By Jackson Taylor
With UNO hockey playing in a monumental inaugural Baxter Arena home game and with hock-ey hype greater than ever, coming out flat wasn’t an option. Neither was nervousness.
A little bit of jitters was only natural, but UNO goalie Kirk Thompson described the feeling before the game as excitement rather than nervous energy.
Freshman Steven Spinner did admit to feeling goosebumps but overall, the UNO players knew they just had to come out and play their game. They were prepared for this one and had been for the entire offseason.
In one of the most anticipated games in school history, the Mavericks broke in their new home with a 4-2 victory over Air Force, a game in which they led early and never looked back.
After a lengthy pre-game ceremony that included honoring the 1997-98 hockey team and speeches from Athletic Director Trev Alberts, Former A.D. Don Leahy and Chancellor John Christenson, the puck finally dropped at 7:30 p.m.
A sold-out crowd of 7,898 anxiously watched 10 minutes of scoreless action before they were treated to Baxter Arena’s first goal. It came from the unlikely stick of freshman Steven Spinner when he netted a redirect 14 minutes into the first period.
UNO head coach Dean Blais knew how important the first goal was and he also knew Spinner was bound tally some big goals this year.
“The first goal was huge,” head coach Dean Blais said. “Spinner is a scorer. A good, honest hockey player.”
Omaha further raised the intensity further in the second period when the Mavs outshot Air Force 9-7 and extended the lead to two goals on a power play at 5:12. Jake Randolph slapped a shot past Air Force goalie Shane Starrett off of a pass from Tyler Vesel. The 2-0 lead was something Omaha was familiar with. They have started all six games of the year with a 2-0 lead.
Although he had been near the goal most of the game, Austin Ortega had yet to record a goal in Baxter Arena until late in the second period. His first goal in the new home came with under two minutes left when he dove to play a pass from Jake Guentzel. Ortega’s full extension goal was his sixth of the season and put the Mavericks up by a commanding three goal margin.
Air Force finally was able to con-vert an opportunity into a goal in the opening minutes of the third when Jordan Himley netted a top shelf goal, cutting the lead to 3-1.
The quick goal from Himley was part of Air Force head coach Frank Serratore’s plan to win the third period. He told his players at the break, “Let’s score a goal, get within two and see what happens.”
Just when Air Force thought they were climbing into within striking distance, Spinner rose to the occasion for the second time with a breakaway goal at the 11-minute mark.
The Falcons responded with under seven minutes to play off a goal from Ben Kucera, but it proved to be too little, too late for Air Force. The Mavericks weren’t letting this one slip away.
A furious six-minute Air Force at-tack came and went with no goals scored, and pure jubilation ensued in Baxter Arena. The Mavericks were 5-0 for the first time since 2010 with their 4-2 victory.
Blais said he anticipated a resurgence from Air Force coming into the final frame. He knew the home-opener wouldn’t come easy to a team of Air Force cadets who don’t have “quit” in their DNA.
“A 4-1 lead, most teams think it’s over,” Blais said. “They didn’t think it was over and we knew they wouldn’t quit.”
UNO players and coaches agreed that Baxter Arena gave their team an advantage.
“The fans were great,” Blais said. “When we got goin, they got goin.”
Frank Serratore said he was happy to be a part of the home opener, despite his team’s loss, calling Omaha the best hockey town outside of major league markets.
“The reason all this is here, is because of Omaha’s love affair with hockey,” he said. “I’m a hockey man and this town is a very special hockey town.”
Blais also noted that the lively boards and fast ice played to his team’s style. “The boards are really lively,” he said. “We’re going to score goals where we dump it in, it comes out and we have a guy there to score.”
Thompson summed up the emotion of the night and the atmosphere of Omaha’s new home.
“It was just really exciting to see that Omaha is as excited as we are,” he said.