNO now alone in the No. 2 spot in the league, one point ahead of DU and two above No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth after the Bulldogs’ 5-4 loss at No. 19 Colorado College on Friday.
“We haven’t been a team that scores a lot of short-handed goals; we’re so busy taking penalties that you just hope to kill them off,” UNO coach Dean Blais told reporters after Friday’s game.
“We’ve been working on our power play, but thank goodness we’re (also) working on our penalty killing,” Blais then said, laughing. “But your best penalty killer is your goaltender, and Johnny Faulkner had three or four great saves on the penalty kill.”
UNO, winner of six of its last seven games, made abundantly clear in this series opener its desire to finish as high in the WCHA standings as it can. A league regular season title, though unlikely, is still possible, and the Mavericks looked worthy candidates in Friday’s first period.
The game’s first five minutes were forgettable, but, of all things, a DU power play then gave UNO the spark it needed. After sustained pressure from the Pioneer power play units, UNO finally cleared its zone, springing UNO forwards Joey Martin and Rich Purslow on a two-on-two break the other way.
Martin found acres of space after reaching the DU blue line before saucering a pretty pass to Purslow in the slot. The Pioneers’ last defenseman back was still a few feet behind Purslow, and the senior wristed the puck over DU goaltender Adam Murray’s glove at 5:42 of the period.
“I thought we started the game out pretty darn well,” DU head coach George Gwozdecky said after the game. “In the first five minutes or so, I thought we were playing pretty well, and we had some chances that we created but didn’t take advantage of, and all of a sudden we create the power-play opportunity, and we’re saying, ‘OK, here we go, here we go.’
“(UNO’s first goal) changed the whole momentum of the first period. They score the short-handed goal, and now all of a sudden, they’ve got life, this crowd’s got life, this building’s got life, and we’re struggling to get back into the game.”
UNO dominated the rest of the period, finishing the frame with a 14-3 advantage in shots on target. Friday’s second period however, was a much more even affair, with the two teams trading goals heading into the night’s final 20 minutes.
Pioneers forward Luke Salazar drew DU level 6:31 into Friday’s middle frame, taking a centering feed from linemate Matt Donovan in the slot and beating Faulkner.
Just 29 seconds later though, UNO regained its lead through standout freshman Johnnie Searfoss’ eighth goal of the season.
A good shot from Searfoss and questionable goaltending from Murray were the catalysts on UNO’s second goal. Murray didn’t have his near post covered as Searfoss barrelled down the right point, and the forward’s wrist shot from 15 feet went in between Murray’s glove and the post.
DU restored parity 5:37 into the third period through Drew Shore’s milestone 20th goal of the season, but then UNO finally pulled away for good.
The Mavericks again didn’t waste much time in regaining its lead, defenseman Andrej Sustr doing the honors with a long slap shot that beat Murray 2:19 after Shore’s tally.
UNO then effectively put the game to bed 11:50 into the final period. It was the host’s second short-handed goal of the game that did it, with freshman Matt White gaining the DU zone on a breakaway before dekeing and scoring past Murray from close range.
White’s was UNO’s fifth short-handed goal of the season. The Mavericks’ three that came before Friday arrived against North Dakota, and now with two more against Denver, it was asked after Friday’s game why UNO’s short-handed markers have only come against the WCHA’s stiffest opposition.
“I don’t know, that’s a tough question to answer,” Purslow replied. “But I think it’s just hard work. We know when we get out there on the PK, and we have a shot to go, we go for it.
“You want to play a little conservative, because you don’t want to give up any turnovers. But any breaks we had today, we just took them.”
An empty-netter from Purslow with just under one second left to play gave the game its final score.
UNO (20-11-2, 16-7-2 WCHA) and Denver (19-9-5, 15-7-3) conclude their weekend series on Saturday in Omaha.