OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska-Omaha’s chances of earning home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs aren’t completely dead and buried, but after the Mavericks’ 6-2 loss to Wisconsin Saturday at CenturyLink Center, you could forgive UNO fans for being pessimistic.
The Badgers didn’t have it all their way — UNO played them close through the first 20 minutes and went into the first intermission tied at a goal apiece — but a four-goal barrage for Wisconsin in the second period rendered the third moot.
With the win, No. 16 Wisconsin saw its overall record climb to 16-11-7 and 12-7-7 in the WCHA. Through its fifth consecutive home loss — sixth if you include last Saturday’s 3-2 exhibition loss to the U.S. Under-18 Team — Nebraska-Omaha fell to 18-14-2 and 14-10-2 in the league.
The Mavericks are now sitting in sixth place in the WCHA, one point above a Denver team that split at Minnesota this weekend and is at home next week against last-place Alaska-Anchorage. Wisconsin leapfrogged Nebraska-Omaha Saturday into a tie with Minnesota State for fourth place, with both teams one point above UNO with 31.
The Badgers got on the board 3:09 into Friday’s 4-3 win over UNO, and did even better Saturday. Tyler Barnes opened the scoring in the rematch just 3:03 into the game, beating Mavericks senior goaltender John Faulkner for a power-play marker.
UNO recovered well from that, eventually picking up an equalizer at 13:46 of the first period. Mavericks forward Josh Archibald was credited with his 18th goal of the season when he tipped a centering feed from linemate Ryan Walters past Wisconsin netminder Joel Rumpel.
The 1-1 deadlock lasted through to the beginning of the second intermission, but Saturday’s middle frame belonged entirely to Wisconsin.
After the visitors killed a five-minute penalty for checking from behind that saw Brendan Woods — who scored Friday’s game-winner — booted out of the game late in the first period, Ryan Little restored UW’s lead at 2:56 of the second.
Badgers coach Mike Eaves felt that killing the major penalty to Woods and scoring soon after those five minutes were up marked the turning point in the game.
“When ‘Woodsy’ went out of the lineup, that was either going to be a motivator or an excuse,” Eaves explained. “The young men in that room talked about that and made it a motivator.”
Wisconsin’s lead later doubled at the 12-minute mark when Badgers forward Michael Mersch picked up his second goal of the weekend. Latching onto a beautiful feed from Barnes, Mersch shifted one past Faulkner, and the rout was on.
The Badgers added two more goals later in the period, with their fourth and fifth tallies of the night coming 2:54 apart. Defenseman Jake McCabe picked up his third goal of the season after driving home a rebound from close range at 17:01, and Mark Zengerle netted his second of the weekend and eighth of the season at 19:55 on another rebound.
Mersch scored his second goal of the night and 20th of the season 41 seconds into the third period. Nick Seeler later pulled a goal back for UNO at 9:36, but the game ceased as a contest long before the UNO freshman blueliner notched his third goal of the season.
Wisconsin has performed much better on the road this season than it has at Madison, Wis.’s, Kohl Center. The Badgers are 8-2-4 away from home and 7-7-3 when donning their whites. Home or away however, entering Saturday’s third period in such a comfortable position was a seldom-felt sensation for Eaves and his team.
“It was a funny feeling standing up on the bench in the third period, being up (on the scoreboard) like that,” Eaves said. “I can’t remember the last time we had that in a game, so we had to talk about a different mindset going into the third period and how we wanted to play with the lead.”
UNO coach Dean Blais was optimistic, all things considered, after the game.
“I think 6-2 is probably about how that game went,” Blais said. “Shots were kind of even, but they were stronger on the puck than us. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be better than us if we play them in the playoffs. I think we can beat them whether it’s here or there.”
Blais continued, becoming a bit more philosophical, “Our guys tried to compete and we just didn’t have it. I don’t know if we’re tired. We’ve shortened our practices. We’ve got to get right back to doing our normal routine.
“Maybe we have to go longer. Maybe we shouldn’t shorten our practices. Maybe we have to be the type of team that has to grind it out no matter what. It is a tough time of year to have this happen to you, to get swept by North Dakota at home and Wisconsin at home.”
Nebraska-Omaha will get a chance to get back on track next weekend at Minnesota-Duluth during the final round of the WCHA regular season. Wisconsin is at home next week — sort of, at Madison’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum — against league-leading St. Cloud State.