By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
he hockey gods must have been displeased with UNO, the Omaha Sports Commission or the city in general. On perhaps the biggest day in conference history, neither the elements, the ice nor North Dakota cooperated with the plan.
After pushing the game back twice, the puck was finally dropped at the Battles on Ice at 6:35, two and a half hours after the scheduled start time. North Dakota proceeded to ruin the party by scoring three goals by the 10:32 mark of the first period and went on to win the game 5-2.
In between, UNO’s starting goaltender, John Faulkner, was pulled, a coolant leak during the first intermission produced another delay and the fish wasn’t tossed onto the ice until the 7:39 mark of the third period.
“The guys were real excited about playing outside,” UNO Head Coach Dean Blais said. “We had a skate this morning, and the guys were all fired up and then the delay and then another delay. But you gotta give North Dakota credit. They played a great road series over the weekend.”
In six games UNO and North Dakota were an even 3-3 and had split all three series. The road team had won the opening game of each series then the home team recovered to get the second.
But someone forgot to tell UND that this was the Mavs’ party and they weren’t supposed to skate away from Omaha with a sweep. It may have been the first time either team played in a historic outdoor game. But despite the moment, North Dakota saw the weekend as nothing but a business trip.
“We just wanted to have the two points and wanted to have a good weekend,” UND captain Andrew MacWilliam said. “That’s what we managed to do. We came here, managed to have two good games and come away with four points. I think that’s something we’ll remember a little more.”
With the green and black circus that descended upon downtown Omaha, perhaps MacWilliam and his teammates felt right at home. Although there was no official count of North Dakota fans in attendance, the number that made the trip south looked to be well over 1,000 and probably close to 1,500.
They were loud inside the CenturyLink and outside at TD Ameritrade, they were everywhere downtown and their team certainly made the trip worth the seven hours it takes to travel from Grand Forks to Omaha.
“We have the best fans. Sioux fans are the best fans in the country,” MacWilliam said. “They bring it all the time. Even last night at the Qwest it was unbelievable to hear the Sioux chants and have them at this game when I was walking through the tunnel it was something that was really special and the highlight of my career.”
When the weekend started, all the planning that had gone into putting on a big weekend seemed to come to fruition when Ryan Walters scored Friday night at 7:35 of the first period. Despite the large number of North Dakota fans in attendance and the pressure of playing a top-10 team, the Mavs had struck first.
Plus, not only had UNO taken the lead but their Hobey Baker candidate, and the nation’s leading scorer, put in the first goal. It was all pretty much downhill from there. UND scored less than two minutes later then put in the game-winner at 11:34 of the second.
The Mavs had their chances the rest of the way but North Dakota goaltender Zane Gothberg stopped everything and the UND defense limited UNO’s time and space. Dropping the first game ratcheted up the pressure for Saturday.
But of course, Saturday wasn’t going to be just a normal Saturday.
“There were a few distractions,” winger Josh Archibald said. “They obviously handled it better than us. We came out flat like (Dominic Zombo) said and they didn’t. They kind of stepped up their game right away and capitalized on their chances.”
Before the game was barely 10 minutes old North Dakota had scored three times and Blais pulled starting goalie John Faulkner. Backup Dayn Belfour played for just the second time all year and performed well.
Belfour allowed just two goals the rest of the game but UNO had dug themselves too deep a hole. Before and during the game there were plenty of other things that didn’t go as planned either.
The day started ominously when the Lincoln Stars and Omaha Lancers skated on mostly slush in the third period of the opening game. Because of the unseasonably warm temperatures the ice wasn’t holding up as well as planned, and the UNO/UND game was moved back two hours to 6:07.
Once fans started showing up for the new start time the game was pushed back another half hour to 6:35. In between the first and second period the ice crew drilled holes for the net moorings too deep into the ice and hit a coolant pipe.
Green fluid began to fill the crease of the goal on the left field side and the game was delayed again for the cleanup. The Mavs started to build some momentum when the game finally resumed roughly 20 minutes later. But a North Dakota shot from the point was tipped by Corban Knight and UND made it 4-0 with just 44 seconds left in the second.
Then during the second intermission the rain that had been dreaded all week finally arrived and sent those still in attendance scurrying for cover. Archibald and Zombo would score to bring UNO within 4-2, but couldn’t produce a third goal to make it really interesting.
It’s difficult to imagine how things could have gone any worse on a day that could have been a seminal moment in program history – bad ice conditions, a delay, a second delay, a third delay, a 3-0 deficit, rain and zero points on the weekend.
“It was a little disappointing in the situation we were in tonight,” Archibald said. “Obviously being outdoors, something special like that it would have meant a lot more for us if we could have pulled out the ‘W’.
After Saturday’s game, everyone involved said they were happy to be a part of the outdoor game, regardless of being on the winning or losing side. Still, after a buildup of almost a year, and the fact that these events don’t come around too often, some may worry about the Mavs’ mentality going forward.
Any home sweep to North Dakota would have been disappointing. But on this weekend to have it take place during the Battles on Ice probably even more so.
Fortunately, UNO goes on the road to Alaska Anchorage next and the players will get a chance to be together away from Omaha and away from any bad feelings that may still be lingering.
“I hope the fans enjoyed it cause as a coach I certainly enjoyed the experience of playing on the outdoor ice just like we were when we were kids,” Blais said. “I didn’t like the experience of losing, obviously.”