OMAHA, Neb. — Over recent years, Nebraska-Omaha has started its seasons well before faltering in the second half and finishing below where it should’ve.
After Saturday saw the Mavericks lose their fourth game in a row and fifth in their last six outings, one can’t help wondering if there’s yet another second-half struggle beginning to take shape.
If there’s any one person to blame right now though, it’s Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Aaron Crandall. One night after making 38 saves en route to a 3-2 Bulldogs win over UNO, the senior stopped 52 Mavericks shots in the rematch Saturday, a 3-1 triumph for the visitors at CenturyLink Center.
UMD’s third win in a row saw its record improve to 9-8-1 overall and an even 5-5 in the NCHC. UNO is now down to 8-11-1 and 5-4-1-1 in the league.
Both teams looked pretty even coming into this weekend, and Duluth getting the kind of success it did in this series surprised Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin.
“Tonight we were fortunate to get the job done with great goaltending, and that’s a great boost for our guys,” Sandelin said. “They’re big points, (getting) six points on the weekend. I don’t expect that in this league in the second half of the season. It’s too tough and there’s too much parity.”
For the second night running though, UMD jumped out to an eventual 2-0 lead on its hosts.
Bulldogs co-captain and senior forward Joe Basaraba opened the scoring 12:24 into the game with the first of his two goals on the night. Latching onto a nice centering feed from linemate Austin Farley from behind the net, Basaraba beat UNO goaltender Kirk Thompson from about 10 feet out inside the slot.
Duluth didn’t have to wait too long before doubling its lead. Caleb Herbert kept the second line’s party going with a goal 7:20 into the second period, again on a feed from Farley.
After UMD went back to its dressing room with a 2-0 lead after 40 minutes and 36 saves from Crandall, 23 of them in the second period, Basaraba effectively put the game to bed 10:04 into the third period.
This goal came on a play that summed up how UNO’s night had gone defensively. Herbert raced down the left wing into the Mavericks’ zone and made a fool out of UNO defenseman Ian Brady by passing the puck to himself along the half wall before finding out front an open Basaraba, who then beat Thompson a second time.
UNO forward Jake Guentzel pulled a goal back for the hosts at 16:10, but nothing else found the back of Duluth’s net.
A lot of that is, again, thanks to Crandall. He may have put up the save of the season for the entire league inside the final minute of the game, diving and getting enough of his blocker on a one-timer from UNO forward Josh Archibald at the far post to deflect the puck up into the netting above the end boards.
When asked if that was the save of the weekend, Sandelin jokingly suggested there may have been another bigger one but that he’d just lost count. He was quick however, to credit both Crandall and the defensive performance from the skaters in maroon in front of him.
“There were so many (this weekend) that I can’t remember all of them,” Sandelin said. “I just thought he was seeing the puck really well and controlling his rebounds, and I thought the guys did a good job of blocking out around the net.
“(UNO) didn’t have a ton of second and third opportunities. They had a lot of shots (from distance) and tips and deflections and pucks laying there and pucks thrown in from behind, and it’s unfortunate that we gave up a goal, and it would’ve been nice for him to get a shutout, but the bottom line is we got the three points, but hopefully we keep getting goaltending like that (because) it’ll give our team a boost.”
UNO coach Dean Blais, back Saturday from a three-game suspension following a benefits infraction involving him and Mavericks defenseman Jaycob Megna (who also returned for this game), also praised the UMD netminder.
“Certainly you’ve got to give their goaltender credit, but there’s nothing we could have really done to change things,” Blais said. “We were good on faceoffs, we were effective on the penalty kill, got shots on the power play.
“But hockey is a funny game; it’s like having a pitcher in baseball throwing a shutout or a no-hitter against you. That’s the way we felt tonight.”