OMAHA, Neb. — Saturday’s NCHC tilt between Nebraska-Omaha and No. 11 North Dakota was just as topsy-turvy as any meeting the pair have had. When North Dakota began to tire late though, UNO raised its game and picked up its third win in a row.
Two second-period goals from North Dakota forward Luke Johnson and defenseman Jordan Schmaltz erased an earlier 2-0 lead for Nebraska-Omaha, but a bang-bang play from Ryan Walters to Tanner Lane in the game’s third period provided the game-winning goal in an eventual 4-2 win for Nebraska-Omaha.
The Mavericks, who finished the season’s opening month 2-4-0, raised their record Saturday night to 5-4-0 and 3-0-0 in the NCHC. For No. 11 North Dakota (2-4-1, 1-4-0), Saturday’s loss was the team’s fourth in a row.
What’s worse for North Dakota, this is the first time it has lost four consecutive games since December 2006.
Not that that’s Nebraska-Omaha’s problem. After Saturday’s game, Mavericks coach Dean Blais was just glad to have seen his team’s momentum continue to build, despite running into trouble when North Dakota knocked out Nebraska-Omaha’s first lead of the game.
“Every win is so huge because it’s three points being out there, and, in the third period, I started thinking, ‘OK, shootout, overtime, and everything else,’ and then we got the third goal for the game-winner,” Blais said.
“Our plan was not to think about overtime, don’t think about shootouts or anything, just play the game. The team that plays the hardest and gets a break is going to win the game, and maybe you need a save here and there, and I thought (our goaltender) gave us an opportunity to win.”
North Dakota jumped out to an early three-goal lead the last time these two teams played, outdoors at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park last February. It was Nebraska-Omaha’s turn Saturday, however, to opening the scoring.
James Polk did the honors, scoring the first goal of his junior season just 3:05 into the game. When the rebound from an Aaron Pearce shot from the left slot fell to the top of the crease, Polk beat North Dakota goaltender Zane Gothberg to the far post with nobody else around.
That 1-0 lead lasted until early into the second period. Nebraska-Omaha doubled its lead at the 3:39 mark, with Mavericks forward Dominic Zombo scoring a fluke goal when a speculative shot — if it was even meant as a shot — from the goal line in the corner sneaked inside Gothberg’s near post.
Although that bit of misfortune seemed like the last thing North Dakota — a team that had lost each of its previous three games — needed, Zombo’s goal seemed to light a spark under the visitors, and they controlled play for much of the rest of the second period.
Their redoubled effort began to pay off at 11:50 when Luke Johnson picked up his first collegiate goal with a shot that beat Ryan Massa low stick side from around 10 feet at the left point for a power-play tally.
At 17:37 of the same period, North Dakota picked up a deserved equalizer. Jordan Schmaltz’s first goal of the season came when he barreled down the right wing before roofing a shot from the slot high over Massa’s glove.
Nebraska-Omaha later retook the lead at 12:31 of the third period. Taking a near-perfect backdoor pass from behind the net by Walters, Lane was there back out front at the far post to swiftly swat the puck home past Gothberg for the eventual game-winning goal.
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol felt the lead-up to Lane’s game-winner, as well as the tally itself, made the difference Saturday in what was, up until then, an even game.
“Tonight was a good hockey game,” Hakstol said. “A harder-fought hockey game where (Nebraska-Omaha) made a play to go ahead with seven and a half minutes or whatever it was to go. They made a play, and we had some tired legs and on the penalty kill, we couldn’t get off the ice after that penalty call to (Gaarder) in the middle portion (of the third period).
“After that, we made several plays with good opportunities to tie it up … but we didn’t do it. It was a hard-fought game that went (Nebraska-Omaha’s) way.”
Josh Archibald eventually rounded out the scoring, firing into an empty net at the 19:05 mark for an insurance goal.
The difference between Nebraska-Omaha so far this month — three games, three wins — and how the Mavericks looked in October borders on staggering. As far as Blais is concerned, the important thing is to keep focusing on the present and not look too far back or forward.
“We’re in better shape and obviously changed and shaped a few things like the penalty kill — you can’t go with the way we were killing penalties — and the goaltending and everything, and now hopefully everything’s coming together,” Blais said.
“It’s a long season with the schedule like we have, and North Dakota could’ve won the game as easily as we won it tonight, just like Denver (last weekend), but we’ll take it. (Starting) 3-0 in the conference, we’ll take it.”