OMAHA, Neb. — High drama gave way to disappointment for Nebraska-Omaha on Saturday, where the Mavericks fell 3-2 in overtime to ninth-ranked Denver at CenturyLink Center.
UNO held a 2-1 lead for much of the night’s third period. A late DU equalizer from Luke Salazar restored parity, though, and Pioneer freshman forward Daniel Doremus scored 2:35 into overtime to complete DU’s weekend sweep of its host.
The Mavericks’ loss, coupled with St. Cloud State earning a point on Saturday against Minnesota-Duluth, relegated UNO (14-16-6, 11-12-5 WCHA) from the league’s top six and denied the Mavericks a home-ice spot in next week’s opening round of the WCHA playoffs.
UNO had played poorly in Friday’s 3-0 loss to Denver, but DU head coach George Gwozdecky felt that his Pioneers played against a much-improved Maverick side in the rematch.
“I thought it was a heck of a game,” Gzozdecky said after Saturday’s tilt. “Certainly, there was a lot at stake for both teams, and I thought Nebraska-Omaha played a stronger game and really pressured us.
“The urgency they played with – that urgency to be able to get home ice – they gave us a lot more trouble tonight.”
That UNO did, but, through the first half of the game, it began to look as though the Mavericks were in for another setback.
Frustration began to set in for UNO after a scoreless first period on Saturday and Maverick heads started to fall early in the second frame when DU opened the scoring.
Pioneer captain Drew Shore did the honors, netting his second goal of the weekend with a shot from close range that found its way past Maverick goaltender John Faulkner 1:48 into the period.
DU held court for the next ten minutes, but then UNO leveled the score by using its not-so-secret weapon: its penalty killers.
With UNO forward Andrew Schmit in the box to serve a tripping penalty, the Mavericks lit the lamp by way of their WCHA-leading tenth shorthanded goal of the season.
A pass from Matt White sprang UNO forward Jayson Megna loose in the neutral zone and Megna came in all alone before deking past Denver goaltender Sam Brittain at 14:12.
UNO’s power play has been abysmal this season – 17.9 percent coming into Saturday, good for last place in the WCHA. Megna’s goal was the Mavericks’ tenth shorthanded tally of the campaign, though, and it was a game-changer for UNO.
UNO came out for Saturday’s third period fighting for their home-ice lives. The Mavericks controlled play for the first half of the frame, treating the crowd to some of UNO’s best hockey of the season.
Just past the halfway point of the period, Nebraska-Omaha made its dominance show. Maverick defenseman Andrej Sustr gave the hosts a 2-1 lead at 10:42, shooting from the right circle and beating Brittain near-side low.
DU wasn’t done, however. With a late power play and with Brittain pulled to give the visitors a 6-on-4 numerical advantage, Salazar beat Faulkner high glove-side from the left circle at 19:22.
Gwozdecky hadn’t felt that his power play units had had a great game up until Salazar’s leveler, but he was happy that the senior forward was there to score such a big goal.
“You can never predict when you’re going to score, but certainly we had a couple of late attacks into their zone,” Gwozdecky said. “I didn’t see the penalty call on them to give us the power play with 1:58 to go or whatever it was, but certainly we knew that that was our one and last chance. Our power play, which really struggled tonight, finally came through in a big way.”
Salazar’s goal completely deflated the Mavericks and their fans, and as a result, the arena couldn’t have been much quieter when Doremus scored the game-winning goal at 2:35 of the extra period.
It was the freshman’s fourth goal of the season and Gwozdecky was pleased that the newcomer scored such a big goal after having had something of an up-and-down first season as a Pioneer.
“You’re especially glad for guys who have struggled with their confidence,” Gwozdecky said. “I think Danny is one of those guys where he’s been kind of through a yo-yo season with his confidence.
“He’s got a lot of skill and he’s a terrific young guy, so to be able to see him put that puck in on a great play by his linemates and for him to finish around the net on a great shot was really good to see. I was happy for him as much as I was for anybody.”
On the other side of the dressing room divide, Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais commented on how Saturday’s heartbreaking loss could put the Mavericks in a bind as they hit the road to face sixth-seeded SCSU in the first round of the league playoffs.
“It’s going to be tough to even regroup and get our stuff together for the playoffs,” Blais said. “But it’s a new season and we’re going to have to go beat a very good team two of out three.”
As for the Mavericks’ loss on Saturday, Blais said he felt that it was a hard-fought game where his team had put in a much better performance than it had the night before.
“It was a totally different effort than last night,” said Blais. “The guys deserved better.”
Denver (21-11-4, 16-8-4 WCHA) finished the regular season in third place in the WCHA standings and will host Wisconsin in the first round of the playoffs.