OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska-Omaha entered its short one-week holiday break on a high note, knocking off No. 20 Minnesota State, 5-1, Saturday at CenturyLink Center.
UNO’s win meant that the two teams split their weekend series, but the red Mavericks retained the rivalry’s traveling Spirit of the Mavericks Trophy on account of having scored more goals than MSU did in the two-game set.
The red Mavericks, currently ranked 13 in the country, improved their overall record to 11-6-1 and 7-4-1 in the WCHA. MSU fell to 10-6-2 overall and 8-6-0 in the league.
Similar to how MSU had controlled the second half of Friday’s game in a 6-3 win for the visitors, UNO ran large spans of Saturday’s show, and two goals for the hosts coming 26 apart in the first period stood up as the defining moment of the game.
Saturday’s tilt started as a somewhat cagey affair. However, two quick goals coming from UNO’s Johnnie Searfoss at 16:09 and Dominic Zombo at 16:35 of the first period blew the game open for the hosts, and UNO rarely looked back after that.
It wasn’t exactly the start MSU freshman goaltender Stephon Williams wanted. Searfoss’s opening goal came from a hard shot from the left circle that sailed over Williams’s left shoulder, and Zombo soon doubled UNO’s lead by firing a wrister from between the circles that beat Williams through a screen by MSU teammate Josh Nelson.
The two goals took most of the wind out of MSU’s sails, and MSU coach Mike Hastings talked after the game about how that moment threw the game’s momentum so heavily in UNO’s favor.
“I knew tonight’s game would be a grind, and you saw that we gave up the first (goal), and then gave up another one; on the road, every time somebody scores a goal, momentum’s on that (team’s) side,” Hastings said. “I’ve been with Dean (as an assistant coach under him at UNO), and once they smell a little bit of blood, they have a tendency to get after you, and they did that.”
Ryan Walters brought UNO’s lead to 3-0 6:02 into the second period. From low in the MSMU zone, linemate Josh Archibald fired a pass to Walters at the far post, Williams couldn’t get across in time, and then junior forward Walters tapped it into the empty net for his second goal of the weekend and 10th of the season.
MSMU sophomore forward Matt Leitner ruined UNO goaltender Anthony Stolarz’s shutout bid 7:24 into the third period, beating the freshman goalie low glove-side from just outside the crease.
UNO then restored its three-goal lead at 17:13 through an empty-netter from co-captain Matt White. The lead extended to 5-1 24 seconds later when freshman Charlie Adams saw Williams diving to poke-check the puck away and Adams chipped a shot over Williams and into the unguarded net for his first goal as a collegian.
For the second night running, fans saw two teams working in sometimes unconventional ways. It’s fair to think that first-year MSMU head coach Mike Hastings, who spent the past three seasons as an assistant under Dean Blais at UNO, might be incorporating some of Blais’ tactical ways into how Hastings’ own band of Mavericks operates.
Blais pulled Stolarz at one point Friday with more than six minutes left to try and light a spark under UNO, and Hastings did much the same Saturday by temporarily bringing Williams off with over four minutes remaining. Blais went further on Saturday, fielding five defensemen on the ice at one point — for the second time in as many nights — and dressing eight blueliners in all.
Blais said that the idea to dress almost as many defensemen as forwards — UNO only had 10 of those on Saturday — paid off, and that the Mavericks would’ve been happy to win by a smaller margin than it had in the end.
“I just didn’t want an offensive game tonight,” Blais said. “Solid defensemen didn’t allow that, so it doesn’t matter if they’re up front or playing back on the point. Sometimes you think defense even when you’re in the offensive zone, so we didn’t need the scoring machine tonight. We could’ve gotten out with a 3-2 win if we had to.”
UNO’s win snapped MSU’s seven-game winning streak, although Blais doesn’t see the purple Mavericks’ setback on Saturday derailing them.
“We knew that this ended their seven-game winning streak; they came in real confident, and they’re a hard-working team with no real weaknesses throughout their lineup,” Blais said. “They were a little weak (at the start of the season), I think going 1-5 and trying to find a goaltender, but this Williams kid really looks solid.”
The WCHA’s two sets of Mavericks are both off next week, and both teams’ next games will take place in the state of Connecticut. UNO visits No. 9 Quinnipiac in Hamden in two weeks’ time, and MSMU is off now until it takes part in the UConn Hockey Classic in Storrs the weekend before New Year’s.