By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
Prior to the weekend it appeared the logjam in the middle of the WCHA conference standings might be cleared up. But after UNO split a series at Colorado College, things have only gotten tighter in the race for the final three home ice playoff spots.
The Mavs fell in a controversial 4-3 loss on Friday night, then rebounded for two conference points in a 5-3 win Saturday. Colorado College led UNO for most of the weekend, but the Mavs showed their mettle and fought back every time it seemed that they were out of it.
“That’s gonna happen at this time of the year. If it doesn’t happen you’ve got no chance of doing anything in the playoffs,” UNO Head Coach Dean Blais said. “It’s part of being physically ready, but more importantly, you’ve got to be mentally ready and I think that’s what our guys are. I think they’re battle ready.”
Three times the Mavs faced two goal deficits against Colorado College, but UNO fought back each time. Friday the Mavs were down 2-0 then 3-1 before tying it 3-3 early in the third period.
Saturday UNO faced a 3-1 deficit late in the second period but had the game tied up 3-3 less than three minutes into the third. Regardless of the situation, Blais said his guys maintained confidence and focus on the task at hand.
“The guys…they know what’s on the line,” Blais said. “You lose that game on Saturday and you can forget about home ice.”
Losing home ice for the WCHA playoffs seemed a very real possibility after Friday’s 4-3 defeat. The loss to Colorado College and a win by North Dakota in their game with Michigan Tech dropped UNO out of a tie for fourth place and into sixth.
With 25 conference points, the Mavs were just two points ahead of seventh place Michigan Tech. While the loss was damaging, the way in which the game was lost might have been even more so.
After senior Matt Smith evened the game 3-3 1:57 into the third period, Colorado College answered back with a goal by Jaden Schwartz 50 seconds later. With two and a half minutes to go, it appeared that Dominic Zombo had tied the game 4-4.
After calling it a good goal on the ice, the referee reviewed the play on video and deemed that the puck had been kicked into the net. Though Zombo’s foot was moving forward through the crease, it appeared his momentum put his foot on the puck instead of there being any kind of kicking motion.
Regardless, the referee waved it off and Zombo was denied his first collegiate goal. Defenseman Mike Young had the puck come to him with only seconds remaining and a wide open look at the net, but he over skated and never got a shot off.
Zombo got some justice the following night when he gathered in a rebound and gave UNO a 1-0 lead 11:43 into the first period.
“He had a couple of other chances too,” Blais said. “We’re looking for that. We watched him play at Sioux Falls and know a lot about him and for him not to score a goal all year, you just can’t figure out why. Obviously it takes a little bit to get used to the league and I think everyone’s there right now.”
UNO held the lead throughout the first period and outshot the Tigers 16-3 but could only come up with the one goal. It took all of 1:42 for that lead to evaporate in the second period.
Colorado College tied the game 1-1, 32 seconds in then scored on a power play shortly after to take a 2-1 lead.
The Tigers made it 3-1 with just 1:19 left in the period, but the Mavs responded with a score of their own with just six seconds left. Bryce Aneloski found the puck in the feet of a defender near the Tiger net and made it 3-2 heading into intermission.
With Kyle Ensign in the box for tripping, Ryan Walters scored his first goal of the weekend shorthanded to get the Mavs even 3-3 early in the third period. Walters intercepted a pass between two Tiger defensemen, then raced the other direction on a breakaway.
He deked left then shoveled a backhander past the left pad of goaltender Josh Thorimbert for the tie. Walters’ second goal came less than five minutes later from the right wing and got UNO their first lead of the series.
“It was kind of like the winning goal at North Dakota when he got a breakaway,” Blais said about Walters. He anticipated, read what was happening then went in and scored a big time goal. He’s capable of getting a goal a game now from here on out.”
The Mavs killed off another penalty moments later then Jayson Megna put an exclamation point on the night, scoring into an empty net with 40 seconds remaining.
Five Mavs had multi-point weekends led by defenseman Andre Sustr’s four assists. Four others contributed two points but none were bigger than the two goals by Ryan Walters.
Brock Montpetit had two assists, Jayson Megna added a goal and an assist and defenseman Bryce Aneloski had a goal and an assist as well.
Aneloski’s assist on Friday then goal on Saturday extended the junior’s point streak to a team-best nine games. After going nine games earlier in the season without a point, Aneloski is now fifth on the Mavs’ season scoring list with 19 points.
The weekend split means UNO, Colorado College and North Dakota are right back where they started from before the weekend. All three teams have 27 points and are tied for fourth.
Denver is in third, three points ahead of the pack and Michigan Tech is seventh, three points behind.
“We need a level of consistency and to be at the top end of our game,” Blais said. “Not the ups and downs that freshmen sometimes have and even guys within the lineup can sometimes play good and bad even from period to period.”
“Right now we have to put 60 minutes together followed by another 60 the next game and the playoffs are two out of three. Hopefully, we can build against Minnesota and Denver and carry on into the playoffs.”