OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska-Omaha found itself alone atop the WCHA standings late Saturday night following a 3-1 win over visiting Colorado College at CenturyLink Center.
With the win, No. 16 UNO (13-8-1, 9-4-1 WCHA) clinched a sweep of its weekend series with the Tigers (8-12-2, 5-8-2). CC found its losing streak extended to four games, and the Tigers are now 1-9-2 since Nov. 16.
In the short-term, that’s the most important thing. There was more incentive to be had though, in that UNO had never been atop the WCHA standings — or even in the CCHA before the Mavericks moved to the WCHA in 2010 — this late in the season.
“Happy days, and we talked about that at the beginning of this week,” UNO coach Dean Blais said after Saturday’s game. “We’ve got to work hard and straighten out some of the things that weren’t going really well, and the guys executed and obviously had good goaltending from (UNO netminder John) Faulkner tonight.
“We talked also about the highest place any (UNO) team had been at this time of year. That’s another compliment to history that this team has made.”
CC put in a poor showing in Friday’s 8-4 loss to the Mavericks, but a good start on Saturday saw the Tigers take the rematch’s first lead. Senior forward William Rapuzzi’s 11th goal of the season did it, with Rapuzzi redirecting in from close range a long shot from the top of the slot by defenseman Eamonn McDermott.
The visitors’ lead lasted through to the end of the first period and through most of the third, but UNO picked up a badly-needed goal at 18:26 of the middle frame to tie the game back up. It was Mavericks defenseman Bryce Aneloski that drew the hosts level, firing a shot from the slot between CC goaltender Joe Howe’s legs.
Aneloski’s goal came while fellow UNO defenseman Michael Young was in the penalty box for roughing. It was the second short-handed goal CC had given up in as many nights, which is saying something, considering the Tigers hadn’t given up such a goal all season before this weekend’s set in Omaha.
Blais felt that that goal was the turning point in Saturday’s game.
“I thought I might have jinxed myself by saying that we should’ve saved some of those eight goals (Friday) for tonight,” Blais said. “I think it was really key to get that short-handed goal at the end of the second period. It gave us all kinds of momentum and life.”
UNO kept the momentum going in the third period, scoring two goals 35 seconds apart to first take the lead and then put the game — and the series — on ice.
Defenseman Andrej Sustr picked up the eventual game-winner 9:28 into the weekend’s final frame. Though the goal was initially credited to freshman Tanner Lane on what appeared to be a redirection out front, the goal ended up going to Sustr for his shot from the left point that beat Howe five-hole.
Sustr’s goal came six seconds into a power play after CC defenseman Mike Boivin went off for a roughing call. The resulting goal was a killer, and CC coach Scott Owens told reporters after the game that the Tigers couldn’t afford to do that, especially on the road.
“We took an early penalty that set the tone for the period, and then we had trouble penetrating until the very end, and at that point it’s 3-1,” Owens said. “The penalty, Boivin goes hard to the net making a strong play, and actually I thought from the bench that we were going on a power play, and I’d have to see it on tape, but he must have nudged him, and then they win the draw and score. That’s kind of the anatomy of a loss on the road. You can’t take penalties at the times we did.”
The lead then went to 3-1 at 10:03, with Josh Archibald barreling down the right wing untouched before ramming home a low shot that beat Howe to the far post.
Faulkner shut the door the rest of the way in Saturday’s third period, eventually posting 20 saves to go with the 26 he’d made in Friday’s win over the Tigers.
As for CC, the Tigers put in a much better performance in the rematch on Saturday, but their effort wasn’t quite good enough in the end.
“I think we actually came out and played pretty well tonight,” Owens said. “We had a good first period and competed and won some battles and got up 1-0. We had a little bit of trouble at certain points — we had a power play there in the middle of the second that would’ve been a nice opportunity there to go out and make something good happen — but it fizzled out, and we gave up a shorty. We hadn’t given up a shorty all year until last night and tonight.”
UNO is on the road for the rest of the month, starting next week at No. 11 Denver. CC also plays away from home next weekend, with the Tigers heading north to another league rival in the form of No. 7 North Dakota.